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How to Write in Deep Point of View--Part 1
Popular Fiction = Character Driven Fiction
Adapted from my workshop: Going Deep: Creating an Unbreakable Connection Between Your Readers and Your Characters
Why write in Deep Point of View? It's the thing that makes the difference between your reader merely observing the characters in your story as opposed to feeling as if they are experiencing the story along with the characters.
I write popular fiction, as opposed to literary fiction. It is not my intention to dazzle the readers with my clever use of metaphor or the skill of my writing—in fact, quite the opposite.
(Write this down – and give me credit when you quote it. Because you WILL quote it.)
My goal is never for you to notice my writing. My goal is for you to NOT notice when the phone rings.
I want the reader to be so engrossed in the story that they enter the world that my characters are experiencing. As readers, you have had this happen to you. You never forget those rare and wonderful books that you just can’t put down.
Have you ever (raise your virtual hand)…
- Stayed up all night to finish a book?
- Skipped class to finish a book?
- Called in sick to work to finish a book?
This article will teach you how to write books that make that happen.
Stephen King is a great example of an author who often writes in deep point of view. His popularity doesn't come from his ability to create the scariest monsters. It comes from his ability to make the readers experience what his characters are experiencing when they encounter the monsters.
The first Stephen King book I read was The Shining, which I read straight through without sleeping. While I was alone in a house during a snow storm, by the way.
Jack Torrance experiences a sense of menace every time he enters a particular hotel room, especially the bathroom, and the shower curtain is shut, even though he’s sure he drew it open last time he was in there. He’s terrified, but he keeps drawing it open to find nothing. Finally, after he’s done this a few times, he pulls back the curtain to find a rotting corpse, which reaches for him.
I could feel that terror. I was afraid to use my bathroom the whole time I was reading this book. I’d walk in, look at the shower curtain, and…
When King’s characters are frightened, the reader is frightened. A connection has been created between the reader and the character. That's why the readers keep turning the pages, and go back to buy the next book.
This article is about creating that unbreakable bond between your readers and your characters.
Point of View 101 – What is POV, anyway?
In my opinion, handling point of view properly is the number one most important style element in writing.
Yes, you read that correctly – number one. It is the foundation of narrative style. If you don’t get it right, it doesn't matter how great your story is, or how compelling your characters. Your writing will be hard to read, your readers won’t be able to connect with your characters and, ultimately, your books just won’t be all that they can be.
I remember hearing the term “point of view” as it applies to writing for the first time, and not having the slightest idea what it meant. Therefore, I hope the more advanced writers reading these article will forgive me for using up a little virtual ink explaining, in general terms, what is meant by point of view and POV characters.
Omniscient Point of View vs. Character Point of View
Omniscient point of view means that the narrator of the story is like God, and the reader knows not only what is going on outside of the perception of the characters, but what is happening in everyone’s head at all times. It’s like watching a movie and is, in fact, sometimes called “cinematic” point of view. That’s probably why the only examples of modern books I can think of written entirely in omniscient point of view did not sell a lot of copies, but got made into pretty good movies. One is Legends of the Fall and the other is Practical Magic.
Omniscient POV is more common in works of fiction written more than 100 years ago—you’ll see it in the great works by writers like Moliere or James Fennimore Cooper. Back then, “popular" fiction was different – it was intended to educate as much as entertain, and it was considered normal to take several weeks to finish reading a novel.
There are pros and cons to omniscient/cinematic point of view.
- You can tell the reader stuff the characters don’t know about. While Joe thought he had eluded his pursuers, he was wrong – they were just on the other side of the wall.
- You can help the reader draw conclusions: This was a bad decision, and would ultimately lead to Mary’s downfall.
- The reader isn't as likely to get invested in the characters if they do not experience the story they way the characters experience it.
- Omniscient POV interrupts the flow of the story, which can pull the reader out and break his connection with the characters.
In Character Point of View, the POV character is the person in whose “head” the reader resides at any point in the story. It’s like having the greatest movie camera in the world mounted on the POV character’s head – a camera that not only tells the reader what the character sees, but what he perceives (using all five senses) and what he thinks and feels about the things he perceives.
If a book is in First Person, there’s only one POV character. In Third Person books, there can be many POV characters.
A Frequently Asked Question: In third person books, how many POV characters should there be?
The Answer: As many as you need.
The Caveat: You need fewer than you think.
Too many POV characters dilute the reader's connection. You want your reader to be emotionally invested in every single POV character.
Someone who, in a movie, would have a single-scene role, probably isn’t worth a POV scene in your novel. We don’t need to know what the store clerk we’ll never see again is thinking when our heroine stumbles in, covered with mud and blood, and buys disposable diapers.
I, personally, have a pet peeve: the POV character from the opening scene who is murdered in chapter one. I was just getting to know him! But, I see this often enough to know that it won’t get your manuscript rejected, so use your own judgment.
More Lessons in this Series
- How to Write in Deep Point of View--Part 2
It's all about perception! Learn about the link between the five senses and deep point of view.
- How To Write in Deep Point of View -- Part 3
What are you thinking? Learn how a point of view character's thoughts can be used to deepen point of view.
- How to Write in Deep Point of View -- Part 4
Did you know that Information Dumping is a point of view error? Find out how to avoid it.
- How to Write in Deep Point of View -- Part 5
More about Information Dumping and how to avoid it.
When Omniscient Point of View Works
When I showed my very first (and still most beloved) manuscript to my very first critique group, all of whom were much more experienced writers, they jumped all over me about the point of view. The very first comment—I think it was from the opening sentence—was that I had slipped into omniscient point of view.
Over the course of my first few critiques, my wonderful partners forced me to clean up my point of view. I struggled and resisted, but eventually I had the GREAT MOMENT OF CONVERSION. (Yes, it was like a religious experience.) I decided that...
- At every moment of the story, I would be in a character’s point of view, and...
- I would choose a POV character for each scene, and stick with them for the entire scene.
I don’t regret this decision—it was the first step to transforming my sloppy prose into professional, saleable work.
But, like any convert, religious or otherwise, I went a bit overboard in my zeal. I was of the opinion that you could never, ever put anything on the page that was not true to the chosen character (for that scene’s) point of view, and that omniscient point of view was never the right choice.
I’ve mellowed—a little.
Actually, what happened is that I noticed some examples of when omniscient point of view was used to good effect. I studied these examples to try to figure out what they had in common, and why they work.
I ended up going back to the idea that omniscient point of view is sometimes called “Cinematic,” because these examples are what I call “Zooming In."
All of the examples that I studied...
- Took place the first time a setting and/or character was introduced
- Occurred at the very beginning of the book or, in some cases, a chapter.
- NEVER happened in the middle of a scene.
These examples are like the scene at the beginning of The Sound of Music where the viewer zooms over the Austrian Alps and gradually focuses on Julie Andrews as Maria, dancing in a meadow. These scenes say “Here is where we are and, oh, look! Here is the person with whom our story will be concerned.”
Here is the opening scene from James Lee Burke’s masterful novel, Rain Gods. It’s the first novel in a new series, and he takes a moment at the beginning to “zoom in.”
On the burnt out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lays collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tires. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.
The young man entered a phone booth and wiped his face slick with the flat of his hand. His denim shirt was stiff with salt and open on his chest, his hair mowed into the scalp, GI-style. He pulled an unlabeled pint bottle from the front of his jeans and unscrewed the cap. Down the right side of his face was a swollen pink scar that was as bright and shiny as plastic and look pasted onto his skin rather than part of it. The mescal in the bottle was yellow and thick with threadworms that seemed to light against the sunset as he tipped the neck to his mouth. Inside the booth, he could feel his heart quickening and the lines of sweat running down from his armpits into the waistband of his undershorts. His index finger trembled as he punched the numbers on the phone’s console.
“What’s your emergency?” a woman dispatcher asked.
The “zoom in” takes the reader to the bleak, decaying setting of the story, and shows us what the character looks like and gives us some big hints about his life. But, after only a paragraph and a half, we’re moved into the character’s perception.
Did you see the moment when the Omniscient POV changed to Character POV?
“...he could feel his heart quickening and the lines of sweat running down...”
With that phrase, Burke practically slams the reader into the character’s point of view. We feel what he feels--he’s terrified about whatever it is that has compelled him to make this phone call. And, from this phrase on, Burke does not leave the character’s POV until the end of the scene.
I am not going to discuss omniscient POV further in this series of articles, nor have I yet used the zooming in method in my own writing. (When and if I become as good a writer as Burke, maybe I’ll give it a try.) I only included this passage to show you that it is possible to use omniscient POV in a way that draws the reader toward the character instead of distancing him from the character.