Jill Elizabeth Nelson: Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Almost all books on writing will spend at least some time urging the writer to “show not tell”. At the simple level this means to restrict the use of narrative summary passages to explain things to the reader or cover a whole series of events quickly. In a narrative summary the characters are not in action nor are they talking, the author is talking or “telling” what went on. Melville used narrative summary at an almost poetic level with large sections of Moby Dick but the modern novelist should not follow his example without very compelling skill.

Jill Nelson defines deep point of view (POV) as writing that stays entirely within the framework of the character whose POV is currently telling the story. In the following example the POV is a teenage girl who has finally been found by one of the soldiers sent out to look for her.

He kept his face stern to show his anger but he was happy to see her she thought.

This is NOT deep POV. The POV character can only know their own feelings so it takes the author to provide the emotion experienced by the observed character. This is what is known as “narrative distance”, the author is pushing in, breaking the reader’s link with the POV character.  Something like this is deep POV:

His stern face tried to maintain the glare but his eyes crinkled and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Now the reader is seeing what the character is seeing. The reader can interpret body language and facial expressions as well as the writer and in this case the writer is respecting both the reader’s intelligence and allowing them to participate in the character’s life.

The example also illustrates one of Nelson’s key signs of narrative distance which is the phrase “she thought”. A person connected to their own internal monologue never inserts those kind of comments into their stream of consciousness. This applies to other phrases such as: “he thought”, “she felt”, “he wondered”, or “she considered” and quite a number others that you can supply.

Nelson covers a range of typical instances of narrative distance that authors insert often without thinking about it:

  • naming a POV character’s emotion, for example “she was sad”, instead of describing the character’s internal sensations and stream of conscious thoughts
  • using add on prepositional phrases that explain or tell how a character feels
  • using phrases like “she saw”

Nelson’s book provides excellent explanations and lots of examples to help a writer gain skill in using deep POV. I have added to my editing kit a set of 20 words and phrases like “thought”, that I now do word searches on when editing my first draft. If I find these I most often revise them to keep the readers inside the character’s head.

This book can make a very real and very quick difference in a writer’s ability to show rather than tell. It is also available in Kindle format so it is inexpensive and very well written. Get this book.