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?
When might we want to use a shallower POV—and why?
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.
Not Sure of the Best POV Choice?
As with most things writing-related, there’s no one “best” choice for our story’s POV. We need to keep in mind our goals for the story and the experience we want readers to have. The issue is also made even trickier by the fact that we’re not always writing in the POV style that we think we are.
One of the best things we can do to address all those concerns is to learn more about our POV choices, as well as the pros and cons of each style. By being informed, not only will we be able to make better POV choices, but we’ll also make sure any shifts from Deep POV to a shallower POV (or back again) are smooth enough to not cause speedbumps for readers. *smile*
Have you read stories that are primarily Deep POV but include some shallower POV sections? Did the technique work for you (and if not, why not)? Can you think of any other situations where a shallower POV section might make sense for a Deep POV story? Do you have any questions about shallow vs. Deep POV?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.
Excellent analysis of POV and its many guises. I personally like like deep 3rd lightened with a bit of omniscient when some inanimate ‘thing’ is being described – like a chair. Sure, the character will react to that chair, but is that reaction actually important? If they’re just going to sit, a minimalist description is all that’s required. I also like using multiple POV so that the Reader can see more than what’s directly in front of the MC’s nose. Showing the MC from another character’s POV can also be very useful.
Ultimately though, which POV we use, or how many, depends entirely on the story. What works best /for the Reader/? That question guides all my choices.
Raymond Walker says
Mainly good sense, well told in a good article.
Linda Bethea says
Good points. So often we don’t really know what’s going on.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I love this post, Jami, because there absolutely are times when the reader doesn’t want to be pulled in super close to what’s going on. This reminds me of the movie Sleepers, which deals heavily with childhood abuse. When I saw it, I left the theater feeling emotionally drained, and I realized it was because I was brought in too close to the events. Deep POV Isn’t always the best choice, and it’s good for us to know where to draw those lines.
Jami Gold says
Great example, Becca! I think most people have some “trauma triggers” and would feel better about reading stories with those elements if we knew the storytelling wouldn’t force us too close to the trauma. Thanks for sharing!
Ruchama B says
Reading over the original posts and replies, I am reminded of what I learned years ago (l960’s) as a Literature major. I recall that Henry James used a point of view technique described as (if I recall correctly) “central consciousness. That meant that the author and reader had access to the interior thoughts of only one character, and only when called for. The remainder of the narrative was omniscient third person. If my memory is faulty, I welcome correction by anyone whose memory is better or whose education is more recent.
Jami Gold says
Interesting! I’ve heard some of the Harry Potter books described similarly. I think that style of omniscient is sometimes called Contemporary Omniscient or Subjective Omniscient (in that it gives a somewhat subjective–rather than objective–experience when it comes to one specific character).
I think that because 3rd-person POV is a spectrum, our choices can be much broader than what we hear about, just because the spectrum doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes that advice articles tend to focus on. (No fault of the articles(!), as advice is easier to understand if we ignore the edge cases that can add confusion and complications.)
This is why I wanted to mention in the last section about focusing on the reader experience. If the POV we choose gives readers the experience we want them to have, AND we’re consistent with how we use POV (so as to not confuse or take readers out of the story), then we don’t have to worry about how we’d “label” our POV. If it works, it works. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Sieran Lane says
Wow your post came in just in time! I too have felt the pressure to always use deep POV, even when I tried to rebel against it. For the story I just started writing, I deliberately made my POV a little shallower than what I usually do. It’s not omniscient, as there are some things we don’t know, and some characters’ minds we don’t have access to. But it’s not deep POV, either. It’s more like something in between, maybe midway POV?
I do want to do a bit of ominous future telling, and write summaries to skip over boring details that the reader doesn’t need to know. It’s also helpful for me to tell the reader in advance what a character’s name is before they mention it. That way, it’s easier for me to refer to the different characters, as I often have groups of characters. It can get confusing fast if I don’t use names to nail down which person is saying what in this group dialogue! (Since it’s not always realistic for every character in the scene to mention their name or have someone else call them by their name.)
Sometimes I want to share knowledge that a character is too oblivious to see. So being stuck in their deep POV would really hurt the narrative! I love your examples with the villains and unreliable narrators, too. I hadn’t thought of the point about distancing readers from a traumatic experience! I’ll have to pay more attention to that. Thanks for another insightful post that challenges popular advice. 🙂
Jami Gold says
Yes! There is a spectrum between omniscient and deep POV for 3rd-person.
It’s often called “close” or “limited” POV, as it tends to follow a certain character “closely” and/or “limit” the perspective of the story to a specific character(s)–in contrast to most omniscient. However, unlike with deep POV, the lines of narrative, description, etc. can be in an author’s voice, so more objective information can be shared. Filtering words, emotion words, thought tags, etc. are also allowed.
There’s a book called “The Power of Point of View” by Alicia Rasley that I read years ago that really helped me understand the whole spectrum idea, broadening my idea of our POV options. 🙂 (Even better? The majority of the book is not about deep POV.) I think she has it available for free on her website: http://www.aliciarasley.com/index.php/the-power-of-point-of-view-get-your-free-digital-copy-here-its-a-gift-from-alicia-rasley/
Sieran Yung says
Ooh I like “close POV”. It feels intimate without being too overwhelming, lol. Thanks for the book rec too! 😀 Yeah I think I’m winging it too much and would benefit from studying the POVs more intentionally.
P.S. Happy to hear from you again! 🙂 Long time no talk!
Jami Gold says
Yes, between burnout and special projects, I’ve been quieter than usual. Plus, I was in a major 3-car accident this past spring that I’m still trying to recover from, so that certainly didn’t help, but I’m getting there! 🙂
Jami Gold says
For anyone interested in more about deep POV and our POV choices, I have a companion post on my blog today (https://jamigold.com/2022/09/is-deep-pov-always-the-best-choice/) that explores more about the reasons why we might not want to use deep POV for our story.
Angela and Becca, thank you once again for welcoming me to WHW. 🙂
Kay DiBianca says
Excellent article! Our job as authors is to create “the experience we want for our readers.” Understanding how to do that is very hard, and it means going beyond a simple decision on POV. Thank you for this.
Jami Gold says
Yes, between the trends and the push in virtually all POV advice articles to focus on deep POV, writers (especially newer ones) may default to deep POV without thinking through whether that’s actually the best choice for their story. Thanks for chiming in!
So enlightening! Thank you for this post!
Jami Gold says
Thanks, Saraina! I hope this helped your understanding of our POV choices. 🙂
What a wonderful post. Thank you!! All we hear these days is “Deep POV!” So many of us were/are readers first, and we KNOW, inherently, that sometimes the slightly distanced POV you described is better. So much depends upon how the characters and plot are interacting; sometimes more is better, sometimes less. But heartfelt thanks for taking a stand that questions current dictums! (and yes, I checked: either dicta or dictums is accepted:)
Jami Gold says
So glad this resonated with you! And yes, I’m a big believer in figuring out what works for us, our stories, and our goals for both of those. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
Ruchama B says
I am truly grateful for this. I have felt more and more that deep pov has been inhibiting my ability to write what needs to be written in my story. The “hero” of my romance has a goal that my readers are not meant to want him to achieve. Using the deep pov may actually alienate the “target” audience because they will disapprove of him. I had already discovered the delight of writing in third person more distant for the rival who is both part of his mistaken goal and third part of the romance triangle. And, one of the pleasures in reading for me has always been to enjoy the author’s “voice.” as a story teller. I am not a camera! Thank you for clarifying why I have become so frustrated trying to maintain the very fashionable deep point of view even when it feels wrong when I am drafting.
Jami Gold says
Yes, I talk more about the reasons why deep POV may not be the best choice for us in the companion post on my blog (https://jamigold.com/2022/09/is-deep-pov-always-the-best-choice/). But basically, if we remember that in many ways, deep POV is essentially 1st-person POV with different pronouns, we may start to see how deep POV is not going to be right for every story, just as 1st-person POV isn’t right for every story.
Also, as you allude to, the author’s voice doesn’t exist on the page for deep POV. So that alone may prevent you from creating the reader experience you want to provide if you use deep POV.
I’d say to make sure you know what POV you want to use–like a close/limited but not deep POV, perhaps?–and study all you can to make sure you know how to write that POV well. Then ensure any editors you use are on the same page with those goals so they’re not trying to pressure you to change. 🙂
Good luck, and I’m glad I could help you clarify your thoughts and concerns with deep POV!