Kay: Going Deep with POV

Just recently my critique partners returned a couple of chapters I’d submitted of my latest WIP with “POV?” marked prominently throughout.

[Deep and profound sigh] We all know what point of view is—that’s the angle or the character who’s telling about or seeing the scene. Usually I like to flatter myself that POV is something I have a handle on, more or less—as much as I have a handle on anything. But sure enough, this time I’d “head hopped” all over the place. It’s beautiful in my head. In their heads, not so much.

I got a booklet from Suzanne Brockmann a few years ago that describes what she calls “deep POV.” It’s basically an extension of what Jack Bickham describes in Scene and Structure when he talks about stimulus and response. Time to reread that booklet!

Brockmann says deep POV means you have to dig deeper. Here’s how it works.

Every scene has a stimulus and a response, repeated until the scene ends. For example: The killer pulls out his gun. That’s the stimulus. What’s the response? Our heroine, Odetta—our POV character—ducks behind the stone wall. This response (our heroine ducking) then stimulates the next action: what does the killer do next?

Four parts = harmony

Deep POV comes in when we show readers our heroine’s (our POV character’s) response—how and why she ducked and what she felt. A character’s response to the stimulus has four parts:

  1. emotion
  2. thought
  3. decision
  4. action

and they happen in that order. She won’t jump behind the wall (action) and then feel fear (emotion). She feels the fear first, she thinks what her options are, she decides ducking behind the wall is best, and then she moves. If you work with these four elements—and work them backwards—you’ll find your way to deep POV.

Start with #4: action

Showing only the action component essentially gives you an omniscient POV.

  • The killer pulled out his gun. (stimulus) Odetta jumped behind a stone wall. (response)

Odetta’s response (jumping behind the stone wall) would then generate another action from the killer—let’s say, “He crept forward” or “He shot into the dark.” But for now, I’m sticking to just one stimulus/response cycle.

Add #3 and #2: decision and thought

You might not always have one thought and one decision running in tandem. A character might have many thoughts and only one decision. Thoughts and decisions together are internalizations.

Here’s an example where Odetta had only one thought before her decision—a plausible number of thoughts given the urgency of the situation:

  • The killer pulled out his gun. (stimulus) She’d have to hide until help came. (decision) He’d been hunting her since sunrise, and she didn’t know how much longer she could run. (thought) Odetta jumped behind a stone wall. (response)

Here, Odetta had two thoughts before she goes into action:

  • The killer pulled out his gun. (stimulus) She’d have to hide until help came. (decision) He’d been hunting her since sunrise, and she didn’t know how much longer she could run. (thought) When she heard a twig snap, she realized she had to stay focused. (thought) Odetta jumped behind a stone wall. (response)

Notice the use of the words “heard” and “realized.” Sense words such as heard, felt, saw, or smelled distance the reader. They are not part of deep POV. We’ll get to those in a sec.

Finally, add #1: emotion

How much emotion you add probably depends on what kind of book you’re writing, as well as what scene you’re in.

  • The killer pulled out his gun. (stimulus) She’d have to hide until help came. (decision) He’d been hunting her since sunrise, and she didn’t know how much longer she could run. (thought) He was relentless—she’d never get away! (emotion) When she heard a twig snap, she realized she had to stay focused. (thought) Odetta jumped behind a stone wall. (response)

No telling!

Next we strip out anything that’s “telling”—anything that distances the character from the reader. These include the heard, felt, saw, or smelled words, but also words such as thought or recalled that have readers watching Odetta’s responses rather than feeling them.

  • The killer pulled out his gun. (stimulus) She’d have to hide until help came. (decision) He’d been hunting her since sunrise. , and she didn’t know h How much longer she could she run? (thought) He was relentless—she’d never get away! (emotion) When she heard a A twig snapped. she realized sShe had to  Just stay focused. (thought) Odetta jumped behind a stone wall. (response)

Add some personality

That’s basically it as the process to get to deep POV—but we should still give this section one more pass to add a little bit of Odetta’s personality to her dilemma.

  • The killer pulled out his gun. She’d have to hide until help came—and when would that be? He’d been hunting her since sunrise. How much longer could she run? He was relentless—she’d never get away. If only she’d gone to the gym more often! A twig snapped. Just stay focused. Just stay alive, minute by minute. Odetta jumped behind a stone wall.

Going deeper

This simple example is just to demonstrate how deep POV works. Of course, nothing is ever absolute, and deep POV can get much deeper than this when you’re working in your own scenes. And I hope I can make it deep enough as I start to revise mine!

18 thoughts on “Kay: Going Deep with POV

  1. My pleasure. I wish I could point you to that booklet that Suzanne Brockmann put out, but it was a conference giveaway and done in print only. She did a great job with it in a really short space.

  2. I’ve implemented some of this (removing the “tell” words like thought, saw, etc.”), but the idea of using 4 parts (harmony!) to draw the reader closer and put her/him into the story is something I hadn’t heard of in quite this way before. You did a fabulous job of explaining this concept and the examples were excellent, Kay!

    Thanks for giving me a new tool for my writing toolbox.

    • Good job in ditching the “tell” words. These tags are hard to find. We think the tags of who’s thinking or hearing something add clarity for the reader, but we’re mostly distancing readers from the action. And we barely see those “telling” tags because we’re so used to seeing dialogue tags. And we’re always taught to “add the five senses” to our writing, so we’re always telling readers that our characters see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. But there’s better ways to convey those things than by telling the readers about it.

  3. Thank-you! I am trying to work in 3rd person deep (my other work has been 1st person), and I’ve been fighting with figuring this all out and worrying about it. This helps A LOT! 😀

    • I’m glad if it clarifies anything for you! It’s hard to keep POV front and center sometimes when there are so many things to think about, but it really helps to readers engage with the characters. Best wishes for your writing!

  4. This is great, Kay, thank you so much. I love reading authors who write deep POV, because it’s so emotionally engaging. I’m going to buy the Bickham book and also add another step to my revision checklist, do a pass for emotion/thought/decision/action and hunt down those sneaky ‘tell’ tags.

    • I think the Bickham book is great. It’s part of a series that Writers Digest published; I have a bunch of them and they’re all good, but I think Bickham’s is the best. It’s not that long, but the type is tiny (or at least in my edition; I think it’s been reprinted in a large format now), and there’s a lot of great info packed in there. He also goes on at some length about “scene” and “sequel,” which ties into a conversation we’d had in class about “quiet scenes.” I’m with you, I like the emotionally engaging stuff that’s strong on POV. Well worth rereading these texts to refresh our memories.

  5. You gave me a big Ah-ha moment with this post. Thanks so much, 🙂 I was amazed at how much difference it made to your paragraph as you changed it. This is what we new authors need, so actual samples to learn from. One question, when your writing her thoughts, would they go italic or how do you decide when to do that?

    • I often do go with italics to distinguish her thoughts from the narrative, a technique that drives one of my critique partners nuts. She thinks I way over-italicize. And I agree that you can go too far with italics very quickly, because italics is hard to read. But sometimes it just seems like it clarifies the text, too.

  6. Great Post 🙂 I’m sharing it on my twitter page! I’m embarrassed to admit that I struggle a lot with POV. I want to tell the story from EVERYONE’S point of view! Lol it is this alone, that has me dreading the revision process.

  7. Very interesting! I wonder which part I’m the weakest with — action, decision, thought or emotion? Probably emotion . . . . It looks like a great tool, and one I should use before I hand in my two scenes to my critique group! Thanks, Kay!

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