November 9 post: Deep POV is shallow (and harming fantastic fiction)

I don’t feel like writing a story today so I’ll make a post on writing. This post will pull together different issues I have hinted or referenced in other posts, focusing on what I believe has become a serious problem in fiction literature, especially what is known as ‘genre writing’: the death of the narrator. I blame what is known as Deep Point of View, although perhaps a new term would be needed for what I will talk about, perhaps Character-Only Narrative, but Deep POV will have to do because nobody would know what I’m talking about if I start talking about CON.

With that said, Deep Point of View, and why it’s making many genres of literature unreadable. For those that don’t know what Deep POV is, what it has become, well, it’s everywhere. It’s the standard in genre fiction, what editors apparently want, and in what most writers write even if they are not aware of it. It’s also a fad, and like all fads, it gets omnipresent, misused, annoying, and when you first really notice, then you see it everywhere. I mention that because someone may think I’m setting up a strawman and that the “true” Deep POV isn’t all I’m going to say. Perhaps, maybe it was something different years ago, but it’s certainly something else now — and something I believe needs to die.

I’ll use this definition from theeditorsblog.net

Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal. The third-person subjective shows story through the eyes of one or more characters—one at a time, no head-hopping please. Deep POV goes beyond that to take readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

The author adds:

Deep POV allows writers to do away with he thought, he felt, he wondered, he saw, all those phrases that intrude into the fiction, that unnecessarily encumber story:

A few examples of simple sentences to show the contrast—

Third-person—

He was lost, Thomas thought. Lost and certain someone followed him.

Third-person deep POV—

He was lost. Lost and certain someone followed him.

Now, if Deep POV were just that, it wouldn’t deserve a post, but I believe it’s not just that, that it has some ugly unintended consequences, some bad habits of writing that it reinforces by focusing so much on characters.

Deep POV is usually presented as the opposite of “omniscient POV” which is sometimes bemoaned for its alleged “narrative distance” or its “head-hopping” quality. That’s not true.

What an “omnipresent” third-person narration does is to create another character, the narrator, who has access to information the other characters don’t. This information is not necessarily limited by time or space, and he’s not bound by what the characters are doing or thinking, although it may be implied that the narrator closely follows the thought patterns of one of the characters. This brings me to the first problem or mistake about Deep POV: It’s not true that removing “he thought, he saw” etc. is a unique quality of Deep POV; it’s a characteristic of good writing. Removing superfluous tags is just good technique, and omniscient can do that too.

For the same reasons, I don’t see why it’s a unique quality of Deep POV to let “readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.” That’s more a matter of good writing, honestly, and there’s no reason a more distant narrator couldn’t do that either.

So what defines Deep POV aside from the promise (that is, the effect, but not how to get there) that it gives you superior descriptions of the characters feelings and experiences? Nothing, apparently. I believe that what defines it is something that doesn’t appear in any of its definitions, it’s something that is implied but not acknowledged, an unintended consequence: killing the narrator as an independent character and observers. In other words, no text will be written unless it’s perceived or processed through some character’s (deepish or not) POV. I don’t believe deepness is really the point here; it’s that the narrator disappears as an independent character.

If the expression “narrator as a character” seems strange to you, that probably proves my point about how mainstream this way of writing has become. A non-deep narrator or an “omniscient” (I’m not sure if there’s a difference) is an extra observer, even as an extra character — sometimes they even have a personality, certain quirks or sense of humor. They are not recording machines attached to someone’s shoulder, which is what most novels I read seem to be now.

The traditional narrator is allowed, if he wants, to stop the flow of the narration and, like any storyteller, explain something about what is happening, something the other characters may not know. The Deep POV can’t do that because it is imprisoned by the linear and present-bound thoughts and behaviors of the character he is obliged to follow. Imagine this text:

“Sir Clovis went into the dark forest, where demons had arisen and thrived even before his race had discovered the art of writing, before his ancestors had learned to build mud houses, before his God had descended to the world to drive the Darkness away — a Darkness that, unknow to him, still lingered in the center of that forest.”

You see what I did there? Sir Clovis doesn’t know any of that, he isn’t seeing any of that, that’s the narrator talking to you, the reader. He knows things nobody else knows and chooses, as his narrator privilege allows him, to tell them to you, the reader. Now, how would you write that in Deep POV? You simply can’t, or it would be extremely convoluted (and way longer.)

And that’s what “omniscient” narrator really means. It’s not head-hopping, it’s that the narrator is another “character,” but one who can go back and forth in time, dumping information that the protagonists may not know or that it would be very awkward for them to state out loud (like the very common dialogue “as you well know, my friend, [followed by an infodump]”) It allows you to state things about the world in a definite manner, something really important when writing fantastic stories that happen either in some imaginary world or in the far future.

The “omniscient” narrator isn’t distant either, or it doesn’t have to be. Its use actually acknowledges the reader. An omniscient narrator is like a storyteller, and if the storyteller feels his audience isn’t following the story, he steps back for a moment and explains something that may help the reader understand it. Sometimes, for a good story to have an effect, it’s necessary for the readers to know things that none of the characters know. But according to the Character-Only Narration that seems to rule nowadays, everything has to go through some character, and if a new piece of information needs to be said, you start a new chapter, with a new character, and make them talk about it.

The post I quoted earlier also states that “Using deep POV rather than traditional third-person subjective can cut the word count and keep the intensity high.” The first is definitely not true and I have serious doubts about the later.

It’s not true that Deep POV reduces wordcount for the reasons I have already stated. For every tag you remove, you then have to add lines and lines of awkward dialogue or out-of-the-blue characters whose only purpose is to expose something that, quite simply, a freer narrator could have simply stated outright. This is pretty much the universal pattern in, I’d say, 90% of the fiction I try to read these days:

1. The story starts in the middle of some action-packed scene or dialogue. I have no idea who these people are or what is at stake, but someone once told you need to “hook” the readers so apparently writing a simple introductory paragraph is an anathema nowadays.

2. At this point, I usually close the book because I’m bored.

3. If I manage to plow through whatever is going on in the first two pages, what ALWAYS comes next is that the action slows down, as characters start talking or some other character is introduced or the (deep) point of view shifts to someone else… with the only goal of explaining what those people were doing in the first place anyway. This is for example how The Last Threshold, one of the bestselling books set in the Forgotten Realms, about the drow Drizzt, starts:

“You cannot presume that this creature is natural, in any sense of the word,” the dark-skinned Shadovar woman known as the Shifter told the old graybear. “She is perversion incarnate.”

The old druid Erlindir shuffled his sandal-clad feet and gave a great ‘harrumph!’

“Incarnate, I tell you.” The Shifter tapped her finger against the old druid’s temple and ran it delicately down under his eye and across his cheek to touch his crooked nose.

“So, you’re really in front of me this time,” Erlindir cackled, referring to the fact that when one adressed the Shifter, typically one was actually adressing a projected image, a phantasm, of the most elusive enchantress.

I honestly have no idea what is going on, or who are they talking about, or why should I care. I guess it may be explained later but I don’t have the patience to wait for it. Unfortunately, 90%, if not 100%, of contemporary fantasy and (to a lesser degree) sci-fi start like that.

Now, it could be argued that’s not necessarily a Deep-POV issue, but it does arise from the obsession with Character-only narrations and the banishment of the narrator as a privileged observer. One ironical problem is that Deep POV narrations tend to have outrageously long tags, like “the dark-skinned Shadovar woman know as the Shifter….” or the typical “the man said as he paced around his richly-fitted room in the second floor of the tower overlooking the city of Tarsis [gasps for air]

I believe this happens because the dogma of “you shall show, not tell” combined with single-POV AND with “you must hook the reader with the first line” forces the writer to cram as much information as he can, wherever he can. The writer (Salvatore in the previous examples) could have just started the book with something like: “Near the cursed tower of Whatchamacallit, a dark-skinned woman from the shadowy tribe of the Shadovars, a woman whose dreaded skills had given her the name of The Shifter, met her curious companion, the old, good-natured druid Erlindir.”

Then you start the dialogue or whatever. But that’s not how modern writers are supposed to write, aren’t they? Apparently, it’s not allowed in contemporary fiction to explain anything, to tell anything, to just state things, to help the reader, to state context, to write summaries or guide the reader… you just have to write from one point of view after another, like a camera stuck in someone’s eyeballs, no matter how obvious it is that a narrator with a superior degree of freedom and information would be very useful.

And it’s a recent problem, according to the already quoted post:

Deep POV (point of view) is a fairly new option for writers. It’s only become popular in the last 20-40 years, but it’s made itself strongly known and keenly felt, and now much of current fiction is written using this viewpoint.”

Interesting, because if someone asked me to say when I believe the quality of genre fiction went really down, I probably would have said… in the last 20-40 years. Reading older fiction, I have noticed that, although some of it was quite bad, it was bad in a more tolerable way. Sure, it’s not just an issue of deep-POV, but it doesn’t help that the unspoken rules of contemporary writing state that the narrator has to be imprisoned inside some dude’s head, should have no personal voice, and should never start telling things that none of the present characters know.

Try finding a recent book where the first thing that is mentioned in the first sentence isn’t a character’s name or something the character is doing, seeing, or saying. There seems to be an unspoken, ironclad rule against free narrators. Compare with the first sentence in Don Quixote:

“In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.”

This is the narrator talking, to you, he even adds a quirky phrase (“the name of which I have no desire…”) showing that he has some manner of personality. No character is seeing that there’s one dude in La Mancha who happens to have those things, the narrator just states it. Now, I know that genre fiction is way more character-focused than more literary stuff, but seriously, to any writer who may be reading this, you can let your narrator fly free from time to time.

“But surely, Deep POV must have some good qualities, something it does well!” Eh… perhaps, but there’s little it does that you couldn’t do with a traditional narrator. People seem to forget that omniscient doesn’t mean distant, it means that it can get close or distant at will, according to the needs of the story, so, technically, a traditional third-person narrator can get Deep if he wants.

Deep POV, at least as it is used nowadays, seems to have the limitations of first-person narration but without its virtues. In fact, first-person narrators have more freedom because, if you have ever read any memoir, the narration usually jumps in time. Example: “I joined the Marines when I was twenty, but back then I didn’t yet know of all the events that would later haunt me.” This “back then I didn’t know,” which is common in (good) first-person narrations or in everyday speech, is almost unheard of in Deep-POV narrations, where events and descriptions just pile up linearly, like in an assembly line.

The removal of “he thought, he saw” tags? Meh, that’s something good writing of any kind already does, so whatever. That the narration is closer to the character thoughts and emotions? As I said, I don’t know why you can’t do that with any type of narrator, but in any event, why is it assumed that’s a good thing in the first place? Not all thoughts or points of view are interesting or deserve to be followed, and sometimes the characters really do and think stupid things, and the distant narrator is there to point out or hint at those things.

I have noticed that contemporary character rarely do anything wrong or silly, that they never apologize, or that there is little to no introspection. I wonder if that’s because there’s no room for those things when the narrator is stuck like a camera following the character’s actions, never commenting, rarely stating the context of the actions, what other people know but he does not, never pointing out unintended consequences.

Are you unconvinced? Look at most works of classic literature. They didn’t use Deep POV. Tolkien didn’t use Deep POV when he tells you about Bilbo’s upcoming birthday party. If he had done so, it would have been unreadable. Deep POV always seems to need a character around, so you’d need a character to state who is Bilbo, about his strange longevity, another talking about the upcoming party and how excited everybody is, about the rumors of Bilbo’s wealth, about… Awful, just awful. Seriously, just use an old-fashioned omniscient narrator and write:

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return…”

Boom. Good (and shorter) writing. Then if you want to go Deep POV (whatever that means,) do it. If someone tells you that would have been better if stated from someone’s deep-POV, using dialogue or squeezed in the middle of some action-packed sequence… please, don’t listen to that person’s writing advice.

16 thoughts on “November 9 post: Deep POV is shallow (and harming fantastic fiction)

  1. Good post. I’ve considered the question of the voice of the third person in some depth, and I think it is important to have a mental image of the storyteller and also the audience when writing in the third person. The “audience” I am referring to does not necessarily mean the eventual reader of the published work. Heinlein comes to mind as an author who invokes a mental image of who the story is being told to. Often what the narrator chooses to explain can give a story a particular feel–a phrase like, ” in those days there weren’t any regular Earth-Moon flights” lets the contemporary reader know that this story is being told to someone who is living in a time where space travel is routine.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Really great post. This gives me a lot to think about because I tend to use this deep POV myself.

    The problem is, it *can* be effective. I find it fun because you can use it to set up situations that neither the character nor the reader can know about, but you have to be careful to set it up in a way that doesn’t seem like it popped up out of the blue.

    Anyway, there is much food for thought. I actually just finished a draft of a novella with three main characters that I wrote in the “third person omniscient” sense in that I go between these three characters at will, rewrote it in this “deep POV,” then decided halfway through the rewrite that the deep POV utterly killed the flow of the story so reverted to omniscient.

    I also like your 20-40 year timeline for the prevalence of the deep POV and the declining quality of fiction, as you see it.

    Seriously, thanks for writing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: It’s All About Your Point of View – Amatopia

  4. I recall when I first came across the term “Deep POV” and it was similar to what you quoted in this post about the reasons of why to use it. At the time, I figured it was closer to how I wrote POV most of the time because I preferred third-person to first-person and yet, I wanted to include the depth of sensory data and emotive thought that first-person seemed to hold exclusive.

    As I experimented with focusing more on Deep POV, when I would work with editors/critiques, “head-hopping” got brought up a lot in both instances of when I would shift into narration; of course, it was legitimate critique but always specifically through the frame of Deep POV or Singular Character-centered POV.

    Over the last few years, I’ve worked to eliminate my natural inclinations when it comes to allowing what I see as a dream-like 3rd person “camera” view of a scene/world/characters as the leading narration of a story. As such, I’ve gone more and more toward the side of applying deep POV in an attempt to avoid possible confusion for readers who’ve gotten used to that style of writing… however, I still find places where I like to break the mold – as you mention – because there are times when it is better to simply state information than try to shunt it into the story through awkward dialogue or subtle “showing-not-telling” that can be so subtle it flies right over people’s heads.

    I’d wager that one of the reasons why Deep POV has gotten so popular in modern writing is because it prolongs giving away Twists or Surprises that otherwise could simply be shared ahead of time (except for if the POV character doesn’t know, then the Deep POV is used as a means for the reader also to not know). It also potentially reduces what the writer has to focus on: focusing on just one character’s knowledge and understanding and reactions is simple compared to trying to keep track of multiple characters in the same scene and figure out which reactions/knowledge to share with the readers. In this way, Deep POV does seem shallow as the “depth” is supposed to come from sharing the intimate experiences of a singular character but in doing so, ignores the multitude of other characters around them.

    A narrator, on the other hand, is capable of providing depth in a different way by sharing intimate knowledge of the world itself to deepen the reader’s experience of the story through context and not just character-sensation or dialogue.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points, and you may be right about its use as a tool to hide twists. Although, if I’m being honest, my anger mostly comes from using Deep POV from the very beginning of a story. It infuriates me how many stories start now.

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      1. I think it’s important to match the form of the story with the theme. Some structures work better for some stories. What you’re calling “Deep POV” here is what I think of as an ECU. (Extreme close up). It’s good for stories where you want the reader to intensely relate to a character–Horror and Erotica, for example. Other stories work better with a kind of Wide Angle approach, Comedy, Action, any time you want to keep the action moving.

        I think authors should develop a wide base of storytelling skills and be able to suit the form to the function that the story needs.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Stories beginning in that kind of manner might have more to do with, like you mentioned, the idea of a “hook” or grabbing a reader’s attention.

        My theory is that such ideas came from procedural TV and episodic writing, in which cold opens tried to throw a viewer in without any explanation as to what was going on or why… as a way to stimulate via sensationalist scenes that might get a person to pause in order to figure out what was going on… and thus, everything that comes after the cold-open scene tends to function as explanation for the initial context of the hook’s premise. Given how ubiquitous TV/film has become in the past few decades, with more and more shows making use of this method, it makes sense modern writers would start to use it despite the difference in medium (literature vs. tv/film) as many would be conditioned to expect starting with confusion and then backtracking after the “cold open” to explain everything via character-centered scenes… especially those writers who write in the hope/aim of selling their story for tv/movie adaptation later on.

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  5. I was told by a couple of fellow writers that I needed to start writing in Deep POV. 😦 After reading this, I feel a great deal of relief that Deep POV often harms a novel. Yesterday, I finished reading a traditionally published book (April 2018) that doesn’t use Deep POV and I started reading an older book by Gaiman that also lacks Deep POV. There’s clearly the delicious voice of a narrator telling the story and I started wondering if there was a reason for this. Both of these authors are darlings to their publishers and I wonder if these authors are allowed to do as they see fit (and all for the better) because of their status. ::shrugs:: I don’t know for sure. Anyway, thank you so much for writing this!

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  6. Pingback: November 10 post: “I awake several hours later in a daze” or first-person narrations. – Emperor's Notepad

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  8. Tesh

    This dovetails with another trend that I think is stunting fiction: the omnipresent call for “representation”. No longer is it sufficient to simply have a story about interesting characters in a plausible setting with entertaining events, no, now we need to have any of a series of sociopolitical tribal flags represented in the cast so that the reader can identify with one of them. It’s not about learning from someone else’s experiences in a world we can never experience, it’s about anchoring the fiction to the reader’s worldview and warping it to fit. It’s about shoehorning the reader into the narrative and emoting through the text instead of observing an adventure through someone else’s eyes.

    This “Deep POV” is about character emotions and reactions instead of crafting a fine narrative about another place and unreal occasions. It focuses on an emotional response to events, instead of a comprehensive understanding of the narrative. I believe that readers are losing out in that exchange. Understanding characters can be valuable, but it’s not the only thing to learn in fiction, and if you’re always in the head of a character, you don’t get the time to ruminate about the larger themes and whimsy on offer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that may be a separated trend/issue but I can see how a narrator that clings too much to, let’s say, token characters, may make things worse, by not letting the reader and the narrator breathe free, so to speak. And yes, focusing too much on characters at the expense of context, world, narrator, and so on, combined with quota-based representations… sure it may make things much worse.

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