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Embracing the Mystery: Deep POV

Hypothesis: an idea or theory that is not proven but that leads to further study or discussion 


[originally published at Writers in the Storm, January 7, 2022.]

Image by Hoàng Nguyên Lý from Pixabay

My tenuous relationship with Deep POV went like this: 

Q: What's Deep POV?

A: I can't tell you, but I know it when I see it.

This worked well enough—until it didn't.  So I got busy trying to get to the bottom of it.  Nail it down. Carve it in stone. Cement it immovably amid the legendary constancy of the English language. 

I'll wait till you stop laughing.

You can sort of follow the progress of this endeavor by the history of the titles I tried out:

  • A brief definition of Deep POV
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code. Maybe
  • Deep POV: Legend, or Myth? [wait, those are the same thing...]
  • Deep POV: Is it really a thing?

as well as some of the discarded verbiage I left behind along the way (see strikeouts).

Deep POV is all about eliminating reducing managing distance between the reader and the story, and immersing the reader in the story. I knew intuitively how to use Deep POV (see "I know it when I see it," above), but when one of my editing clients needed me to explain it, I realized I didn't have a clear enough understanding of it to define it universally, without resorting to customized examples every time. I wanted something that would travel well from one manuscript to another. Something I wouldn't have to re-create for each author or student I worked with. 

What I found—and didn't find 

The struggle is real: nearly every website I visited had a slightly—or sometimes not so slightly—different definition, and Deep POV has yet to be covered by the likes of The Chicago Manual of Style or

So you can see my dilemma. Someone had to do it. (Oh, the chutzpah.) (In my defense, I had significant prodding from a writer and publisher whose idea this column was in the first place.) 

So, clothed in nothing but sheer, naked hubris, I tackled this slippery eel of a question: What exactly is Deep POV?


This is a work in progress. It speaks to a specific situation—and maybe to others. But I began where my client needed help—sussing out what constitutes Deep POV and how it relates to third-person limited POV, with a specific focus on internal dialogue.

After reading a lot of online definitions of Deep POV, I came to a realization: I was looking at it wrong. I was thinking of Deep POV in terms of internal dialogue alone. 

Math and logic have a baby and name it Literature

The fog began to clear a little after that. Let the record show, hand to God, that I got there using math. (Don't run away yet.) 

I took what I was thinking and turned it into an equation. (And you thought that if you became a writer, you'd never need to use algebra again.) Here was my first hypothesis:

  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV = Deep POV
  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV – Deep POV = Deep POV – Deep POV (Stay with me; we're just keeping both sides of the equation balanced.)
  • ∴ third-person limited POV = 0

Highly illogical. Thank you, Mr. Spock. My hypothesis was disproven. 

So I tried this hypothesis instead:

  • third-person limited + internal dialogue = Deeper POV 

And the lights came on. I'd been crediting a literary device (internal dialogue)  as the sole alchemy that magically turned one point of view into the gold of another, and mentally equating the two—internal dialogue and Deep POV—as essentially one thing. But it was adding the literary device of internal dialogue to an existing point of view that took the reader deeper into experiencing the story. 

So, I had gotten this far in organizing my thoughts, most of which are obvious, but bear with me; I was fighting my way out of the deep underbrush here. I needed visuals. 

  • Third-person limited* is a Point of View (POV).
  • Internal dialogue** is a literary device.
  • Using both in a story creates a deeper variant of third-person limited POV.

What I was actually looking at was the convergence of one point of view with a literary device that made it deeper, thicker, like cornstarch thickens broth and turns it into gravy. 

So far, so good. BUT, for those of you holding your breath or yelling at your computer that I'm just wrong, wrong, WRONG, and I wouldn't blame you at this juncture, here it is:

My hypothesis was much too limited. I needed a new hypothesis—and a fresh perspective.

What if … 

What if, instead of a specific destination you arrive at, a coordinate on a map you can GPS your way to, something you can plot on a graph, Deep POV is something fluid? Something that can move at will, penetrating its environment like a mist? And what if this mist drifts in and out of that environment, morphing through infinite degrees of intensity, from a thin veil to a dense fog? 

This is the new conclusion I came to: Deep POV is an enigma. Fluid and changeable, as hard to grasp as a fistful of fog, and just as hard to measure accurately…but you know it when you feel it. 

There are many varying degrees of Deep POV. 

And you, the author, get to manage them.

Viewpoints and tenses and devices, oh my

I had been looking at only a narrow segment of Deep POV, one that utilizes internal dialogue, taking readers inside your characters' minds to live, as closely as possible, their experience. And it's a powerful device, the rules of which are better left for another day. 

But it's not the only POV or literary device that can bring the reader closer, deeper into the story. Look at this short (and not exhaustive) list of things that can also do that:

  • First person can bring the reader into a story and add or remove distance, depending on what the story needs at any given point. 
  • Present tense can establish an immediacy that brings the reader deeper into the character's experience. 
  • The narrator in third-person limited POV brings a level of closeness as the narrator paraphrases a character's thoughts. 
  • Visceral responses, subtext of varying kinds, body language can all enhance closeness for the reader.

All these things and more create an ambience, a mood, an attitude. I am no longer even sure that Deep POV is best described as a POV. 

I am increasingly convinced that Deep POV is more a state of mind. Multiple devices can bring readers closer to what a character is thinking, feeling, experiencing, and thus bring the reader deeper into the story—at a level that you, the author, can manipulate with increasing skill as you use it. You can bring the reader only as far into the story as you want them to be, at any point in your story, as it serves your purpose. 

Lewis and Clark did not find a rock-solid definition of Deep POV, and neither did I

We humans love our certainties. They give us absolutes we can cling to, boundaries that are well-defined, the perceived comfort of a solid foundation to stand on and know that it won't change or give way. They feel safe.

But life so often isn't like that. The world—and our writing—opens up when we embrace mystery. While some rules—okay, lots of rules (I'm looking at you, Chicago Manual of Style)—are necessary to make writing readable and comprehensible, some things are open to broad interpretation. And we should be delighted to have that freedom, to develop and use our intuition and imagination, and to discover new ways of managing closeness in our work. 

You will find that some things you try won't work. Others will delight you. And yes, there are guidelines for making Deep POV work correctly—but not enough room in this column to go there. The more you work with it, the sharper that skill will become. And your writing will be the better for it.

My final hypothesis? 

When we embrace the mystery that is Deep POV, exploring its depths and testing its limits, we expand our horizons, deepen our writing's dimensions, and create for our readers an adventure worth getting lost in.

You can test this hypothesis every time you write. 

The proof is up to you.

*third-person limited POV: a.k.a. close third POV

**internal dialogue: a.k.a. inner monologue, inner dialogue, inner thought, inner voice, internal discourse, unspoken discourse, internal monologue,  and maybe more. Small wonder grammar sends people screaming out into the night.

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