On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Most Important Error

I've been judging a bunch of entries for a writing contest. On Saturday someone asked me what was the top error I was finding. Even though I'm not finding *errors* per se, only better and worse ways to phrase something, I found this question easy. One hundred percent of the entries I've graded so far do this.

The Question: What do many novel writers do that weakens their writing?
The Answer: Use Objective Point of View (POV).

Let me say first of all that objective POV isn't *wrong,* but with it you lose the strongest aspect of novel writing: enabling the reader to actually become (in their thoughts) one or more of your story characters. I always encourage you to develop deep POV in your story.

How does POV work?

When telling a story you can use several perspectives:

First person: I did this, I saw that.

Third person: Jake did this, Nancy saw that.

With first person, since you're writing from the character's perspective you will hopefully give the reader access to his thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot.

Third person can be further subdivided into:

Objective: what a camera sees. This also, by necessity, is the POV that screenwriters must use.

Omniscient: the author tells the reader things that no one character in the story knows.

Deep or Penetrating POV: gives the reader access to one (and only one) character's thoughts and feelings in addition to the plot. The POV character may change with a scene change.


OBJECTIVE POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The water rippled invitingly, and she turned her head to see an empty chair nearby. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the seat, and then carefully unstrapped her sandals and placed them on top of the towel.

Before she'd left for the pool she had told her neighbor that her husband Ron was on a business trip to Phoenix, so she knew the neighbor would keep an eye out for her to return. She had decided to take her son swimming since Ron wasn't home.

"Mom! Come on in!"

Marissa gasped as she saw her six-year-old son Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

NOTES: this is not completely objective, but is typical for many manuscripts. A few words like "invitingly," "carefully," "wondered," and so forth imply thoughts, but these are descriptive and removed; not the genuine words that someone would say to themselves. Note also the addition of irrelevant detail: orange-and-pink towel, sandals on the chair, and the neighbor keeping an eye on them. This telling usually uses the passive voice: lots of "to be" verbs (was, were, had and so on) and other verbs that are pedestrian (looked, turned, put and so forth). It also has cliches (keep an eye out).


OMNISCIENT POV would sound something like this:

Marissa looked at the pool. The lifeguard on the high chair noticed her dark hair and turquoise bathing suit, and wondered if she was married. Marissa saw him glance at her then shook her head. He was handsome and reminded her of her college boyfriend, but she wasn't attracted. She put her orange-and-pink striped towel on the empty chair next to her.

Six year old Timmy scanned the crowd, and after a moment he saw his mother. He was excited to be going on the high diving board for the first time. "Mom! Come on in!" he called.

Marissa gasped as she saw Timmy on the high diving board. She held her breath as he jumped off.

They didn't know that a stranger was watching them from the other side of the pool.

NOTES: this section gives the thoughts of the lifeguard, Marissa, and Timmy. This is known as head hopping. The section also gives information that neither the lifeguard, Marissa, or Timmy know: a stranger is watching them from the other side of the pool. While omniscient writing was popular in the nineteenth century, it is currently a no-no in the writing world.


DEEP/PENETRATING POV would sound something like this:

The pool looked inviting.

Marissa felt as if she was about to drop from the heat. It wasn't as hot as Phoenix, where Ron was attending his meeting, but on the other hand he was in an air-conditioned hotel.

She dropped her towel on the chair. Where was Timmy? She'd been hoping to go swimming with him.

"Mom!" she heard. Oh my, there he was, on the high diving board. Was he really going to jump?

NOTES: you'll notice that there are fewer outward details, and Marissa's direct thoughts and reactions rather than the author telling what is happening.


I have never found deep POV difficult, but I think many writers do as indicated by how often I run across it. As I mentioned, 100% of my current group of contest manuscripts are written in objective with an occasional head hop. This one technique more than any other, I believe, will elevate your writing to the next level.

Two good books to help with POV are Jill Nelson's Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View, and Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. I hope this is helpful for you.


  1. Good one, Amy.
    I think objective viewpoint can be a powerful story-telling approach, but it is difficult to pull off well. I think that J. D. Salinger with his Franny and Zooey did that really well. I remember being strongly moved, especially by the Franny part.
    But I agree that deep POV is the best way to go, so I downloaded Jill Nelson's book to check out her pointers. I'm within a few months of the actual re-write of my novel, and it could help me sharpen my POV skills. I'm a few weeks from completing a thorough about-6-month analysis of my draft and a heavy re-outlining.

  2. P.S. I have Mr. Card's book, read it a couple years ago. He's really good.

  3. Interestingly enough, my local critique group loathes deep POV. The most common comment I get from them about deep POV is "There are too many authorial intrusions! Look where the narrator said a cold pool is refreshing on a hot day."

    And you point out, "That's not the author saying a cold pool is refreshing on a hot day. That's the character's opinion."

    And inevitably the reply is, "But it's not in italics" or "But it doesn't say 'she thought.'"

  4. Well done, Amy, it's my first time here and I'm enjoying our blog. You make the various POV differences very clear and I agree with you, deep POV is the most effective together with 1st person POV.

    Compared to all the POVs available, the 1st person POV allows you to dig really deep in a character's psyche - you can go all the way and express madness if your MC is mad! But it has its limitations: you see the world exclusively through your MC's eyes, and that can be a problem if things happen elsewhere that you also want to show.

    Which is why deep POV, as a compromise, is what probably works best and allows you greatest flexibility in terms of the plot. But deep POV can be jarring if you're not careful about how you use it - give your readers a break when you move the POV and warn them (usually best done from one chapter to the next rather than within a chapter)!

    One rarely used POV is the "you" form, used by Jennifer Egan in her Goon Squad to great effect, really remarkable, she did a whole chapter using nothing but "you". Quite difficult to handle. But then, the whole book was technical pyrotechnics with the famous chapter written in word powerpoint. Truly an extreme attempt to write in different POVs. For me, even though impressive,that was too much! By then, I had totally disengaged myself from her book...A pity really, because she's a very talented writer.

  5. I would point out that Omni is used in the modern writing world in all romances. It's coming back into fashion in some genres too i.e. scifi. My main problem with POV is that the one you've identified is often labeled the 'correct' POV in writing lists/forums/workshops. That's why you're probably seeing a lot of it. If writers would research POVs and read more outside their genres, they would probably deepen their ability to write in different POVs and up their chances of telling the best version of their story.

    For example, you can use more than one POV technique in a book. You can write some scenes in objective and others in deep, or you can move from a camera opening to a deep one.

    Thanks for breaking this down. I will link this article to my list in the hope that it will help others.

  6. I took a Savvy Authors course with Jill Nelson on Deep POV. It was probably the most valuable course I've taken to date, although I'm still trying to master the technique. I definitely recommend her book. Deep POV will strengthen the reader's connection to your main characters, and isn't that what we all want?

  7. I have read so many opinions, chatted about the myriad of different approaches to POV in my writers group, yet am still locked in a dark closet, looking for the key or ready to kick the door down. The more I "become informed," the murkier grow the waters, until I'm ready to open a car-repair shop. (About which I know even less, and that includes understanding women. No offense)

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      This sounds so frustrating! I'm sorry if I add to your anxiety. I advise you to just keep writing. Try out different POVs. There are many good stories in objective, and deep may be somewhat of my personal preference, although it is so because I've seen its incredible power for drawing the reader in. But no worries, there isn't *wrong* writing, just better and worse. Hang in there and, as Nike says, "Just Do It."

  8. I love Deep POV. I think it's brilliant, as it lets me in to my character's head best. I've only learned the difference between Deep and Omniscient. I wish I'd known about it before.