I’m by no means an expert on the topic, just a noob who’s learned a thing or two from writers much more experienced than I, willing to share their knowledge. These are three little things any writer could use to hone their craft – some so obvious, it’s blinding. Who felt like an idiot after reading her editor’s notes? I did.
This is why I follow senpai’s advice to the letter, and probably why she reckons I’ve levelled up in the writing hierarchy.
Let’s talk about deep point of view (POV). If you’ve never heard this term, you’re in good company. Until my first draft of The Physician’s Apprentice was being edited, I’d never heard it either.
Deep POV is when the reader completely submerges in the character’s viewpoint, and the authorial voice is muted.
In basic terms, it means more showing and less telling. It means revealing facts to the reader only as the character discovers them. It means making the reader experience exactly what the character experiences.
It’s obviously possible to help the reader walk in the character’s skin even in shallow POV, but it would still be ideal to merge the character and reader, right? I don’t want you to hear me telling the story – I want you to live it with the characters.
Three main things come to mind to achieve deep POV: passive voice, filter words and common nouns vs proper nouns. Obviously, more things can be added to the list, but the feedback I’ve received from beta readers – and even editors – changed dramatically when I changed these three things.
In an active voice sentence, the subject is performing an action on the object of the sentence. The girl kisses the boy. The girl, in this case, is the subject. She’s acting – kisses – and the boy is the object receiving the action – the’s the one being kissed. With me? Right.
In a passive sentence, this switches around. The subject is acted upon by the object. (◄ This is a passive voice sentence, BTW 🙂 ) The boy is kissed by the girl. Basically, the object will start the sentence (the boy), a form of ‘to be’ is added in front of the verb (is), the verb itself changes to past participle (kisses to kissed), the word ‘by’ is added after the verb, and the subject ends off the sentence. That’s a mouthful, but you’ll pick it up without having to overthink it.
What do I mean by a form of to be? A word like is, was, being, have been, etc. will lead the verb.
Obviously the passive voice has its place. I’m by no means advocating cutting it out of every instance – each of the rules we’re discussing today can be ignored in certain cases.
Having said that, overusing passive voice tends to bore the reader. There’s no sense of action in a passive sentence, because the subject isn’t doing anything. When the passive voice is overused, it doesn’t feel like the plot is moving, while the active voice is more dynamic and lively.
Take someone with a short temper arguing with a passive aggressive. The passive aggressive person will most likely not be the one causing the action. 🙂 Active and passive voices come down to the same thing.
Additionally, I’ve learned that cutting out the word ‘was’ (or any to be) does wonders for tighter writing, even in instances that aren’t written in the passive voice. Again, not always, but it works for the most part.
Example. Nathan sighed as he was walking into the common room. Cara was sinking into her usual chair at the table, and Pointy and Jerry were seated on either side of her. Jerry was eating his porridge like a pig.
By removing ‘to be’ from the equation and using more descriptive verbs, the scene becomes stronger, and – hopefully – better rooted in Nathan’s viewpoint.
Nathan sighed as he strode into the common room. Cara sank into her usual chair, wedged between Pointy and Jerry. A blob of porridge fell on the table as Jerry stuffed a spoonful into his mouth.
Not perfect, but you get the idea. My personal theory is that repetitions, even the little words we use most, become monotonous. I know certain words are supposed to be ‘invisible’ to the reader, but even those words will become the melody of a familiar lullaby when used too often.
“I love you,” Mark said.
“I love you too,” Laura said.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Mark said.
“Are you asking me to marry you?” Laura said.
“You won’t need to ask when I do,” Mark said.
“You’re so romantic,” Laura said.
“I want to claw my eyes out,” Yolandie said. Said is supposed to be an invisible word, but you see my point.
I think the constant use of any word has the same boring effect as the passive voice. By removing too many instances of ‘to be’, our writing becomes tighter and the reader walks a little more comfortably in the character’s shoes.
This may well be the biggest barrier between readers and characters. The authorial voice is loud in filter words, which means these words/phrases often become major tells, and again, repetitions that bore.
Filter words include see, hear, think, feel, and many others (here’s a list).
But *what are* filter words?
Any word the author uses to explain the character’s senses or feelings, usually preceding an action, description or thought. It’s when I’m telling you what the character experiences instead of showing you.
Example. Cara looked back and saw Nathan coming into the common room. She heard his low sigh and wondered what he sighed about, shaking her head. She felt a splinter stick into her thigh when she sat in her usual chair.
When we remove the filter words, we not only submerge in Cara’s POV, but we streamline the writing. We experience what she experiences as it happens.
Cara glanced over her shoulder. Nathan strode into the common room, sighing under his breath. What’s that about? She shook her head and sat. A pinpoint of pain shot up her thigh – that damn splinter.
IMO, something that accompanies cutting out filter words is using stronger verbs. Instead of saying she heard loud thunder overhead, using a verb to describe the thunder has more of an impact – thunder crashed overhead. In letting the verb do some of the describing, the reader forms a clearer image of what the character is doing/experiencing.
This will also go a long way towards cutting out those pesky -ly modifiers. He walks angrily versus he stomps. You have a pretty distinct image of what stomping looks like, right? Fewer words to paint a clearer picture.
Common Nouns or Proper Nouns
This was one of my biggest issues when I started writing, and it’s something so silly! Using a common noun instead of a proper noun can take you out of deep POV easily, but can also root you in the character’s head. HOW?
When I think about my husband (common noun) I think of him as Jan (proper noun). I don’t think of him as the man (though he totally is 😀 ) or my husband or my daughter’s dad. From my POV, he’s Jan.
Before I know someone’s name (the proper noun) I’ll think of them as *insert common noun here* because it’s my mind’s way of describing someone yet unnamed. But when I know their name, I keep thinking of them by their name. Human, animal or place, this applies to everything.
So. Cara has known Nathan for a long time. Not well, but even as an acquaintance, she won’t think of him as the physician or Magnus’s son, she thinks of him as Nathan. She might talk about him as the physician because that’s the rule in her world, but in her head, he’ll always be Nathan.
The same goes for Sera and her cat, Kida. Sera won’t think of Kida as the cat, the feline, the rat-catcher, or whatever – the cat is always Kida in Sera’s head.
And that’s the point. While writing Cara and Sera, I’m in their heads, which is where I want you to be when you read them.
When Cara keeps referring to people and places she knows by their common nouns, I’m reaching in with my grubby author hand and yanking you out of her POV. It’s like an unmute button for the authorial voice – the opposite of what I was going for. And, as you can tell, this is one of the simplest corrections possible that will tighten your writing A LOT.
That’s all I have for you today. If you have anything to add, please drop me a line.