First person POV is automatically deep pov, right? NOPE. They are very different, though first person POV stories may use elements of deep pov, there’s a lot more to deep pov than most realize.
I recently did a guest post on why first person pov is not deep pov (at least, not automatically as some assume). But, over and over my students and readers tell me that what they find most helpful is examples.
So, go read that first post and then come back – or read the recap below.
Quick Recap: What Is First Person POV?
First Person POV is a story told from the I, me, we, us perspective, and it relies quite heavily on a narrator voice. In third person POV, that “narrator” becomes the author voice.
The function of this narrator/author voice is to summarize, explain, give details the character wouldn’t know or think about, skim details, skip time, give descriptions of things the character might not notice on their own, recap history or deliver backstory. Particularly in first person POV, the character either directly speaks to the reader (breaks the fourth wall) or assumes the reader is listening in.
In deep POV, every word on the page comes from within the character, and while the reader is a fly on the wall inside the character’s head, the character doesn’t acknowledge, talk to, think of the reader at all. Everything happens in real time. So, there’s no place for the author voice to summarize, explain, skim, describe, skip over time, etc.
Some people find deep POV claustrophobic, too intense, too limiting. Others love the directness, intensity and intimacy of this style of writing. There’s no right or wrong answer.
But First Person Uses Deep POV…
Some have said to me, but first person IS deep POV. There’s no dialogue tags or filter words.
Deep POV is a collection of stylistic choices that aim to immerse the reader in the character’s lived experience of the story. Emotions are the glue that makes deep POV have so much power. So yes, many of the big names writing in first person POV (Margaret Atwood comes to mind) advocate to remove dialogue tags (he said/she said) and use beats, and this is one element of deep POV. Many advocate to remove filter words that add narrative distance, and this is also one element of deep POV.
But there’s SO MUCH MORE to deep POV than these two stylistic choices. And, that narrator/author voice is really the big stickler that differentiates the two.
Filter Words And Summary In First Person POV
I’ve used bold text to show where the author/narrator voice is creeping in.
First Person POV: A heavy pounding on the front door caused my heart to leap into my throat and I fell off the couch where I’d been sleeping. I bellowed at the door. “Who’s there?” Everyone who’d ever bother to visit knew better than to appear before noon. It was only 8am.
There are still filter words here – caused. Words like made, forced, caused add narrative distance. Just show the reaction instead of narrating it. A heavy pounding rattled the front door in its frame. My heart leaped into my throat.
‘Where I’d been sleeping’ is summarizing. Show where they were sleeping. A heavy pounding rattled the front door in its frame. My heart leaped into my throat and I fell off the sofa. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
The last line is an omniscient narrator voice, which not every first person POV would employ, but do you see how it’s summarizing and explaining many WHYS in this scene? Why are they surprised? Why are they annoyed? There’s also some backstory that assumes a reader is listening into the character’s thoughts.
Limited Third Person POV: A heavy pounding on the front door sounded through the house. Sam bolted upright on the sofa and then hit the floor. He got to his feet, his heart pounding in his throat, hands shaking. He never got out of bed before noon. “Who’s there?”
Words like heard, saw, wanted, (sounded is a tricksy workaround that doesn’t work) etc. are more examples of filter words. This adds narrative distance. Show me how this sound affects the character. The “he never got out of bed before noon” is the author voice explaining things to the reader.
Deep POV: A heavy thick-fisted pounding rattled the front door. I bolted upright on the sofa and tipped. My heart leaped into my throat and I hit the floor. The tendrils of the nightmare slipped from my memory like sunlight on fog again. My stomach and chest ache, my hands shaking. I take a deep breath and exhale through my mouth until the ache recedes. I’m home, not back there. Tapped my phone. 8am. A reminder popped up: Plumber. “Who’s there?”
This rewrite aims to remove the author/narrator voice explaining or summarizing what’s going on. I also hoped to give the reader a peek into the WHY behind their reaction without a backstory dump that required explanation or the author voice to interrupt what’s going on.
Using the narrator/author voice isn’t wrong, but if your goal is deep POV you have to remove those because what you want is the lived experience, not a summary of the lived experience. Instead of TELLING a story, have the character simply live out the story in an immersive way?
Ask yourself WHY your character is doing or thinking or deciding things. Ask how the character FEELS using what Psychology Today calls the Orchestra of silent communication: internal physical feelings (heart rate, circulation, etc), external physical feelings (bumping into things, squished toes, etc), emotions, gestures, expressions, movement – all the things. Decide on a few relevant details that will show the impact, mood, setting, etc. of the scene. Be strategic.
Removing The Narrator Voice In First Person POV
First Person POV: The first day we stumbled upon that old cabin in the woods, we knew it would change everything.
All of this is the narrator voice. The voice is talking to the reader directly. Additionally, the narrator is summarizing what’s about to happen from a time in the future. This doesn’t happen in deep POV.
Deep POV: I chased Jake through the woods, the branches pulling and snagging at my shirt, the long grass trying to trip up my feet. I was too fast though. I jumped over a log, and fell, and the ground disappeared. I shrieked. My backside hit ground. Heels dragging furrows ahead of me until I stopped. Sand in my shorts, sand in my mouth. I shook it out of my hair. Jake stood nearby, looking up. I stood, rubbing the sore parts and cursing. My shoes now a size too small with all the sand in them. An old tree, twisted and tangled, stood with its roots crawling across the ground, holding up an ancient cabin. My mouth gaped.
Jake nudged me with his wrist and took off running. “I saw it first!”
Nobody was going to believe what we’d found.
Deep POV explores the in-real-time lived experience, and doesn’t filter it through a narrator voice or the author. Every word on the page comes from the character, from within the character.
The Narrator Voice Drawing Conclusions
First Person POV: I could tell Tom was lying.
Deep POV: I waited, my arms folded over my heart. Tom wouldn’t meet my gaze. He just shuffled his weight from one foot to the other, hands shoved so deep in his pockets his wrists disappeared.
Don’t TELL the reader Tom is lying, SHOW the reader why that POV character thinks Tom is lying. What information have they taken in that gives that character the impression that Tom is lying? That’s the shift that needs to happen in deep POV.
Go Deeper With Emotions And Remove Narrative Distance
First Person POV: Despite everything I’d just said, he was still leaving. But he couldn’t leave. He was breaking my heart.
Deep POV: I cleared my throat and blinked back the tears. My chest gaped open, there was nothing left to say. He jingled his keys in his pocket, staring out the window. “I never knew you felt that way.” He shrugged and reached for the door. “But it doesn’t change anything.”
He shut the door behind him. My knees gave out and a wailing noise filled the room. A vice wrapped around my throat. Tears rushed down my face and down my neck. My whole body an open wound and he’d just poured salt on it.
The first person POV example is the narrator voice summarizing what’s going on, it’s keeping the reader at a safe distance. The narrator concludes for the reader what is going on, where deep POV gives the reader the information they use to reach their conclusion without stating it.
Don’t tell the reader the character’s heart is breaking, show what a broken heart FEELS like to that character in that moment. In real life, we don’t take in a scene and then tell ourselves what we’ve concluded – we don’t narrate our actions to ourselves, we just take the next step and act. Let the reader draw their own conclusions. And this is really really hard when you’re full of doubt about whether the reader “gets it”, but that’s what critique partners and beta readers are for.
Deep POV aims to immerse the reader in the character’s lived experience, as it happens. Emotions, the visceral, unfiltered, vulnerable, messy, and intimate exploration of emotions is what makes deep POV so powerful. I don’t tell the reader the POV character’s heart is broken, I show (tried to show) what a broken heart felt like to THAT character, RIGHT NOW.
A Warning About Editors…
Editors not familiar with deep POV will look at these deep POV examples and say it’s navel-gazing, it’s slowing the plot – that it has to go. Deep POV will add to your word count, and it will slow the pace of your story (in places). They will want you to add in the narrator/author voice in places, summarize and explain “to keep the pace moving”, but that narrow focus of the lens is THE POINT.
This is the mindshift change that happens with deep POV. You need to strategically employ distance and telling in deep POV, like you do with every other POV style, but this is what “go deeper” looks like. Deep POV employs this curiosity of raw emotions, the lived experience of the story with intimate detail, forces t he reader to lean in and participate (think) to know what’s going on, and consequently immerses the reader in that character’s perspective and journey.
Ask prospective editors if they’re familiar with deep POV and ask to see examples of (or links to) work they’ve edited written in deep POV. Look at the examples – are they in deep POV? Look for dialogue tags. The narrator voice. Filter words. The kind of telling that’s allowed with a narrator/author voice, but is avoided in deep POV. Is the story told in real time – no hindsight or looking ahead. Does the character assume there’s a reader listening in? Some people don’t know deep POV is different than limited third person, and different from first person POV.
I’ll be posting on my own blog regularly instead of only guest posting. What aspects of deep pov would you like to see my blog about? Would you like to see me post more examples of other styles put into deep POV?
Al maze says
Hi lisa, whilst i’ve pretty much got deep pov nailed – and yeap i get complaints about characters thoughts slowing down the pace – but every now and again i get told to add in some telling. Is there a time and place that telling is required/needed with deep pov and if so how would it work?
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
Sometimes telling is just expedient where the pace of deep pov isn’t helpful. Sometimes we use telling strategically to show psychic or narrative distance. Have a post or two on it – I’ll have to look up the links.
Marcia Wick says
I’ve been wondering about deep POV in first person, thinking it only worked in 3rd person. Thank you for these examples. Glad you are feeling better – it’s been a long road.
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
Good to be back! 🙂