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).