Learning to write in deep point of view isn’t easy — not for most writers at any rate. It’s so tempting just to tell the reader what’s going on, how the character feels, what the character wants/prioritizes. Instead, if we can stretch ourselves and learn to SHOW instead of tell, immerse the reader in the character’s emotional journey, readers develop an emotional connection readers can’t get enough of. The glue that makes deep pov work, that collects all the threads together into a cohesive narrative — is emotion.
Remember To Add Emotion
Many of the blogs and books on deep point of view give you a list of things NOT to do. Don’t use the author/narrator voice. Don’t use emotion words. Don’t use filter or distance words. But what’s skimmed over, or omitted entirely, is that you then have to add the emotion back into the story through showing. And this is definitely more difficult and will ask far more of you emotionally.
But how do you do that exactly? Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the tools we all have in our writer’s toolbox to show emotion.
The Orchestra Of Silent Communication
Quite a lot of our communication is done through expressions, gestures, posture, tone of voice, cadence of speech, movement — or the lack of it. You knew when your parent’s raised voice meant you were in trouble vs just being called to dinner. We intuit when someone is lying to us, most of the time, through a variety of non-verbal cues.
Learning how to capture non-verbal communication in your fiction is critical to showing emotion.
Show What’s Going On Inside Your Character
In addition to all of the external ways we have to communicate as mentioned above, there are also all of the internal signals that hint at emotion within a character. Internal sense of temperature (hot, cold), heart rate, skin sensitivity (prickles, tingles, itches, etc), aches, feelings of tight or loose muscles, clenching of muscles (jaw, hands, even a bouncing knee or tapping foot) — there’s so many ways to use what’s literally felt internally in the body to show emotion.
Have other characters notice what’s going on internally inside your pov character – is their face flushed, are they fidgeting or struggling to stand still? What does the internal emotion make your pov character DO?
Make Better Use Of Subtext
Subtext is the conversation happening under what’s on the surface. It can be widely understood and blatant like the husband tapping his watch at his wife indicating he’s ready to leave. It can be very subtle — a coworker asking if the earlier offence is forgiven might simply ask the other if they want to go out for coffee or a movie after work (and the “I’m busy” response might have nothing to do with whether they have plans later that day). Subtext is the black belt of writing. I’ve written more about it here.
Subtext only works if the POV character understands what’s really being talked about, otherwise the whole thing goes over the reader’s heads. This works best between characters who have history together, or are very familiar with each other. But don’t discount the super obvious ways we use subtext with strangers – the pleasantries and automatic responses, etc.
Go Big With Dialogue
What a character says, or doesn’t say, gives the reader a lot of hints about how the character feels, without a character having to say, “I’m so mad at you.” What won’t your character let themselves say, or let themselves react outwardly to? Why not? What’s at stake?
How the character says things is very helpful in understanding emotion. Some people get very loud and expressive with big emotions, and others go very quiet. Some people turn to guilt or shame to communicate disappointment, while others are passive-aggressive. Some are chronically optimistic or practice toxic positivity.
How does your character respond when they don’t know how to respond — what makes them feel safe or has given them an escape route in the past?
WHY Is The Key Ingredient To Adding Emotion To Fiction
When adding emotion back into your story after editing for deep POV, it’s really important to be strategic. The emotions in a scene can’t be scattered or have no structure like an abstract painting. What emotion are you hoping the reader understands your character is feeling? Now, drill down into WHY the character is feeling that way.
Adding nuance and specificity to the emotions in every scene, for every pov character, is how you hook readers.
I’m always asked for examples so I’ve got three below with multiple ways to rewrite sentences into deep pov that add emotion after removing the telling.
Example Sentence: He’d trained his whole life for this moment, as many before him had, but never thought to see it with his own eyes.
The sentence breaks deep pov because it uses the narrator/author voice to tell the reader how the character feels. Instead, show how the characters, and why the character feels that way. The other problem with using the narrator/author voice in situations like this, is that it means the writer doesn’t have to do the hard work of answering the why – there’s no specificity and lots of ambiguity. It’s hard to connect with this statement emotionally.
First Rewrite: Tony set the letter down on the table and stared out the window. War. His fingers trembled and he shoved his hands in his pockets. A chill crept through his body, numbing the hot ache kicking up in his chest, and he took a deep breath. Wasn’t supposed to have come to this again, not in his lifetime. He trudged to the bedroom and pulled out the old wooden case. He held the rifle in his hands, the metal cold and hard, the weapon heavier than it had been last time.
In the rewrite, I was hoping to capture the emotions of: fear, regret, powerlessness, reluctance. You can decide how well I did that, but this rewrite includes specificity and removes the ambiguity as to WHY the character feels this way.
Rewrite Two: Tony threw the half-empty mug against the wall, the pottery exploding and sending wet shards and splatters of coffee across the room. This was a bloody contingency plan. A threat that wasn’t ever to be acted upon. The growing ache in his gut spread to his chest and tears welled up in his eyes. His throat clenched tight. The others would be waiting for him. He breathed through the pain and brushed away the wetness on his cheeks with the heel of his hand. He snatched the rifle from its place by the door and grabbed his old hunting jacket from the hook.
In this rewrite, I was hoping to capture the emotions of: failure, fear, anger, determination/resolution. The ambiguity of the first sentence lent itself to various interpretations, and this is an issue because readers will do this on their own. Which leads to confusion and frustration when they guess incorrectly at how the character feels, or simply might report that they couldn’t connect with the character. There’s a lot of emotional power in specificity and particularity.
Example Sentence 2: She heard a noise on the stairs.
This example violates deep pov because it adds a filter word: heard. The reader is already in the character’s head, you don’t need to tell the reader the character heard something. Just show what they heard. And now, take the next step and add emotion — add a WHY behind the emotion.
Rewrite 1: The stairs screamed out a warning, as each boot descended the treads counted down his arrival to her room.
Rewrite 2: The old wood stairs groaned under his weight as he descended to breakfast, but they held fast against the test of time and promised her nothing would change.
Rewrite 3: A small scuffle, the scrape of something plastic on the wood stairs, a long pause. Her heart jumped into her throat and she ran to the staircase. Cody wobbled on the third step, his little hands reaching for balance and she scooped him up.
These rewrites are using some figurative language devices, but giving sounds, objects, memories emotions can stand in for the character’s emotions. Rewrite 1 is trying to capture a sense of dread by having stairs scream and shout a warning. Stairs don’t do either of those things, but the character’s perception of things can add emotion.
Rewrite 2 is trying to show a character who finds comfort in things that stay the same. Showing a character’s priority, or predilection for particular things, can help create an emotional backdrop for readers. Rewrite 3 uses more of the tools outlined at the beginning with actions and internal feelings to show emotion.
Example 3: He watched her hug her father.
Again, the reader is inside the character’s head in deep pov, so you don’t need to tell the reader the character is watching. Just show what they see. But also, by using more distant language, the pov character is observing something objectively. We don’t know how the pov character FEELS about what’s going on – let’s try adding in some emotion.
Rewrite 1: She pulled her hand away from Tony’s. She smiled as her father pulled her into a smothering bear hug, her arms light and loose around his ribs. Tony stared at his boots, his throat tight. When she let him hug her, her back stayed stiff and her arms at her sides.
Rewrite 2: Her fingers stayed laced with Tony’s as her father pulled her into a smothering bear hug. Tony’s shoulders were tense, ready to respond if she squeezed his hand asking for a rescue.
Rewrite 3: She hugged her dad goodbye, waving as Tony pulled away from the curb. His chest filled with warmth at the tears welling up in her eyes. He placed his hand on her thigh and she held his hand and sniffed, fanning her face as if to dispel whatever judgement she placed herself under for showing her emotions. He kissed her hand and squeezed it. If she loved him even half as much as she loved her dad, he’d count himself fortunate.
The rewrites aimed to capture the pov character’s emotions upon witnessing something, give a specific perspective. The character who waffles, who doesn’t have an opinion or who doesn’t care much about anything is hard to relate to or cheer for. Show the WHY behind the emotion, and what the emotion makes the character DO.
Deep POV Masterclass Begins January 9th
The 4 week deep POV masterclass begins on January 9, 2023. Registration opens December 8th, 2022 (watch this link or join the free Facebook group!). The earlier you register, the more time you have to work ahead and make the most of the critiques and feedback built into the course!