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Using Point of View to Engage Readers

Shaping the Diamond Part One (Using Point of View to Engage Readers)

Last week I looked at the types of point of view we use in fiction. This week I’m looking at point of view from another perspective—why it’s important. The main reason we need to use deep perspective point of view is because it’s a great way to engage readers by making them feel part of the story:

As the distinction between narrator and character blurs, the distance between them shrinks, and so does the distance between reader and character.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

This is especially useful in genres such as romance, women’s fiction and young adult fiction, where readers want to feel part of the story.

As an added bonus, proper use of deep perspective point of view helps prevent some of the most common issues I see in fiction manuscripts:

  • Headhopping and Author Intrusion
  • Writing Character’s Thoughts
  • Telling, not showing

Today I’m going to cover headhopping, author intrusion, and writing character’s thoughts. I’ll look at showing and telling next week.

Headhopping

Changing the point of view character in a scene is referred to as headhopping, which can be confusing for the reader. For example, the following paragraph shows three viewpoints in three sentences, first Alice, then Ben, then Dr Cook:

It was all too much for Alice. She turned, clung to Ben’s lapels and sobbed. Her heart was breaking. Ben held her against his chest and allowed the grief of years to be brutalised by hope. Dr Cook looked on benignly, waiting for her grief to subside before he continued with his examination.

This should be revised so the entire paragraph is from the viewpoint of a single character, the character who is most affected by the actions in that scene. This character should be named first, so the reader knows who is the point of view character in the scene.

Remember, a scene has a specific structure (which I discussed when I visited Seekerville). Adding a line break and *** does not create a new scene.

Yes, I’ve seen it done.

I think the author was breaking up the narrative into “scenes” to show she understood the rule of only having one point of view character per scene. But my reaction was that either she didn’t know how to write a proper scene, or that she was too lazy to revise her manuscript properly. Either way, the substandard writing showed a lack of respect for her potential readers.

Author Intrusion

If you’re using deep perspective point of view properly, the story is being told through the eyes of your characters. Author intrusion is when you slip out of the character’s viewpoint and tell the story as the author. An author intrusion can be as simple as one wrong word—an English character who says y’all or pavement. An American who says boot instead of trunk. A high school dropout who talks about serendipity.

For example, I have blonde hair courtesy of an excellent hairdresser. I might look in the mirror and think it’s time to get my roots touched up, but I’m not going to think of my hair colour if that’s not the focus of the scene:

The wind blew Alice’s carefully coiffured blonde hair everywhere.

It’s boring, right? Instead, deepen the point of view:

The gentle breeze whipped into a frenzy, blowing Alice’s hair everywhere–in front of her eyes, into her mouth. So much for the half-hour she’d spend drying and styling a professional coiffure for her job interview.

Author intrusion can also be more noticeable moralising and editorialising—the kind of preachiness which once gave Christian fiction a bad name (I think most authors now know better).

To avoid author intrusion, remember that every word needs to be consistent with what your viewpoint character can see or hear, or what they would think. Nothing more.

Writing Character’s Thoughts

There are three ways to show character thoughts in fiction, but only one I recommend—interior monologue. I’ll discuss the other two so you know why I don’t recommend them.

Quotation Marks

I have seen people ask how you tell the difference between character thought and character dialogue. The rule I learned in school was to use one quotation mark for character thought (‘like this’) and two for dialogue (“like this”).

That’s a useful rule to remember if you’re reading fiction from the 1950’s or earlier, but this approach is now considered wrong:

Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

In the same way, don’t use thinker attributions (e.g. she thought). These indicate you’re using a distant point of view rather than deep perspective:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. ‘I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell,’ she thought. ‘The room is warm, and the food is as fine as I eat at home.’

Thinker attributions signal to agents, publishers, editors, and readers that you don’t know (or don’t understand) deep perspective point of view.

Direct Thought

Many authors choose to use italics to indicate direct thought:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell.

However, there are disadvantages to this approach as well:

  • Italics are only effective for a few words or a short sentence. Any longer, and they become difficult to read.
  • Italics can slow the pacing of the scene.
  • Overuse of italics will annoy the reader (and my reader view is that most authors who use italics do overuse them).
  • Direct thought in italics changes the point of view of the scene from third person to first person present tense and back again . This change can be jarring for the reader.
  • Direct thought is telling where the author should be showing.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is what your point of view character is thinking, expressed in his or her own voice. There is no need for thoughts to be identified as such, because the rules of third person narration from a specific viewpoint character (or first person narration) imply this is the character whose interior monologue we are reading.

Interior monologue is favoured because:

  • It is showing, not telling.
  • Interior monologue doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story the way italics do, because it is the same tense and font as the rest of the story.
  • It forces the reader (and author) into the mind of the point of view character, which helps them know the character better. The better the reader knows the character, the more likely she is to empathise and feel the character’s emotions.

Interior monologue is stronger writing. It’s the writing which most engages me as a reader. If you want your reader to engage with your characters and experience their tragedies and joys, use interior monologue and deep perspective point of view.

Thinking Aloud

Some authors write scenes where a character appears to be talking to himself or herself, in that their words are set in quotation marks. But they’re alone in a room, so who are they talking to? As shown above, this can give a scene a slightly ‘off’ feel.

It’s rarely a good idea to have your characters mumble to themselves or speak under their breath… it’s almost always going to come off as a contrivance.
– Angela Hunt, Point of View

Prayer

Note that prayer is different from thinking aloud, because we’re talking to Someone (God). Prayer can be:

  • Spoken out loud (indicated by quotation marks).
  • Direct thought (indicated by italics).
  • Interior monologue.

The right choice will depend on your character and the situation—she might normally be a pray-out-loud type, but she’s likely to pray silently when she’s hiding from the maniac with the gun.

Italics

As shown above, italics can be used for direct thought. They can also be used for emphasis. However, it’s easy to overuse both, so my view is it’s best to avoid the problem by not using italics for direct thought or emphasis at all. Instead, only use italics where they are the only correct choice:

  • Book and magazine titles
  • The name of a movie, TV series or play
  • Words from other languages
  • Specific names of ships, trains or planes (e.g. the USS Enterprise)

When italics for emphasis are overused, they are telling where the author should be showing. It’s the typographical equivalent of laughing at your own joke, or asking ‘did you get it?’.

I’ll be back next week to share the other way we can use point of view to engage readers: through showing, not telling.

Meanwhile, do you have any questions on deep perspective point of view?

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 3

Third Person Point of View

The previous posts have defined first person, second person, cinematic and omniscient point of view. This post will continue looking at third person point of view, this time focusing on what is most commonly seen in modern fiction: inner limited and deep perspective.

Inner Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her. Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is a mindreader, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene. This is the viewpoint favoured in modern fiction:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example is rather distant, in that the reader is watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. The reader can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘thinking’ inject narrative distance and remind us that this is just a story. This technique has some uses in modern fiction (like cinematic point of view), but can feel distant if used for an entire novel as it fails to engage the emotions of the reader. The solution to this is a deep and more intimate third person point of view, almost like first person.

Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.

At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as at home in Hatfield. Deep breath. What to do? There were no new books, nothing to sew and no one to talk to until the guard arrived with dinner. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was still prison. A gilded prison, so here she sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell (184 words compared to a mere 65 for the cinematic example).

To better understand deep perspective point of view, I recommend Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, a well-known Christian fiction author. It is short (63 pages), but well worth reading. It is available at www.Amazon.com for around USD 5.99, and can be read either on a Kindle e-reader, or on your PC by downloading the free application.

The next question is which point of view to use. This will be the subject of my next post.