Until relatively recently, most stories were written with an omniscient point of view (POV), which follows the story and characters from an all-knowing distance. But over the past several decades, storytelling techniques have trended to a closer POV, focusing on one character and their experience at a time. In fact, for many genres, the expectation now is to use Deep POV for third-person stories, relating the story from within the POV character’s head (much like how we’d write first-person stories, just with different pronouns).
With the trends and expectations pushing toward a deeper POV, we might wonder if that means we should never drop out of Deep POV. What if we keep the POV “close” to one character’s experience, but relate some of the story from a shallower perspective that’s not so deep inside their head?
Choosing POV: What’s the Point?
The POV we choose shapes readers’ perspective of the story, story events, and whatever message we’re trying to share. For example, the POV we choose affects a reader’s view of the cause-and-effect flow, narrative momentum, immersion strength, emotions of arcs at the scene level, what characters notice about situations, priorities of various story goals, etc.
So the question of when we should use Deep POV—and when we shouldn’t—comes down to which option will shape readers’ perspective the way we want. Will Deep POV help or hurt our intentions for the reader experience?
Because Deep POV usually creates a sense of immersion and emotional connection between the reader and the character, it’s gotten more popular over the years. However, for some situations, Deep POV won’t deliver the experience we want readers to have.
Deep POV, Immersion, and Emotional Connections
In general, the deeper the POV, the deeper the immersion—the sense that we’re not just reading words on a page but experiencing the story, right down to tandem visceral responses along with the POV character. Yet we also need to keep in mind that anything that takes readers out of the story disrupts that sense of immersion.
With Deep POV, readers also tend to feel a stronger emotional connection to the POV character, as they experience the story as the POV character. The story is told 100% subjectively, as readers learn of only the POV character’s thoughts and emotions, not those of the other characters. Readers are more likely to prioritize the same goals as the POV character and forgive any mistakes, as they have a deep understanding of the character’s secret longings and foibles. Yet sometimes that deep understanding of the POV character isn’t what we want for the story.
Obviously, this experiential style of POV requires a lot of showing rather than telling, in order to bring readers along the character’s journey, step by step. That’s why advice to increase our levels of showing often go hand-in-hand with the advice to use Deep POV, but showing isn’t always best for our storytelling.
If we understand how Deep POV, immersion, emotional connections, and showing are all linked, we can start to predict when Deep POV might not serve the experience we want for our readers.
When Might Deep POV Hurt a Reader’s Experience?
Here are five situations when we might want to use a shallower POV to create a better reader experience:
Situation #1: Avoid Reader Boredom
We’ll start with the most superficial situation: Telling vs. Showing. The advice to show more than tell often makes writers think that showing is better than telling. However, telling isn’t bad or something to be avoided.
For example, we wouldn’t want to use a lot of showing and Deep POV in a scene if the result would be boring, such as when it would be better to skip forward with a transition of time and/or place. Sure, the POV character might need to bring another character up to speed, but if that repeats a bunch of information the reader already knows, readers shouldn’t have to experience that repetition along with the character.
Tip: Briefly switching to a shallower POV to allow for a transition, perhaps with a telling-style summary of what the reader missed, can prevent reader boredom.
Situation #2: Share Future Knowledge with Readers
Most stories are written in “literary past tense”—rather than normal past tense—which means that story events are described as though they’re happening in the story present. However, some stories use normal past tense, which means that the events have already happened within the story itself.
Think of how in some stories, the narrator already knows how everything turns out. They might even interject with lines like: “I didn’t know it yet but…” or “If she’d only known, she would have…”
While many of these stories are told by a narrator sharing a tale from their past with a framing device, some instead simply use the technique of a shallower POV to include those types of lines. The story might briefly shift to a shallower POV to give a preview of events yet to come, as the story’s future already exists due to the use of normal past tense.
Whatever technique we use to include those types of lines, normal past tense adds distance to our storytelling, as those “If she’d only known” lines remind readers that they are reading a story. And unless our character is a fortune-teller, Deep POV doesn’t work for sharing future story knowledge.
Tip: For some stories, the normal past tense and a shallower POV for some lines makes sense if sharing future knowledge with readers is what we intend.
Situation #3: Limit an Emotional Connection to the POV Character
Wait…don’t we want readers emotionally connecting? Yes, but with some stories, we want to encourage readers to emotionally connect with the story itself or with other characters, not with the POV character of a scene.
For example, some stories include scenes from the villain’s perspective. Those scenes are sometimes written in a Deep POV style when the author wants to hide the villain’s identity, but in many other instances, the villain scenes are written in a slightly shallower POV than the rest of the story, as the author doesn’t want to encourage an emotional connection between readers and the villain.
In other stories, perhaps with a large cast of POV characters, it might make sense to encourage readers to connect to the overall story more than to any one character. Or those stories might start and end scenes with shallower POV to help ease the transition from one POV character to another.
Stories with an unreliable narrator might want to avoid readers feeling too betrayed when they learn their connection to the POV character wasn’t as close as they thought. So they might include selected details from a shallower and more objective perspective to give readers subtextual hints of the truth.
Tip: For some situations, we might want to discourage, or at least temporarily lessen, a reader’s emotional connection to a specific POV character by using a shallower POV in certain sections.
Situation #4: Tell the Story Beyond a Character’s Ability
Obviously, there are some stories where Deep POV doesn’t make sense at all, such as when the story we want to tell ranges beyond characters’ knowledge. However, there are some situations where most of the story is in Deep POV, but the POV character temporarily loses their ability to share the story experience with readers.
For example, if we want readers to know that our POV character is experiencing a dream, we might include a few lines with a shallower POV to transition into the dream. We might do something similar if a character is drugged or unconscious (or nearly so).
Or think of a scene where the POV character is emotionally numb, perhaps near catatonic. In that case, we might pull back the POV a bit so readers aren’t stuck in that numb situation with the character and we can give details that force the story’s narrative forward.
Tip: In some situations, we may want the storytelling to still feel like Deep POV, while we bend the “rules” of the technique a bit to move the story forward with a few shallower POV lines or details.
Situation #5: Maintaining Immersion Requires a Shallower POV
Above, I mentioned that Deep POV usually increases a reader’s sense of immersion. However, there are some instances when a Deep POV that creates a strong emotional connection with the POV character would overwhelm readers.
Think of a story where the POV character experiences such intense situations and/or emotions that the reader could feel uncomfortable. For example, extreme grief or sexual assault could make a reader pull back from the immersive experience to protect themselves from mental or emotional trauma.
In other words, some story situations can trigger readers to break immersion themselves. So if we want to maintain immersion, we might choose to use a shallower POV to prevent readers from feeling the need to pull back.
If readers already have the context for what the POV character is going through, the emotional connection can remain with a sense of sympathy, rather than the sense of empathy that a Deep POV might entail. As I’ve posted about before on my blog: The reader’s “flavor” of the emotion can be more powerful, intimate, and immediate than what they would experience if the author tried to tell them “here’s what this emotion feels like.”
Tip: In some situations, readers will feel a stronger emotional connection if we give them room with a shallower POV to experience their own reaction to events, rather than trying to match the reader’s emotional journey to the character’s experience.
by JAMI GOLD
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