On deep POV

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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I recently had dinner with several writers who were attending a week long writing workshop, and the conversation turned to what each of them felt they needed to work on.  One of the writers brought up that she was struggling with “deep POV” and several of the other writers mentioned struggling with that as well.  A few mentioned having felt like they’d “gotten it” only to have crit partners tell them they hadn’t gone far enough.

So they asked me: how do you deepen POV? I asked them for examples of what they meant by deep POV, and they mentioned Cut by Patricia McCormick and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Which are both intensely emotional, issue-centric, contemporary stories with very deep and personal POVs. However, the writer asking me about POV was working on a middle grade action adventure book, which means it will almost definitionally have a very different style and tone.  And I think it’s really important to recognize those differences.  While I’m all for looking to a book like Speak or Cut as an example of deep POV, it’s important to recognize that what works for a book like that may not work for a different kind of book.  

It’s not just about “deepening POV,” it’s about matching the POV to the story you’re trying to tell (a topic David Coe recently tackled so well).

I tend to think of POV in terms of altitude.  Whenever I start a new project, my POV is almost always removed — I refer to it as the 10,000 foot POV because it’s like being up in the sky, looking down at your characters and world.  Here’s an example — the first paragraph of my second novel, The Dead-Tossed Waves: 

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves from the masses of Mudo constantly seeking human flesh. When the living weren’t forever hunted. 

They said it made them feel normal. 

Notice there’s nothing personal here — it’s almost all overview and narration.  There’s also no dialogue which for me is almost a dead giveaway that I’m starting my story at a 10,000 foot POV.  

The next level of POV I tend to think of as “tree-top” — it’s closer-in, but still removed, almost as though we’re watching the story from over the character’s shoulder, having it all narrated to us.  Whereas in deep POV, we’re *living* the scene along with the character.

To me, this is the key distinction — deepening POV is going from outside the character’s head, to inside their body.  We don’t just watch their hands curl into fists, we feel the cut of their nails as the dig into their palms.  We don’t see the disappointment in their eyes, we experience the crushing blow of it along with them.  We don’t walk across the beach barefoot without feeling the shifting sand under our feet.

If tree-top POV is like watching a movie, deep POV is like actually being the character in that movie.  And this is why I think it’s so easy to think you’re writing deep POV when you’re really not — when you’re narrating the scene rather than forcing the reader to intimately experience it.

Here’s another paragraph from The Dead-Tossed Waves a few pages later, after I’ve pushed the POV deeper:

I tug on the end of my braid, clenching my palm around the handle of my long-bladed knife strapped to my hip. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s dangerous and stupid, and already sweat slicks along the sides of my neck. I glance at Catcher and have to tilt my head into the darkness to hide my dizzying smile.

I’ve gone from narrating the scene from 10,000 feet to being in her body bothy physically and emotionally. This is going to sound hokey, but you know in movies when a character dies and the camera starts pulling away from their body like it’s their spirit?  And then sometimes the camera will come zooming back in and you’re suddenly in the character’s head when they wake up alive?  That’s how I think about it — whenever I notice I’ve pulled back on POV, I force myself to zoom in until I’m the character.  I focus on the specifics: what it feels like physically and emotionally, what the character is thinking or about to say.  I stop narrating the story, and start living it.

At the end of the day, however, it’s important to remember that POV is part of the story and how deep you choose to make it should be in service to the story itself.

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6 comments to On deep POV

  • Carrie, this takes the POV input way beyond the passive vs active and also beyond the showing vs telling *rules* and brings active-showing inside the character. I like. I also like the examples you gave. :)

  • quillet

    I love this post. That last line is so important, I want it on a t-shirt!

  • Razziecat

    I definitely struggle with this. I’ve lived with some of my characters for over 30 years- I know them inside and out- but the newer ones, not so much, and I find myself approaching my story as though I’m watching it unfold from a distance. Fixing it means burying my own responses and feelings, and focusing intensely on the character’s experiences. CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series is a good example of deep POV. Whatever’s going on is immediate to the character, even though it’s written in third person.

  • Thinking about POV as altitude is a great idea–that really helps clarify this for me. I’m really struggling with POV in my WIP, and I’m going to use this to help guide my choices.

  • Megan B.

    Would you say that in some books the POV might need to go back and forth between deep and a bit more distant, depending on the scene? I’m thinking the answer is yes, based on what you said about starting at ’10,000 feet’ and moving in.

  • I tend to try to keep my POV at a consistent level, just because that’s what works for me. Even when I’m writing an aside to explain history, or background, or character relationship, I want to do so from the emotional and physical perspective of the POV character. I can see where in some cases people would take a different approach; this is simply my preference. Nice post, Carrie.