Monday, July 21

Deep POV is Not the Only POV

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm a fan of deep point of view (POV). I enjoy being in the head of a character and feeling like I'm experiencing the story as they do. The more distant the POV, the less I connect to the characters. But this isn't true of all readers, and many dislike that close feeling. They'd rather sit back and watch a story unfold with a safe measure of distance between them and the characters.

With so much focus on deep POV, it's easy to think that's the "right" POV to use, but there's nothing wrong with a distant POV if that's how you choose to tell your story. A narrator who hovers over the tale and describes it all to readers is just as valid as a tight in-their-head narrator.

A deep POV has been in literary fashion for a while (I suspect it has a lot to do with the rise in YA, which is often in first person), but omniscient narrators are just as popular, even if you don't hear as much about writing an omniscient POV.

(Here's more on omniscient point of view)

For funsies, I did a quick and informal survey of the top ten books in both adult and teen fiction, print and ebook formats (there were differences in the novels on these lists):

Adult Print Books:
Distant POV - 5
Tight POV - 5

Adult ebooks:
Distant POV - 4
Tight POV - 6

Teen Print Books:
Distant POV - 3
Tight POV - 7

Teen ebooks:
Distant POV - 3
Tight POV - 7

As you can see, it's evenly split for adult novels, and a little higher for teen novels. So whatever POV and narrative distance you like to write it, there are readers out there for it.

What's the Difference Between a Tight POV and a Distant POV?


It's how close the reader feels to the narrator. The level of closeness is referred to as narrative distance. Tight, with no filter words used, or far, with lots of filter words used. It's a bit like deciding where you put the camera--is it in the corner of the room capturing all the action no matter where it happens, or on a headset the character wears that captures only what that character sees.

(Here's more on narrative distance)

With a tight POV, all the text is what that character experiences. With a distant POV, the narrator (author) decides what information is shared. Details not known to the character could even be told to the reader. It's a wider view of the story that allows the narrator and the reader to decide what things mean--which might be different from what the character thinks.

For example:
She felt his fingers trace her cheek (with filter word, describing the fact that the POV feels fingers on her cheek)

His fingers traced her cheek (no filter word, letting the POV remark on what his fingers are doing)
(Here's more on filter words)

The easiest way to tell the difference between a tight and a distant POV is to look at the pronouns, as first person is always a tight POV and third person is typically a distant POV, but that doesn't always hold true. A tight third-person POV can read like first person with a close narrative distance is used. For third person, other factors come into play:

Common Traits of a Distant POV


The sense that someone else is telling the story: The reader is outside the head of the character, and often a separate narrator is the one telling the story.

More filter words: The language used describes that the characters is feeling or smelling or knowing something, not just stating the feeling, smell, or knowledge as the character experiences it.

More formal language: A distant narrator often sounds more formal in both language and tone.

More observation: The emphasis is often on describing the events, feelings, and meaning of the scene as someone outside the situation would see it. Readers don't spend as much time in the character's head, but outside of it "watching."

More statement of facts: The narrator knows things the characters might not, so the sense of "this is my opinion" isn't there. It's more of a "these are the facts" feeling.

Common Traits of a Tight POV


The sense that the main character is telling the story: The reader in inside the head of the POV character and everything stated in the story is what that character experiences and what they think about it.

More conversational language: The tone is often casual, conversational, as if speaking with a friend.

Few filter words: Readers aren't told a character "felt the wind on her cheeks," she just notes that "wind swept across her cheeks"

More internalization: Being in the head of a characters means you get to hear what that character is thinking more often. You see more of the thought process and internal monologue as it happens.

More judgment: The POV decides what the things in the story means, and they can be wrong since they don't always have all the information. "Facts" are just opinions and how the POV judges a situation.

Narrative distance is a sliding scale, so you might decide you like a few filter words, but still enjoy a conversational feel. Or you might enjoy a formal, observational tone without filter words. There are no categories here--it's up to the writer to decide where to put that literary camera and how to convey the story to the reader.

(Here's more on narrative distance and telling)

POV is how you choose to tell your story to your readers. It's up to you to decide how close to your characters you're going to be, and how much information to share.

What narrative distance do you enjoy writing in? What about reading?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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15 comments:

  1. I write both and enjoy both, but more of what I write and read tends to use deep PoV rather than distant. Probably because I read a lot of urban fantasy, dystopia, and YA. :-)

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    1. I've found I'm okay with a distant POV if the narrator is strong. It's that "floating above the action" feeling that makes it tough for me to get into a story.

      But I also read a ton of YA and dystopia, so I'm sure that shapes my preferences a lot. :)

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  2. I really enjoyed this article, Janice. The more I learn about writing the more I drift to the deep POV, but it's nice to know that there's a market for all distances despite current trends. The statistics I found interesting, and I'm curious to know whether genres have trends regarding which POVs are more often used.

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    1. Thanks! I'd be curious about that as well. I'll have to start compiling some numbers and see if there are trends.

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  3. I enjoy both, and some of my favorite books are Omniscient viewpoint. (`Watership Down' is Omniscient and so is `The Princess Bride.') The great thing about tight POV (at least with writing) is that it forces you not to wonder all over the place. :)

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    1. That's one reason I enjoy it so much. Kind of makes me wonder if there's a big group who prefer to read the opposite of what they write, just for the different feel of it.

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  4. Thanks for describing the differences so well. I also clicked on your links to previous posts which gave examples. So great! I tend toward deep (or tighter) POV in reading and writing. Probably because I like a lot of romance. Early on in my writing, an agent told me to work on "showing vs telling". I think writing in deep POV helps me to do more "showing." Great info as always!

    Jessica

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    1. Most welcome, glad the links were helpful (that's exactly why I add them -grin-). Deep POV definitely helps with showing. I've always felt that POV was the stronger tool a writer has in their toolbox. Nail POV and most of the common writing problems just vanish.

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  5. Thank you so much for saying Deep PoV is not the only view. I am still struggling with learning to write that way, because I feel my current way is acceptable, too. With so much emphasis on Deep PoV, it is a bit like being bludgeoned over the head with opinions...that Deep PoV is the Right Way, and anything else is the Wrong Way. Thanks again for a great article!

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    1. My pleasure. It dawned on me that I talk more about deep POV since that's what I like, and I was doing a disservice to my readers. There is no "right way" to write and that's not said often enough.

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  6. The use of deep POV also relates to genre. Heaven help you if you don't write deep POV in romance because it's about emotions and the senses. Epic fantasy has the least need for deep POV because it's about a great story retold.

    A good thing to remember about deep POV is that it can be hot, warm, or cold at need. I won't go into detail here, but, if anyone is interested in an explanation, go here:

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2012/06/hot-warm-and-cold-viewpoints.html

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    1. Most definitely, as well as the type of story the author wants to tell. Thanks for the link and the extra info!

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  7. This was helpful, because I was asked to critique a coming-of-age YA story written in distant POV. It's not technically flawed, but it doesn't fit genre expectations. Distant POV in my reading experience is more effective for plot-driven stories (middle grade adventure stories, for example, tend to be so). For character-driven pieces like the one I'm finding perplexing, closeness to the character is the raison d'etre, so going distant in kind of shooting yourself in the foot, right?

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    1. Depends on the story, but I typically find that, yes. One reason I like YA is for that deep POV. But you do see distant or third omni YA as well. When I run across that in a crit, I usually let the writer know that's how I felt and why, but make it clear that it's a personal taste issue. That way, if the writer just didn't know about genre norms they can fix it, and if they do and this is their choice, they can ignore me.

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  8. I think one of the most important things, as usual, is just understanding the alternatives well enough to make an informed choice, for a thoughtful reason, rather than wandering back and forth without realizing it. So great article just for highlighting the differences! :)

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