So when shouldn’t you use deep POV?

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series Deep POV

By Alicia Rasley

Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes in fiction-writing. Deep POV is now trendy, and it’s appropriate for many types of stories, and also for our highly interactive culture. However, it’s only one of several POV approaches, and it’s not right for every genre, every book, and every author.

First, I should quickly define deep point of view. (I go into this in much greater depth in my book, The Power of Point of View.) Deep POV is a variety of single POV, where an entire scene (or chapter, or book) is told through the perspective (or point of view) of one of the characters in the scene. Deep POV takes this further—the narration is done not just in the perspective but in the voice of the POV character. It’s meant to establish almost no distance between the narrator and the reader—rather like a first-person feel with third-person pronouns. Here’s an example:

Allie thought Saturday was never going to come. All day Friday she kept waiting for school to be over, but it was taking forever. Every time Allie looked at the watch her daddy had bought her for Christmas, the numbers had barely changed at all. She thought maybe the battery wasn’t so good anymore, but if it wasn’t, then the clocks at school weren’t working either, ’cause when her teacher dismissed them for lunch, it was the exact time on Allie’s watch that it was s’posed to be. (Tara Taylor Quinn, Jacob’s Girls.)

The character is a child, and so the deep-POV narration uses the diction and sentence construction of a child. This lets the reader get an intense experience of who this person is and how she thinks.

Very useful. However, there are two points I want to make:

  1. Most writers who think they’re doing deep POV aren’t. They are doing single POV and confining the narration to one character’s thoughts and perceptions (and that’s FINE). But they are writing more in their own voice. There’s nothing wrong with that (single POV is by far the most common and accepted POV approach). What’s wrong is the writers who say they’re doing deep POV because they’re following a list of rules they got from somewhere, like “In deep POV, you never use the character’s name, and you never use ‘she thought’.” Deep POV is not about rules. It’s about being so into the character that you feel with her body, think with her mind, and write with her voice. It’s writing from inside the character, and those rules imposed from the outside? Worse than useless.
  2. Deep POV is not right for every story.

And since (2) is what I’m supposed to address in this blog post, let me get going on that.

A) Deep POV is not right for every author.

I’ve concluded that most of us have a natural POV approach, one that feels comfortable and right for us. And we can learn to write in other POVs, but when we’re writing most naturally, we’re probably going to write in our natural POV, and that’s going to sound most authentic. I’m not saying you should only write in your natural POV (my natural is single-third POV, but I’ve been writing a lot of first-person and enjoying it). But you shouldn’t feel you have to force yourself to write deep POV if every word feels wrong.

Why might it feel wrong? Well, if you’ve spent a lot of time working on your own voice, making it beautiful and evocative, you might not want to cede control of your prose style to a character. I’m an English teacher, and I spend way too much time every semester helping students distinguish sentences from fragments and comma splices.

Every time I write in deep POV, I find myself echoing the character (as I should in deep POV), who is invariably uncaring of grammar, not to mention easily distracted. So half his sentences are actually fragments, and half of hers are run-ons. That might be quite effective. But what if one of my students would brandish a highlighted page of Tony’s POV and yell, “Fragments all over the place!” (Well, actually, if one of my students could so effectively identify fragments, I’d give him an A right away. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Many writers are proud of their voice, and rightly so. You can be poetic and evocative in deep POV—even an illiterate character can think in lovely if broken prose—but it’s not, at base, YOUR voice (if it is your voice, you’re not really doing deep POV). It’s not supposed to be. And if you want to write in your own voice, if you think the reader will get more from “hearing” you, well, why not? The whole point of writing is to create an experience for the reader, and creating an interesting or lovely experience is a valid aim.

POV approach also connects to your worldview. Now no one else agrees with me on this, so take it with a grain of salt. But I think your natural POV might reflect your understanding of reality. Hey, give me a chance! Let’s say that you think that there is an absolute reality, but it’s not necessarily knowable by most of us. That worldview is the one expressed by omniscient POV—the “godlike narrator” knows everything, within and without the characters, and knows more than all the characters together.

But maybe you think there’s no absolute reality, and that the only way to get close to knowing reality is to juxtapose the accounts of several people, a collage-like effect that is very similar to multiple POV. Now we single-POV types, we don’t know if there’s an absolute reality, and in fact, we don’t much care. We’re mostly concerned with the inner reality of characters, what they think and notice and value.

Well, you know, if you have one of those worldviews, your story choice and your POV choice will probably reflect that. And that’s good. It takes all kinds. That’s why we have several POV approaches, several genres, and many writers. There isn’t just one worldview out there, so there shouldn’t be only one POV approach. And you should at least start with the one that lets you express your worldview and voice, and—you didn’t really think I was going to say, “Anything goes,” did you?—refine it and reinvent it and revise it so that your writing is the best possible proof that your POV approach is right.

No, you won’t get it right the first time. Yes, you still must revise to make sure that your reader will experience what you want her to experience. But making your story and voice work well is plenty hard enough without adding in the pain of trying to write in a way that doesn’t feel right to you.

B) Deep POV is not right for every genre.

Most genres and sub-genres have their own preferred POV approach. Private-eye stories are usually in first-person. Mysteries are usually in some form of omniscient. Romances are usually in single-third POV. General (mainstream) fiction is often in either multiple or first person. The preferred POV reflects something about how the genre works—the mystery is about the mystery, not particularly about the character of the sleuth, so omniscient works well (as it does in many plot-driven stories).

Private-eye novels, on the other hand, are indeed about the character of the detective (and the detective’s voice), so that snarky first-person narration allows that. The genres evolved a preferred POV approach because that approach usually (never say always ๐Ÿ™‚ ) allows writers to create the experience for the reader which is desired in that genre (chills and fear in the thriller, thoughtfulness in the mystery, etc.).

You are likely to be drawn to the POV approach and/or the genre which feel right to you, which explore the themes and issues that are most important to you. So trust tradition. You can innovate if you understand WHY the horror novel is usually in single POV or sf/f is often in omniscient. The preferred POV approach usually helps create the desired experiences of that genre. So that’s a good place to start. And for most genres, deep POV is not the default (third person, at least—first-person can be pretty deep too).

C) Deep POV is not right for many stories.

Many stories would be pretty much unwriteable in deep POV. Plot-driven books, where information must be conveyed which the main character doesn’t have and action must be shown that the main character doesn’t witness, are usually told in a form of omniscient POV. Sweeping epics where worldbuilding or setting description are essential are better from omniscient too. Books where you are using an unreliable narrator are better from first-person.

Even tightly-focused character books can often be better-handled in a single-third person where your voice dominates. Dialogue-heavy books often benefit from the contrast of the conversational quality of the dialogue and the more formal quality of an omniscient or third-person narration. Stories with several major characters and a fast pace will often sound more coherent with multiple point of view. Comedy, which relies so much on the author voice, is usually in an omniscient ironic viewpoint.

That is, never feel pressured to write deep POV. It is not the only or best viewpoint approach. It’s only best if it’s right for you, the genre, and the story. Otherwise, try out the more traditional approaches and find the one that fits best.

About the author
Alicia Rasley is a nationally known writing workshop leader and the author of The Power of Point of View, a Writer’s Digest book. Her website,, and blog ( have much free advice for writers.

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; get out—StillSearc; notebook—typofi

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17 thoughts on “So when shouldn’t you use deep POV?”

  1. Thanks Alicia! (and Jordan)

    Now I’m more confused than ever. I’ve been playing with converting my WIP into a deep POV, but I’m not sure it’s working. My mind’s eye is very cinematic, and I write drafts in a much more omniscient style. I’m writing a futuristic disaster epic and I feel like I’m jumping through hoops to accomplish my world-building.
    So how do I get in my character’s heads without getting in their heads?
    Sometimes I just don’t know what to do.

  2. Thank you Alicia (and Jordan). This was a great read and I think dealt with POV in a way most writer’s don’t considering. I’m a firm believer in doing what comes naturally to you and, just as I could never dream of tackling 1st person, I can’t force myself into the very popular Deep POV. I’m definitely a 3rd person single POV writer. I’m very comfortable there. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love that so many writers and editors have been emphasizing that trends in POV come and go. I think that’s really helpful to writers who get told there’s only one way to skin their cat.

  3. Hi Alicia!

    Great post. Do you think a new writer can get away with writing in deep POV narration – with the diction and construction of a specific character? Say, the child in the example you posted? If someone you didn’t know handed in a partial – would you recognize right away that some things were intentional? After all, as a new writer I wouldn’t imagine that they’d get everything perfect in this regard. Just wondering…(I can use an ellipse there, right?);)

    Hi Jordan!

    Here I was thinking that Alicia and Theresa had broken up with me and the crew over at edittorrent and what do I find, instead? You guys are dating. Damn, lunch bag left out again! Well, if they were ever gonna leave me for another blogger – I’d want it to be you! ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. Andrew—You’re welcome, for my part. As for your question, I think you should look at the POV in what’s selling today (or what sold two years ago and you can find on the bookshelves ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). I know lots of authors can successfully mix POV depth.

    JT—I don’t usually care for first person, but it can be a nice change of pace—and it really brings you to know the character on a deeper level. That’s what I like about deep POV, too.

    LOL, thanks, Murphy! It is a regular edittorrent party here today. This is actually the last post (well, I’ll probably do a round up) of our July series on deep POV, so we’ve done a lot of discussion on establishing and keeping deep POV, and I think you can tell something’s intentional in deep POV once you’ve firmly established the POV depth (at the beginning of the scene/book).

  5. Thank you Alicia! And to Jordan for hosting this post. (Note to self – bookmark this site).

    I’d wondered what was the difference between single and deep POV. I have been using them differently, by some miracle, and I hope correctly.

    Thanks again!

  6. Deb—Glad to have you here! Come back as often!

    There actually isn’t a difference between single and deep POV, it’s just kind of a shorthand we use for not deep and deep POV. Deep POV can be first or third person (second would be presumptuous . . . and rude), but usually if you’re writing in first person it’s not an issue—the character’s thoughts naturally flow into the narration.

    To put it more clearly, deep POV is a type or style of third person limited POV. “Deep” just denotes how close we are to the POV character’s thoughts. Like I told Murphy, we’ve gone in depth on deep POV all month (which I why I wanted Alicia, aka THE MASTER, to write about when you don’t need it), so feel free to check out the whole series on deep POV.

  7. Thanks Jordan – I did go read them after I left my comment. (I found you for the first time today from a post on Alicia’s blog.)

    I plan to go back and read them again – in the right order. Between reading them backwards and battling with RSS / using Google Reader for the first time, I got distracted. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Iapetus, don’t get too worried about this. Focus on presenting the story and character. If you are not comfortable with deep POV, don’t do it. Do it only if you think it will give the reader the experience you want the reader to get, and don’t feel you have to stay in deep POV. Plenty of writers “go deep” only in intense moments.

    Know your character from the inside out, and present that character well. If the character’s voice is going to help that, go for it, but there’s nothing wrong with letting your own voice carry most of the narrative.

    Jordan, yes, thanks for clearing that up. Deep POV is a form of single-third, but it “feels” a lot like first person. I like to think of “single-third” as being more when the author voice dominates the narration, and deep POV when the character voice dominates.

    But anyway, there are many variations, and experimentation can be lots of fun.

  9. Murph, if you do the deep POV right, the reader should know it. Or rather, if the reader knows that this is right, you did it right. Now of course some readers and editors don’t want that– it’s a matter of taste, just as many readers don’t like reading first-person– but if you’ve made that passage or scene a good experience, the readers who like that sort of experience will know what you’ve done– whether or not they can name it. They’ll say, “I felt like I really know Paul,” or “That sounded just like Paula.”

    And new writers who do it well, sure. In fact, editors are always saying they want to read a “fresh voice,” and a new writer who can manipulate deep POV so that the character is revealed not just through action and description but also through voice, will impress. But it doesn’t happen because you choose deep POV as a trendy approach, rather because the character speaks so loudly to you that it comes out in your prose.

    It’s not an easy approach, but sometimes you know that it’s the only approach for this story, and when you know that, and you do it well, I don’t think editors will care that you’re a new writer. In fact, new writers tend to be more innovative because they CAN be. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Thanks for the great explanation and analysis! Good to know we will not be flogged, flayed and cast into darkness for using other than deep 3rd.

  11. Deb, the important thing is to do whatever you do WELL. Badly done deep POV is more excruciating than about anything else because we can’t get away from a bad voice in deep POV. So if it’s not the right POV approach for our voice or the story, we should avoid it and go with a more traditional approach.

  12. Perfect explanation. I’ve heard the term bandied around, but never stated that clearly. One writer, in particular, preaches that it’s only way publishers are going and tells people omniscient is dead. I could never write in a deep POV. Just not me. Just not the kind of stories I write.

  13. This is a lot like song writing. You cannot just formulate good songs. You cannot take a strict structure, such as 12 bar blues, and try to make a ballad or a Celtic tune!
    There are some artists who manage to blend several genres successfully and others who make something almost incoherent because they try and be world musicians so hard.
    Steve Winwood is a good example of somebody who has been able to blend folk, jazz, rock and afro beats to a single cd.

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