By Sandy Vaile
I used to think Deep Third-person Point of View (DPOV) was one of those tricky sixth-sense kind of concepts that only the Dalai Lama understood.
Have you ever had feedback that says ‘author intrusion’ or ‘lacks emotional punch’? Have you heard DPOV mentioned in literary circles, but figured it was only for writers of erotic stories? Did you see DPOV fly past at a workshop, but weren’t able to catch hold of it? Then breathe easy, because I’m here to reassure you that DPOV is something already lurking on your pages, you just have to learn to identify and make the most of it.
Deep POV is a relatively recent concept (the last couple of decades), but it is all the rage, particularly in romance literature.
Clearing up any confusion
First up I want to promise that you don’t have to learn a new POV. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to discuss the pros and cons of the different POVs, so I’m going to assume you understand how to write in third person POV, as most romance stories are told.
When you’re writing in the third-person subjective (showing the story through one character at a time), DPOV is simply a way of bringing the reader even closer to your character, which will result in a strong emotional response. And that’s a good thing!
So what is it?
Rather than telling the reader the story, DPOV is a way of moving them closer to the POV character, and using her senses so the reader can experience it through her. Pretend for a moment that you’re watching your POV character ¾ let’s call her Alice ¾ through the lens of a movie camera. Alice is strolling through a lush, tropical garden, reaching out to touch a bright orange Bird of Paradise flower.
Now zoom the camera in so that you are sitting on Alice’s shoulder, where you can better see the textures of the plants and the vivid blue centre of the flower. But you still haven’t reached DPOV.
It’s time to put the camera down and use your magic powers ¾ otherwise known as an imagination ¾ to transport yourself into Alice’s mind. Now you can feel the prickle of the grass under her bare feet, see the waxy texture of the stiff, orange flower, hear the musical lilt of the nearby creek flowing through the gorge, smell the damp moss on the stones, and when she licks her lips, taste the remnants of the chocolate she has been sucking.
Do you see what DPOV has achieved? Rather than watching Alice’s life unfold, you are experiencing it as she does.
Ideally you don’t want readers to notice how cleverly you’ve used the language, because you want them to be so engaged with your character, that they are completely immersed in her thoughts and sensations. The danger of not fully engaging the reader, is that they won’t feel emotionally invested in the story, and are more likely to walk away from it.
Getting into your character’s head
It’s important to know your character intimately, so you will know how she thinks, feels and acts. You can do this by understanding what she thinks and feels, and why, where she came from and where she’s going, and events and persons who have influenced her. The deeper your character development, the more likely you are to be able to experience the world the way your character would.
If each of us entered the same lounge room, we would experience it differently because of the influences of our life experiences, hopes and fears. A seamstress might notice the crooked seam on the curtains, a horse-rider might notice the jodhpurs hung over a chair, a gardener would marvel at the delicate blooms on the window sill, etc.
Remember that your characters are likely to have their own speech patterns, phobias, ideas about social etiquette, etc. All of these things will add layers to your character, but their flaws especially will help readers relate to and sympathise with them.
When to use DPOV
It can feel a bit scary when you first start to explore DPOV, because it almost feels like you’re slipping into first person, but you’re not. You’re still using ‘he’ and ‘she’, but you’re getting rid of the narrator as much as possible, and just leaving the fabulous story and charming characters.
It’s not appropriate to use DPOV all the time, just as you can’t always show instead of tell. There are times when you just need to drive the story forwards, like explaining the relationship between characters, or showing a big-picture scene. But only take that route if you can’t deliver the information another way, like through dialogue or interactions. Once you get used to using DPOV, you’ll be surprised at how it will affect everything you write. One of the huge benefits is making your writing more direct, because you will get rid of superfluous filter words.
As you can imagine, it would be exhausting to feel every emotion your character feels about everything from a cup of tea to the neighbour’s new car, but you can still use DPOV by incorporating your character’s senses. Let your reader see, hear, smell, touch and taste the environment as your character interacts with it.
Let’s talk tactics
DPOV makes your words work harder. Not only are they telling a story, but everyone is chosen carefully to layer in character development, emotions, tone, themes and attitude.
For example, instead of: Bob decided that this dawn signalled a new start for him.
Dig deeper: Bob threw open the door and sucked in a lungful of crisp mountain air. It was the best air he’d ever breathed. No city fumes or skyscrapers blocking the sun, and best of all, no Jenny strangling him with impossible rules and requirements.
So, do you have to use italics when you’re in a character’s head? If the character wants to break from third-person POV and think ‘I did this’, then yes, but the beauty of DPOV is that this is hardly ever necessary, and that helps the story to flow.
Don’t pre-empt actions and feelings, just show them happening.
Instead of: Sally’s skin began to prickle, and she wondered when the snarling dog would attack.
Try: Sally’s skin prickled. The snarling dog stalked closer, muscles bunch, haunches lowered, ready to launch at her.
Steer clear of passive voice, which is telling the reader that something is being done to someone, rather than by your character.
Instead of: Her face was stroked.
Try: He stroked her face.
Drawing on your own experiences and emotions can be helpful to really immerse yourself in the world of your character. The situation your character is in may be different, but you’ll be able to draw on the details you remember of a time, place or event, and the emotions they evoked for you.
[Top Secret: I find “The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a very helpful tool when I run out of different ways to show similar emotional responses.]
Many romance writers alternate between the hero and heroine’s POVs. If you do this, keep in mind that you want to experiencing the story through the character who has the most to lose, or will be most affected at that time. While you are in a character’s head, remember that you can only view the world as he/she genuinely would.
Using a lot of dialogue tags is another reminder that the reader is being told a story. Sure, they are necessary sometimes, but don’t overdo them. Quite often you can use language and movements that the reader associates with that character.
One of the most helpful things I learnt was to banish any distancing words, because they immediately let the reader know they are being told a story, rather than just letting them experience it. They also make your writing less direct, which provides yet another opportunity for your reader to wonder if there is still a piece of cake in the fridge, and put your book down.
Here are some examples of distancing words: saw, watched, thought, wondered, felt, seemed, looked, almost, noticed, realised, decided, heard.
Instead of: Alice felt sad at leaving her sister, Liz, behind.
Try experiencing it through her: Alice blinked furiously to stymie her tears, and waved as Liz raced along the train platform. It was only for a year, and Liz was old enough to fend for herself now. She hoped.
The second example uses DPOV to let the reader experience what Alice’s emotions feel like, with the added bonus of providing more insight into her hopes and fears.
Instead of: Alice heard footsteps behind her and turned to survey the dark alley.
Try: There it was again; a muffled footstep. Alice whirled around and glared into the dark mouth of the alley, heart thumping a staccato beat.
DPOV is all about weaving a character’s senses and emotions through the narrative. By inviting your reader right into the minds and hearts of your characters, you will allow them to experience the characters’ hopes and fears, exhilarating first kisses and heart-wrenching losses. For a little while the reader will be completely immersed in the story, and remember it long after he/she puts the book down.
I hope I have demystified DPOV and made you feel comfortable using it.
I’m Sandy Vaile, and today I’m going to explain why I believe backstory is like a pungent spice, and you should too.
What is backstory?
You’ll read many different definitions on the internet, but for my purposes I like to define it as: Anything that happened to the character before this story started, which provides context to the story.
The important aspect is context. It’s not enough to throw a heap of character history in as filling, no matter how fascinating it may be. It must be relevant to the story. It’s also the base line from which you can show the all important change in your character by the end of the story.
Backstory is a robust yet understated tool. It’s vital to help show what makes a character tick, and yet can totally distract the reader if not finessed into the front story. Backstory is the foundation of realistic reactions to events, and adds layers to make characters three-dimensional, by revealing where personality, morals, hopes and fears originated.
Why a pungent spice?
To me, backstory is like a flavour you can’t quite pick lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting. It’s a vital ingredient that you need to infuse through all the layers of your story, without sacrificing other flavours (like pace or suspense).
I firmly believe that in 90% of situations, it should be added in a quantity befitting a jalapeno chilli that can set your mouth on fire. You don’t need to be able to see chunks of chillies to appreciate the heat. What you need is subtlety of flavour.
The way backstory is delivered can mean the difference between the reader discovering information for herself ¾ like selecting a favourite chocolate from the box menu ¾ or being force-fed it like a boiled Brussels sprout. (Apologies to Brussels sprout lovers.)
Backstory is a part of character development, and should be uncovered in a quantity that relates to the amount of page time a character has. For example, a main character needs much more backstory development and disclosure than a minor character.
I’m sure we all have a friend who loves to talk about themselves, and it takes superhuman willpower not to tune out after a while. Why? Because being told stories isn’t nearly as interesting as experiencing the action first hand.
Hence why you need to thoroughly infuse backstory into your character’s daily life, thoughts and actions. This way, the reader feels as thought they are learning about the character as they take the journey with her, rather than being force fed.
By allowing the reader to discover how past events have affected the character, and feel her inner turmoil as she faces her worst fears, they can better appreciate the changes to her core beliefs. This sort of rapport is priceless. Now that’s a powerful spice!
For some reason, writers tend to forget the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra when they need to squeeze backstory into their front stories. Here are a few ways that you can work that important historical information in.
Instead try something like, Bob picked up a photo from the cupboard. “Don’t tell me; you are the entertainment for kid’s parties.”
Emily laughed. “Close. I was a rodeo clown until dad got sick last year.”
in her chest, the gut-wrenching pain of losing the most important person in her life. It was no wonder Jack had been unable to love the people who were still in his life. Self-preservation was a powerful thing.
Volkswagen Kombi as it rattled past. It reminded her of a happier time, when she was part of
a real family.
On the day of her fourth birthday party, Mya sat on the lounge room floor in a circle with five kindergarten friends, playing pass-the-parcel. Jack tousled her hair and knelt beside her.
“Happy birthday, Mya. I got you a little something.”
The game was momentarily forgotten at the sight of a square box wrapped in iridescent-blue paper. She picked at the sticky tape, carefully peeling and folding it. It was going into her collection of precious things. She lifted a toy yellow VW Beetle from the box. The cutest car she’d ever seen, just like the one she’d fallen in love with on their beach holiday. He’d remembered.
I hope you’ve picked up some helpful tips to help you infuse backstory. If you’d like to learn more about how to use different delivery devices, when to reveal information, and the osmosis method, then jump to the information page for the Treat Backstory Like a Pungent Spice course.
The ultimate course to help you master backstory revelation!