Point of View (PoV) is a fascinating thing. It allows us to play god in the little universe we have created for ourselves (and, hopefully, our readers). And, like a zoom-in function, allows us to zoom in and out of our characters. We can either watch them from afar or listen in to their most intimate thoughts.
First, third, omniscient…
You are probably aware of the three main PoV used in most fiction: first-person, third-person and third-person omniscient, but here is a quick recap:
First-person uses, well, the first person: “I stared lovingly into her almond eyes. I love you, I wanted to tell her. She seemed unnerved.”
Third-person, imaginatively enough, uses the third person: “He stared lovingly into her almond eyes. I love you, he wanted to tell her. She seemed unnerved.”
Third-person omniscient resembles closely the former, but allows us to jump from one character to another, listening to everyone’s thoughts:
“He stared lovingly into her almond eyes. I love you, he wanted to tell her.
Why is he crossing his eyes like that? she wondered. Is he having a stroke or something?”
One of the main problems with an omniscient PoV is that readers can easily get confused as to who’s saying or thinking what when the PoV jumps back and forth like an undecided ping-pong ball. That’s why it is generally advised that inexperienced authors use one of the other two instead. Diana Peach shared with me an interesting link on third person omniscient with an exhaustive list of examples and pros & cons.
Deep vs. Shallow
Except for the three usual PoV, however, there is a deep vs. shallow aspect to whichever PoV you use. As the name implies, a deep PoV will immerse the reader into the story, while a shallow one will allow them some distance. Deep vs. shallow PoV is, essentially, a variation on the old “Show not Tell” advice. Whereas a shallow PoV tells us what happens, a deep one shows us.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Deep PoV is more intense. First-person allows this naturally, drawing the reader into the mind of the hero. In many cases, this is perfect for your story, especially if you’re looking for an exciting read. It is no coincidence that most YA is written in a deep, first-person PoV.
Should we only use that, then?
No. There are cases when you will deliberately want to get some distance between the reader and the story. For example, when you’re writing YA and someone dies, you may prefer to cushion the shock effect so as not to upset the reader.
Another case where I have found a shallow PoV to be useful, is with my epic fantasy series, Pearseus. Each chapter is narrated from the PoV of a different characters. As many chapters are only a couple of pages long, I found the constant zooming in and out that a deep PoV would entail confusing.
To illustrate this, imagine if a book was written in the first-person PoV, but each chapter referred to a different person. How long before you gave up?
With my short stories, however, I have used deeper PoV. Indeed, some of them are written in the first person. Since the reader never hears from another PoV, this helps draw the reader in. This is particularly important in short stories, as you only have a few pages to make the reader care about what happens to the hero, and very little room for proper characterization.
To illustrate the difference, consider the following examples (thanks to Rayne Hall for her comments with this):
A loud noise behind her startled her.
A deep PoV would tweak this sentence so the reader experiences things in the order in which Abigail experiences them. It would not tell us what happened,
Bang! Her heart skipped a beat.
The second phrase is more powerful, having a deeper PoV. Let’s build up the scene for another example of shallow PoV:
Almost immediately, a second bang signified a blown fuse, the lights dying out again. She stumbled down the corridor in the dark.
What gives this sentence its shallow PoV is the fact that Abigail would probably not think at the time, “This second bang signifies a blown fuse.”
For a deep PoV, we would let the reader into Abigail’s mind by using short sentences and simple words to describe her experience. An easy technique is to focus on her sensory experience, limiting most other information:
Bang! The lights died out again. A fuse had blown. Her hands patted the wall.
The staccato tempo increases the sense of urgency, while the deeper PoV adds to the experience. So, how did the focus on sensory information help deepen the PoV? Contrast the previous sentence with this one:
She heard a loud bang and the lights died out again. She raised her hand in the darkness and felt the wall under her fingers.
You will notice how the extra words (heard, raised her hand, felt) add a layer of distance between us and the character, creating a shallower PoV.
The following is based on MMJaye’s comment.
Deep PoV is the current “trend” and agents and publishers “push” for deep. Actually, the only genre that can go away with shallow is fantasy/sci-fi.
Nevertheless, both third and first PoVs can be shallow. “Gone Girl” is an example of two first and shallow PoVs (each chapter is narrated from a different PoV, but always a first one).
Also, a basic rule is that if you’re going deep with more than one PoVs, it is even more imperative that each character has her distinct voice.
If your hero is a Victorian-type scholar, you can say: “He ascended the stairs, his mind fixed on his inexplicable predicament.”
If your hero is a seventeen-year-old boy, you’ll have to say: “He went up the stairs, his mind stuck on the freaking exam.”
If you chose the first phrasing for the second character, than you’re pulling the reader out of the character’s mind; in other words, you go shallow (which is called author’s intrusion by editors).
The trick is to imagine our character narrating the events to his friends the next day. What words would he use to describe himself going up the stairs? That’s our vernacular for this action.
Naturally, this limits the way we would express ourselves. We should not try to embellish our writing (I assume we all have lists with synonyms for “frown” etc) for our point of view character.
Instead, we have to keep it simple if we are to stay deep: “he looked at her,” “he frowned” etc. are the preferred means of description, as these are the words most likely used by our character.
Like everything else with writing, there are no hard rules about points of view. Depending on the story, genre, preferred style and desired effect, you will have to choose a PoV that works best.
Still, my rule of thumb is to use a deep and/or first-person PoV for short works and a third-person one for longer ones. How about you?
For more information on deep PoV, you may also wish to check out my friend’s P.H. Solomon’s blog and his deep PoV post series.
This month, it is Pearseus: Rise of the Prince that’s on sale. Read the second book in my best-selling epic fantasy series for only 99c (no, you don’t need to have read the first book to make sense of it).
Reblogged this on The Writers Room.
Intrusive omniscient narration is my on e true way to go, and none of your propaganda can deter me therefrom.
Lol – very well sir, you’ve foiled my cunning plans once again 😀
For me the character dictates the PoV and I’m just along for the ride. I do dislike constant changing PoV, it makes the story disjointed and not enjoyable. My current WIP is in 1st person and my short story collection was a mix of both.
Thanks! You are absolutely right, changing PoV significantly weakens the writing.
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Thank you for posting this article, Nicholas. I learned a lot from it as a writer. Sometimes I do these things unconsciously in my writing. Perhaps I should do them more consciously… food for thought!
Thanks John, I’m so glad you found it useful! 🙂 We all start writing unconsciously. It’s part of the journey to become more conscious of how we write and why. Hopefully, that will help us improve and grow as writers. The challenge is in doing so while strengthening our voice instead of losing it. That’s why I always hesitate before sharing writing tips.
I like to alternate between POVs, but keep all deep. In my WIP I’m using 1st for my protagonist and Third-limited for two other characters, alternating scenes and POVs.
That’s a great method, I’m very interested to seeing how it turns out. It’s a pretty challenging technique, though!
Great post! And kudos to you, sir, on your excellent use of multiple “Bang!”s 😀 I do love a good sound effect.
I really enjoyed the discussion on shallow vs. deep POV. It’s something I understood, but had never really thought about until now. And I definitely agree with you on the dangers of using third person omniscient — head-hopping drives me absolutely up the wall, and it’s very rare to find a book written in omniscient 3rd that’s actually readable. For some reason I’m thinking Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was omniscient 3rd — does that sound right? What a truly excellent book.
It does sound right. But then again Douglas Adams really broke all the rules with that one, didn’t he? 😀
Great post, Nicholas. POV is something that every writer struggles with and I like your analogy with your own books. I think it really depends on the book. I tried to go deep with POTL and am working on a variety of styles for different works. 🙂
Thank you! Like you, I am using different styles depending on the book. My main struggle is to work on my craft without losing my voice. The last thing I want is to right like everyone else. 🙂
Great post. I may have to add some notes to my living document.
I’m currently editing the fourth book, and am consciously trying to deepen the PoV somewhat. There’s a trick to it, and sometimes I get it, others not so much. Oh well… 🙂
Reblogged this on Sally Ember, Ed.D. and commented:
And, Nicholas Rossis expounds on his writing style and choices more in our conversation on *CHANGES*, Episode 7. Tune in any time on Youtube to that and others: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPbfKicwk4dFdeVSAY1tfhtjaEY_clmfq
Learn more about and get yourself or recommend someone to be scheduled as a guest: *CHANGES* G+ HOA https://sallyember.com/changes-videocasts-by-sally-ember-ed-d/
I’m sympathetic to Ali Isaac’s comment! I’ve studied literature academically, but I never became fully conscious of POV and so I tend to just write what feels right. The Termite Queen is 3rd person and mostly from the POV of the heroine because I didn’t want to reveal too much about the male protagonist – he’s meant to be a mystery until late in the book. When the heroine becomes incapacitated at one point, I shift the POV temporarily to other characters, like her mentor or her mother. But my long series The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head is lst person from the POV of the narrator who is dictating his memoirs to a scribe. This allows for all kinds of asides that most people seem to really like. Whether it’s deep or shallow – I have no idea. It seems deep to me!
In a sense, first person is by default deeper.
In my personal view, and ignoring writing trends, the only real mistake one can make with PoVs is jumping from one character’s to another’s. Some people change PoV literally mid-sentence – this can be very jarring to the reader.
thanks for a great post! I learnt some important things what I will use for my appointment with the bank-guy next week. think it will end with the quote from your first picture :o)
Lol – yes, it’s a good one… 😀
An excellent analysis and probably something I should incorporate in planning, if I ever could plan! Certainly worth considering in second draft.
I long for the day when it all comes natural to me, instead of having to struggle… 🙂
I think I’m more confused now than I was before!
I’d classify your writing as shallowish 3rd PoV. 🙂 But the important thing is that you write beautifully, drawing the reader in. I have never had something jar me out of the narrative with your books. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, if I were you. 🙂
Thanks! Always learning from you…
Nicholas – this is great information – I know your power of introduction to topics is incredible!
Such a kind thing to say, thank you!! 🙂
Funny that! I’m doing an online course on deep PoV!! My first, I must admit… Your post is an excellent how-to guide, summing up what deep PoV is about. What I could add, based on what I’ve learned so far, is that deep PoV is the current “trend” and that agents and publishers “push” for deep. Actually, the only genre that can go away with shallow is fantasy/sci-fi. Yes, I can see you grinning!
Nevertheless, shallow can go both with third and first. “Gone Girl” is an example of two-PoVs / first / shallow (each chapter from a different PoV but in first). The distance is such that I felt this as an extremely cynical read, but that’s me…the romance writer 🙂
Also, a basic rule is that if you’re going deep with more than one PoVs, each character has to have her distinct voice. No matter which genre, that rule stays.
If your hero is a Victorian-type scholar, you can say: “He ascended the stairs, his mind on his inexplicable predicament.”
If your hero is a seventeen-year-old boy, you’ll have to say: “He went up the stairs, his mind stuck on the freaking exam.” If you chose the first phrasing for the second character, than you’re pulling the reader out of the characters mind = you go shallow (which is called author’s intrusion by editors).
The trick Rhay Christou, our teacher (a creative writing professor and author) taught us is to imagine our character narrating the events to his friends the other day. What words would he use to describe himself going up the stairs? That’s our vernacular for this action. We shouldn’t use what comes naturally to us as authors in an effort not to use the same expressions over and over again (don’t we all have lists with “raised her eyes to”, “cut her gaze to”, “brought her eyesbrows together” etc) for our point of view character. We have to keep it simple there if we are to stay deep: “he looked at her”, “he frowned”.
Sorry about the long comment, but it’s so fresh in my mind, and sharing it helps make it stick. 🙂
Thanks for the great comment! I’m incorporating it into the original post 🙂
Ah! If I think too much about it I get confused but surely the first person example should start ‘I stared lovingly…?’
Lol – absolutely! Let me go and fix it right away… Many thanks for bringing that to my attention! 🙂
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Thank you for this excellent information…I will re blog. Have a lovely weekend. Janet
That’s so kind of you, thanks! You too! 🙂
Good informaiton Nicholas. I reblogged this on Musings On Life & Experience.
How sweet of you, thank you! 🙂
Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
Good and useful information.