Hearing “go deeper” from crit partners and editors? Here are my 4 favorite tricks for digging deeper emotionally into a scene.
Deep point of view is a powerful writing technique, but it’s a strategy and like any technique or strategy you need to know what effect you want to create so you understand where and when to break the rules. What you have to decide for yourself (once you know the “rules”) is where and when you’re going to employ or break those rules in any given scene to create a specific effect for readers. There does need to be consistency, but there’s a lot of flexibility here.
Deep point of view applied too rigidly causes writing on the nose, navel gazing, slow pacing, and other problems.
In my Method Acting for Writers Masterclass (and moreso in my Deep Dive Author Club Membership) I help point out places where the writer could “go deeper” with their writing. It’s been my observation that these writers instinctively know what the scene needed, but hold back because they fear being melodramatic or of baring too much of themselves emotionally. Step into the uncomfortable and messy bits!
My students are always asking me how I know where to take the writing deeper. Part of it is simply having some emotional distance from the story. It’s easier to pick it out in a story I haven’t written lol. That aside, here are some things I look for when critiquing student work to help them go deeper.
What does your character want RIGHT NOW?
This is easy to miss and can absolutely swing a scene from blah to bang! Identify what your character desperately needs in the scene you’re working on. What they want will prioritize and filter everything they see, what they think, and how they interpret the body language of others.
A teenage boy gets home from school at 4PM and hasn’t had lunch yet. He’ll blow into the house and not notice if the walls have been painted or if anyone else is home, his goal is to get to the fridge to see what he can eat. He’ll notice if there are grocery bags on the counter. His nose will be attuned to any cooking smells. He opens the fridge and immediately searches the space where he last saw a leftover slice of pizza.
A husband returns home to his wife after a late-night meetup with his lover. What his wife notices or takes in will be a reflection of her priorities, experiences, etc. If she’s neck-deep in work, maybe she’ll give him a kiss on the cheek and apologize that she’ll be up late again. She won’t notice the lipstick on his collar or the perfume on his shirt.
If she’s spent the day wrangling preschoolers and is exhausted and feeling frumpy, she might just sag with relief when he says he’s going for a shower and then bed after being out late because please-don’t-want-sex-tonight. She’ll overlook the red flags, maybe even justify or dismiss clues because she trusts him and her priority at that moment is some peace and quiet.
In either situation, she’s not stupid for missing the clues and it isn’t that she hasn’t registered or taken in the red flags, but her conclusions are filtered through her priorities. It’s human nature to miss what you’re not looking for. If she was suspicious, or less distracted, or angry that he was late, she’d put more importance on or be more attuned to his body language or behavior.
Identify what your character wants in any scene and filter all the details they notice, even the words they use to describe what they notice, through that focus or priority.
Create An Emotional Arc With Every Scene
Identify the emotion your character feels at the beginning of a scene. Each scene has an emotional beginning, middle and end. With plot, you want to structure your scenes in such a way that the character begins with a goal (that is the next step to solving their story goal) and by the end of the scene either they’ve gotten what they wanted but no longer want it, or they fail to get what they want. The emotional arc works the same way. The failure in the scene should be reflected in the emotional arc for the character as well.
Each failure should have an emotional consequence.
This arc doesn’t need to be dramatic or life-altering. It’s a slow change over time. You want to surprise your readers with the emotional arc when possible. Whatever emotion the character started the scene with, make sure they feel an opposite or conflicting emotion at the end of the chapter. It doesn’t have to be blatant like love and indifference. Don’t fulfil your character’s expectations. If the character goes into a scene happy but knows they’ll be betrayed by the end, there’s no surprise for the reader. The reader already knows what’s going to happen because the character does. Go back to the beginning of the scene and change up the emotional starting point.
Think of the second book in the Narnia series Prince Caspian. The Pevensies are transported back to Narnia and they have expected to be elated and overjoyed to have returned to what feels familiar, but instead, they arrive and are confused. That expected elation and joy feels a bit flat when they realize they haven’t returned to the Narnia they left.
Avoid Cliches With Metaphors And Similes
Cliches are boring for readers, they know what’s coming. Sometimes you can make that work for you, sometimes it undermines your story. So, how do you avoid clichés with your characters? First, make sure the character is telling the story – you’re not. In deep point of view, the goal is for the writer to disappear as much as possible so that the reader is living out the story WITH the main character.
Strap a Go-pro to your character and write what they see, pause at, are surprised by – as they work their way through the story. When you can do that, the next step is to infuse your character’s internal and spoken dialogue with phrases and comparisons that are unique. This is the easiest way to avoid cliché (because sometimes we write clichés and don’t even realize it).
To describe someone who’s angry, a farmer might say they’re mad as a hornet in a Coke can. A businessman might describe a meeting was as much fun as the middle seat on an international flight. What’s common to that character based on their experience and background? Choose comparisons that hint at where they’ve come from, or what’s important to them, when thinking or speaking.
Find The Key Emotional Point In Every Chapter
Your POV character is solving a problem – that’s your story. Every chapter/scene is the POV character’s plan (the next step they’ve come up with) on how to resolve or solve this problem they have. Obviously, they can’t solve their story problem in the first chapter, and there have to be obstacles between the character and whatever goal they have in.
In each scene, look at the goal the character has for that scene. List three or five possible emotions your character could be feeling. Stretch yourself here. Get curious. Why would they feel each of those emotions? What are the consequences of those emotions? What would be the personal fallout of each of those emotions? What kind of person do they think would feel that way? What judgement do they make about themselves based on how they feel about what they’re doing?
Whichever one you pick, make that emotion unique to that character in that moment.
There are many shades of fear, right. Why would that character be afraid in that moment? A character afraid of losing their job will feel differently than a character afraid of losing face by approaching a pretty girl. Answer the WHY for readers so they understand (and can empathize with and cheer for) your character’s motivations.
Been told you should learn Deep Point Of View? Had an editor or critique partner tell you to “go deeper” with the emotions in your fiction? Looking for a community of writers seeking to create emotional connections with readers? Check out the Free Resource Hub and then join the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group.
M. C. Syben says
Thank you for this enlightening article. I’ve written in first person. But trying to write in third person with a deep POV is hell. I’m practicing by writing my last book over in third person with deep pov. But I keep switching to first person.
And what about italics for thoughts? I hear they’ve gone the way of the dodo bird too?
Are there any workbooks with exercises that you can recommend. Thanks, Claire
This is really, really helpful. Thank you!!
Lisa Hall-Wilson says