Tag Archives: point of view

Annette Lyon’s Secret Sauce: Point of View

by Annette Lyon

Annette Lyon-FALL 2012When I first started writing seriously (back in the Jurassic era), the more I tried to learn, the more there seemed to be to learn. And there was so much.

For me, the language side of writing came relatively easy; my brain simply works in a way that grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation are easy to grasp. It was the bones of writing, the structure, the storytelling aspect, that took longer.

As I continued to write and study the craft, I began to see a pattern: whether it’s showing instead of telling, creating great description, rounding out characters, writing riveting action or just about anything else, one of the best ways to do all of those things is through a single tool in my writer’s toolkit.

My secret weapon is simple but powerful. Chances are if a scene isn’t working or the pace is aging or any number of other problems crop up, I can fix it by improving one thing: point of view.

I won’t go into the types of point of view here (first, limited third, tight third, omniscient, and so on). Study those yourself to learn contemporary trends and why different types work in different situations. (A great place to start: Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint.)

Here’s the secret: When you know who your POV character is for any given scene, the world of your story opens up to you.

For example, a writer recently asked me how to make his descriptions better; he wasn’t sure how much description to include of a room or some other location, or how to create a description without stopping the plot.

No surprise, my answer went straight to POV. I used the lobby at the conference we were at as an example. If it’s a man who has just walked in from the hot sun after hours of working on his car, chances are he’d first notice the Pepsi machine. Maybe he’d then be annoyed, because he’s a Coke guy. Maybe he then looks for a drinking fountain or settles for a Dr. Pepper before finding one of the couches to relax on—feet propped on the coffee table.

Or if it’s a business woman with a design background, maybe she’d first notice the decorative metal piece hanging on the wall—and either think it was tacky or unique and fun. She’d probably wonder who picked out the puke yellow paint for the walls, and if she took a seat on the couches, instead of reclining, she’d find a plug in the wall and prop open her laptop to work—likely giving Mr. Smelly Mechanic a look and wishing he’d put his arms down so he wouldn’t be quite so odiferous.

In both cases, I picked a specific personality to view the very same room, and each person found different items they noticed first. That’s the key with POV—what is the lens through which your character sees the world? What does this particular character notice? What does he or she like or dislike? What does he or she want?

If an eight-year-old girl obsessed with princesses came into the room, what would she notice first? What about a ninety-year-old retired biology professor? A middle-aged homeless woman?

What your character notices—whether in the description of a room, in dialog with other characters, what they see in another person’s demeanor—is just as important as what they don’t notice. How they do and do not feel about those things matters.

Imagine what the Harry Potter series would have been like written from Draco’s POV. Snape would be a total hero from page one. We’d think Hagrid is a nincompoop and view Dumbledore as a has-been.

The more I’ve played with POV in creating characters and scenes that come alive, the more POV almost feels like the best cheat ever—I can show without trying so hard, simply by remembering to look at the story world through my POV character eyes. My plot moves forward, the conflict intensifies, and more, all by staying true to POV.

Which is also why not knowing how to use POV well can have a disastrous effect of your story. Instead of pulling your reader into your world and holding them there, poor handling of POV pushes the reader out and constantly reminds them that they’re reading a story that someone else created.

Or worse, bad POV can confuse readers to the point that they shrug and simply give up, closing the book (or turning off the e-reader) and moving on to something else.

I’m almost a nerd about how excited I get over POV and all the many uses it has. It’s definitely my secret sauce, no matter what kind of story I’m writing.

About the Author
Annette Lyon is a Whitney Award winner, a two-time recipient of Utah’s Best in State medal for fiction, and the author of ten novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide as well as over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon

This year, she’s released Band of Sisters: Coming Home, the second edition of There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd, and novellas in the Timeless Romance Anthology series.

Choosing the right POV character

Each book, each character and even each scene requires you to make choices about what POV to use. If you have more than one POV character in a scene—as you will in many of your most pivotal scenes—you have to decide which character should control the scene, or whose eyes your reader gets the scene through. The way you use the POV in a scene and in a whole book affects the way your characters and your story are perceived. It’s important to get it right!

Today we’ll look at one aspect of POV: choosing the right POV character.

Choosing POV Characters

Sometimes it’s very easy to pick who to use as the viewpoint character—they’re our only viewpoint character in the scene. But quite often, we’ll have more than one viewpoint character in a scene and we’ll have to choose between them. Whose scene is this?
Continue reading Choosing the right POV character

Burying clues using context and interpretation

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Clues in non mysteries

This technique is similar to using framing for burying clues, but distinct enough I think it warrants its own entry in the series.

In this method, the clue really is in plain sight. No tricks to cover it up or conceal its importance—only its meaning. Using the viewpoint character’s perspective, we explain away the clue because we’re seeing it out of context. Perhaps the POV character isn’t hunting for clues right now, or maybe we’ve moved from the plot with the mystery into a subplot involving other characters—anything to move the POV character’s frame of mind somewhere else so that the clue doesn’t seem to bear any extra significance.

To cite an example I gave in the comments of an Edittorrent discussion on burying clues (although this is a mystery, the concept applies across genres; emphasis added):

Let’s say that your plot is structured so that the hero is a detective and there’s been a murder at our heroine’s office (her supervisor was killed [with a staple gun, which our heroine doesn’t know], and there’s an obvious suspect). In her free time, our heroine has been helping her best friend start her own cafe.

Our heroine is helping to decorate the cafe (in her subplot). Her BFF asks her to hang the grapevine lattice on the ceiling, since she’s afraid of heights. The heroine takes the lattice and the staple gun up the ladder and obliges.

But really, the BFF is avoiding the staple gun because she killed the coworker (insert motive here). But because we’re out of context, given a plausible alternate explanation, and not in an investigative POV (and note the BFF doesn’t mention the weapon of choice), it’s easy to dismiss it (as long as there’s a clear purpose in the scene, too).

Plus, now the BFF can frame our heroine with her prints on the murder weapon.

Jami Gold also gave a great example of a slightly different methodology for doing this in the comments. The POV character interprets the clues into a context that might make sense to them, but it’s not correct. The heroine thinks the hero’s giving her A Look because he doesn’t approve of the friends she’s going out with (or doesn’t care about her); the hero can’t believe she’s ditching him.

What do you think? How do you use context and interpretation to bury clues?

Photo by Scott Vandehey

Tapping into your character’s senses

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Writing the senses

Yesterday (and throughout this series), I mentioned that we have to focus on our characters and what they perceive when we detail the sensory information. We’ve talked about how to get into a character’s head (waaay back when), but sometimes seeing with our character’s eyes (or using their other senses) is a bit more challenging than just understanding what they’re thinking.

One thing that I’ve done to work on this (can you tell this is actually what I’m working on now?) is to go through each scene and write down all five senses for that character in that setting. As I do this, I ask myself questions about the character in the setting:

  • Which of my character’s emotions or experiences would color this setting? Does the sandy desert remind her of her grandmother’s house, or him of Desert Storm? (Or make up new experiences, if you feel like it.) If you need a setting to have an impact, sensory data could trigger strong memories for your character. Or if you just want your character to have a strong emotional experience, sensory data from the setting might be the way to go. Emotional
  • Is this a new setting for the character? If so, keep in mind your character’s personality and purpose there. Someone accustomed to danger might scan for the best escape route first. (And she won’t sit with her back to the door. Don’t even ask.) But if she’s there to meet a friend, looking for that friend will be a close second priority.
  • Conversely, is this setting very familiar to the character? If, for example, it’s their home or workplace, they may not “experience” it anymore. So if you need to be in that character’s POV in that setting, focus only on what stands out. Most of us don’t know what our own house smells like (unless we’re the ones buying the air fresheners!), but we’ll notice the overripe garbage.
  • In a familiar setting, can I have other people interact with the set? The other characters’ interactions with the POV/owner character’s furniture may suddenly draw her attention to the ratty patch on the arm of the couch where her cat sharpens its claws—or maybe the cat does that itself.
  • Do we remain grounded in the setting? Do we go too long without referencing something concrete in the “real world” of the story, devolving into people talking in space? (That’s one of my big things to work on.) Note: we don’t have to redescribe the drywall, but even interacting with a prop keeps us from floating off into space.
  • Do we remain grounded in the character? Kind of the opposite phenomenon—do we spend too much time on the description so that we kind of lose track of what the character is doing/thinking/feeling? (And thanks to Andrew for bringing this to mind in the comments!)

What do you think? How do you get into your characters’ senses?

Tomorrow, we’ll have more about picking which senses to focus on for your character!

Photo by Vestman

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. 🙂 )

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 🙂 ) 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, www.rasley.com, and blog (edittorrent.blogspot.com) have much free advice for writers.

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

Deep POV questions and answers

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series Deep POV

I should preface this by saying that I’m not an expert—we’ll have the expert on POV, Alicia Rasley, with a guest post on Thursday. But I’m happy to give my opinion on your questions, and I’d love to get your opinions. (Plus, I have a question, too—check it out at the end.)

Deep POV and World building

Iapetus999 says:

I guess my issue is that I have a bunch of world-building to do (SF genre) so how do I do that in deep POV? If I can’t be a narrator explaining the physics of tethered space stations, then how do I get my characters to do it? My characters already know how their world works. They wind up doing things that makes sense to them (and to me) but my readers don’t get it. So something’s missing. Ideas?

That’s a tough one—truly, a real conundrum. I have this problem all the time with characters who either a.) would never, ever sit around describing their everyday world or b.) think and speak in slang or obscure terms that not every reader is going to understand, but everyone else in the scene would.

The classic deep POV solution is to bring in an outsider who will require some sort of explanation, or who’ll draw attention to the things that other native characters don’t even see anymore. That doesn’t always work, of course. Another approach might be to give one of your characters some sort of emotional reaction to the setting—she’s against something about the station for scientific, moral or political reasons, etc. They’re more likely to notice it (and, thus, describe it) when they care.

Of course, I don’t know of many people with emotional reactions to physics principles. Another option might be to add brief scenes early on to help establish not only the characters but their physical world—conducting scientific tests, maintenance, observations, or even scenes where the characters themselves are showing of the physics principles in their movement.

And when the information is really obscure, sometimes you can get away with one or two unobtrusive sentences conveying information that the POV character might already know, as it relates to the context of the scene and doesn’t duplicate information in dialogue, etc.

Of course, it’s always possible to pull out of deep POV for something like this. But at the same time, a prologue from the author on the physics of tethered space stations is probably going to be one of those parts readers skip. On the other hand, if you can weave the description (or scientific principles) into a scene and make it matter, it’s more likely to stick with your reader at least long enough to understand the story.

Any other suggestions?

Inner thoughts, narration and deep POV

Trisha Puddle says:

Hi, Jordan. First of all I want to tell you that this is my favourite blog. I’m learning so much from your posts and they have improved my writing so much. Thanks for that.

Thank you! And you’re welcome 😀 .

. . . I’m . . . now aware that characters can’t see things through the back of their heads and they don’t notice the colour of their own eyes, but I sometimes struggle with their inner thoughts and end up with narration instead of deep POV. I have to make sure that I think and feel like an eight year old, which isn’t hard for me, but I end up slipping out of deep POV sometimes.

May I be so bold as to give this sample for your advice? Is it in deep POV yet?

“You’re still grounded, Molly.” Her mother headed toward the kitchen.

Molly shuffled behind her. She grabbed the knives and forks out of the drawer and placed them on the table. If only she hadn’t lost her temper and wiped rotten duck eggs on Angela. And why did she have to go and make gobbling sounds at the headmistress? She hadn’t meant it to be so loud. Now she’d miss out on precious time with Furble.

Kate came back to the kitchen and handed Molly a disc. “Here, I’ve copied the photos of Furble for you.”

Molly gave Kate a sad little smile. “Thanks. I won’t get to see Furble anymore. I’m grounded for a week.” Tears clouded her eyes and she ran upstairs to her bedroom. After slamming the door, she threw herself on her bed and punched her pillow. She growled like a grizzly bear, “Grrr.” She wasn’t hungry now.

I’m not an expert on MG and this obviously isn’t a critique, but the POV here looks pretty good to me. The second paragraph seems especially good in that respect (though I’m not familiar enough with MG to know whether we need the review of the things she’s done wrong, and obviously you may or may not have just spent the first part of this scene discussing them).

In the last paragraph, obviously we’re in Molly’s POV, so the “sad little smile” she gives Kate at the end may or may not work—I see and probably use something like that a lot, but does she know her smile is little and sad, or does she make a conscious effort to make them that way?

I’d also like a little more insight into exactly what she’s feeling there. She goes from a sad smile and tears in her eyes to door slamming, punching and growling. In these paragraphs, we see a good view of her penitence and regret, but the rest of the emotional progression could be a little clearer, since we’re in her head with her. (It’s kinda crowded, I know, but it’s where lots of readers like to be.)

Any other suggestions on the POV depth here?

When not to use deep POV

Eileen Astels Watson says:

The deeper POV and more consistent you are, the better for me. I’ve been writing with two POV’s per book, so when I want distance from one character I switch to the other’s POV, but I can see where writers would vary the depth if writing in one POV to help keep some unknowns afloat.

I agree, though you have to be very careful with this. Generally speaking, it’s not okay to keep secrets from the reader when the POV character knows those facts and they’re pertinent to the story. If the whole book is in deep POV except for sections where the deep POV character would be thinking about those facts that would make or break the mystery, for example, the reader will probably feel cheated. While you can mislead the reader, you can’t flat out lie to them—if the POV character knows something, your reader should, too.

However, there are certain types of scenes where deep POV doesn’t work so well. My favorite example is a scene showing a deep emotion. We need some of the character’s thoughts to understand what they’re feeling, but sometimes reading their thoughts directly isn’t the most powerful way to get our readers to feel those same emotions. Alicia Rasley talks about effectively portraying deep, emotional scenes in her articles “Emotion without Sentiment” and “Emotion is Physical.”

Alicia herself will be with us Thursday with a guest post on when not to write in deep POV.

My question: family titles and deep POV

I’m divided on this issue in my WIP, so I’d like to hear your opinions. When reading something in fairly deep POV, is it more natural to refer to the POV character’s family members as “his dad” or just “Dad”? Both have their advantages and disadvantages in my opinion, and I’ve seen both in first-person as well. I’m still pretty torn, so I’m turning it over to you. (Update: I’ve found my final answer.)

So what do you think on all of these issues?

Photo credits: globe—Sanja Gjenero; frustrate—John De Boer; question—Svilen Mushkatov

Why some great books just don’t make good movies: powerful POV

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Deep POV

For some strange reason, The Jacksons: An American Dream was on TV a couple weeks ago (gee, I wonder why). My dad and I got sucked in near the beginning, expecting to understand Michael’s descent into . . . well, madness.

It started off promising. The beginning showed the Jackson 5 practicing their music and dancing, and the rigors of their lives. It showed the psychological relationships of the characters. But instead of delving deeper and deeper into Michael’s psyche over time, the movie seemed to pull back. As Michael seems to push his family away to pursue a solo career, we see less and less of him—and it feels like we’re being pushed away, too. We go from seeing his insecurities and fears to looking in at Neverland from the outside, just like we always have.

Part of the problem was that this movie was made in 1992, after Michael established a successful solo career, but before he began the descent into . . . well, you know. But as my dad and I discussed how disappointed we were with the movie’s lack of depth or resolution, I realized that sometimes our attempts at deep POV do the same thing to our readers. We leave them watching from the outside when what they really want is to be inside the characters, living and understanding them.

I think part of the challenge with writing deep POV, as Alicia Rasley points out in The Power Of Point Of View, is that many of us see the action of a story in a very cinematic way—as if we were watching a movie (185). In a movie, the camera follows a character, but jumps around between perspectives easily. You can be in the front of the courtroom watching Jack McCoy as he questions the witness, then quick-as-a-flash, you’re in the gallery, watching the witness crack.

While this is a powerful technique, point of view has always been a limitation of film. There has never been and may never be a satisfactory adaptation of Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby, because in those works and in works like them, the experience isn’t just about what we can see happening—it’s about what happens inside the narrators.

Without narration, we can’t see that Gatsby’s smile assumes the best of us, as if he had faith in us. When Robert Redford smiles, it’s attractive, of course, but it’s just a smile—because that assertion, that his smile assumes the best of us, isn’t rooted in empirical fact. It doesn’t come from just what Nick Carraway sees. It’s rooted in Nick’s perception and interpretation of what he sees.

As writers, we can give our readers the connection they want with our characters’ thoughts and feelings. We don’t have to just watch what has played out on the screens of our mind. We are not camera men! We can get into our characters’ heads, show their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, and truly transport our readers so they feel like they’re living the experience with us. This is a strength of the medium—so use it!

But that’s not to say deep POV is always best or even right for our story. Soon we’ll have a guest post on when not to use deep POV!

Photo credits: movie—G & A Scholiers; cameraman: Jannes Glas

Using head words the right way

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Deep POV is popular—almost to the exclusion of any other kind of third-person POV. And as such, there have been a lot of rules promulgated about how to create and maintain deep POV.

But, in case you’re new here, I’m an iconoclast when it comes to arbitrary writing rules. Some of those arbitrary rules that help no one include “never use the character’s name in deep POV,” and “never use ‘head words’ including ‘he thought,’ ‘she assumed,’ or ‘he realized.'” Although head words can often distance our readers from our writing and should often be avoided, I’m with editor/author Alicia Rasley on this one:

I don’t know how to say it any better than this (and you know it anyway, so this is aimed at those others), but you cannot create deep POV by following a list of rules like “Never use the POV character’s name” or “never have the narrator report that she saw something; just say what she saw.” You can only do a good job with deep POV if you know your character so well you know how she thinks, and she will not think the same way another character does, and she might not think the same way in every situation!

Sometimes these verboten head words are actually useful: they can keep from ejecting your readers from the deep POV you’ve worked to hard to establish, and they can add nuances to the character’s thought processes. Both of these are examples of the technique of using detail, then drawing the conclusion.

Nuanced thought processes

Granted, in a lot of amateur writing, there are a lot of gratuitous head words: “His suit looked like a bad ’70s prom tux, Jenny thought to herself.” However, specific head words can add nuance to our characters’ thought processes—they can show how our characters came to their conclusions, rather than just . . . well, jumping to conclusions.

Would these sentences convey the same thing without the head words (and yeah, I’m being a little tricky in using a so-called “head word” as the main verb here, but whatever)?

  • She could never understand him.
  • She realized she could never understand him.
  • She thought she could never understand him.
  • She knew she could never understand him. (And is that different from “She just knew she could never understand him.”?)
  • She could never understand him, she reminded herself.
  • She decided she could never understand him.

Each of those head words adds something to the meaning, showing us how this character came to that knowledge—it’s something new, or something she should have learned by now, or something she’s trying to convince herself of. That’s an important role for head words—unless we just want our characters to have constant epiphanies.

Reading other characters’ minds to not eject readers

Another example of using detail and then showing the conclusion is how we show other character’s emotions and even movements through the eyes of our characters. If we fail to do this, it can frustrate our readers and push them out of our character’s POV.

Now, this is a time to avoid head words (and scaffolding). At the same time, however, we have to be careful to make it clear that we’re not hopping heads. One example of this is in observing other characters’ emotions. If we’re in Timmy’s POV and we just flat out state “Jane felt sad,” (aside from being telling instead of showing), it seems like we’re suddenly in Jane’s POV.

Other characters’ movements can also present this problem. Another example from Alicia Rasley, on the sentence “Joan walked in from the kitchen,” disrupting the deep POV from Tom’s viewpoint [emphasis added]:

Sometimes as I read a passage, I feel ejected, like suddenly I’m not in Tom’s mind, I’m in Joan’s mind, or dangling helplessly in between. When I go back and read to figure out why, it’s often actually a deep POV issue, where the writer has Tom interpreting something from the way Joan speaks or behaves… but because there’s no “Tom thought” in there, it sounds like JOAN.

Okay, let me backtrack. While Tom cannot know what Joan is thinking, he can definitely interpret. This is not weird for the reader, as of course, the reader also cannot read minds but can interpret body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. But of course, Tom might or might not be good at this. He might be really empathic and intuitive and see a twitch of her lips and know she’s lying, or he could be the clueless type who thinks he knows what that lip-twitch means (“Oh, she’s going to sneeze!”) but is wrong. But… the important thing is that if it’s significant, if you want the READER to interpret also, the POV character has to notice and narrate it.

As I said before, this is another example of detail-conclusion. Just like we interpret other people’s emotions from their tone and body language, our characters can note other characters’ expressions and then interpret how they’re feeling. Or maybe they don’t need to interpret at all—maybe leaving it to the readers is even better in some cases.

What do you think? Are there any other uses for “head words”? What makes these uses okay but so many other uses bad?

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; frustrated—John De Boer