isa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style, deep point of view (POV), and offers practical tips for writers. She is also the founder of the Deep Dive Author Club which offers a five-week online masterclass on writing in deep POV and an ongoing membership class with critiques and support.
Deep POV is a way of writing your story, where readers are inside the characters’ minds and can feel the emotions through their thoughts and reactions in real time. Lisa says, “Deep POV limits perceived distance between readers and characters. The goal of deep POV is to create an immersive and immediate reading experience. To create this effect, we need to eliminate any words or phrases that remind the reader they’re a spectator or observer who’s outside the story. Deep POV is about making intentional style choices to create that fictive dream.”
Frustrated with the information available in writing craft books on writing deep POV, Lisa spent years learning as much as she could about this technique. Her book, Method Acting for Writers, was the result of her teaching deep POV online for the past few years.
WOW: Thank you for joining me today, Lisa. I love the title of your book, Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers, so before we get into the nitty-gritty of deep POV, I must ask: Are you also an actor?
Lisa: No. Gosh, no.
I worked as a historical interpreter while in university for a summer, and part of the pre-season training was improv work because there were daily dramas and such, as part of the programming. I found those exercises both terrifying and empowering/electrifying. When I started writing fiction seriously, I began making connections about what actors could teach writers, especially in terms of getting into character and motivation. I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole when I discovered Stanislavski.
I think writers should look to other disciplines to enrich their craft. Yes, read. Read everything, but we’re influenced and surrounded by storytelling in a variety of formats—acting, politics, history, music. I love reading how others drill into their craft, what effects they’re trying to create, and what tools they use to do that, and then seeing how I can incorporate those tips that resonate with me into my own process.
WOW: Speaking of writers’ processes, what is it about deep POV that makes it challenging for authors to write well?
Lisa: Part of it is that the technique feels new to many writers. Anyone you know—40+, 30+ even—didn’t grow up reading books written this way, so it’s not intuitive. I think, too, it’s not a beginner’s technique. New writers go to conferences and hear about deep POV and how they have to learn it, but they still haven’t figured out plot or how to create sustained conflict, etc. Deep POV forces you to experience your story world in a specific but narrow way, and many find it constricting when they’re used to a shallower writing style.
WOW: In your book, you discuss how when we label our characters’ feelings for our readers, we are acting as a judge. What are some tips for writers to objectively look at their own work to make sure they are not acting as judges for their readers?
Lisa: I think just doing a search and find function on emotion words is a good place to start. Most of the time, if your POV character is using an emotion word particularly in internal dialogue or the narrative, it’s telling in deep POV (i.e., nervous, anxious, love, hate, angry, wanted, hoped, etc.)
“Deep POV forces you to experience your story world in a specific but narrow way, and many find it constricting when they’re used to a shallower writing style.”
WOW: Given that emotions aren’t simple and straightforward, and readers receive a better experience when a writer uses both primary and secondary emotions, what are your tips for understanding which primary emotions are fueling a character’s secondary emotions?
Lisa: Lots of writers ask this, looking for a list of emotions that neatly fit into one category [primary or secondary] or the other, and I don’t have one. The tendency I’ve observed is to skip right ahead to the secondary emotion, but that leaves readers wondering why the character feels that way.
Many emotions can be either primary or secondary. I ask myself—is this an unthinking, instinct-based emotion? For instance, being afraid of bees because you’re allergic is instinctive (primary)—it’s about survival. Fear of public speaking is usually going to be a secondary emotion because the fear isn’t about survival or instinct but about protecting pride, identity, or social standing. Loving a parent or child—typically, that’s an instinctive, unthinking emotion because it’s about primal attachment. Loving a spouse or significant other? That’s a secondary emotion—it’s the thinking reaction to feeling understood, accepted, supported, encouraged, etc.
This only works if you know your character really well. Being self-aware of your own emotions and understanding how emotions work in general will be a big help. I would add a caution that if you Google primary and secondary emotions on psychology websites, you will get lists. Those are a good starting place. What primary emotions might fuel anger, for instance. Get curious about that. But, in a fiction writing context, the emotions we choose for our characters won’t be so easily defined.
WOW: The way you distinguish between secondary and primary emotions based on your character and their relationships makes a lot of sense. You say in your book that to write effectively in deep POV, you must know the character’s why—not only for the novel but for every scene. How do you know when you’ve drilled down far enough into a character’s why?
Lisa: That’s a really big question. There are whole books written on this topic. I’ve turned to Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story and in particular, Story Genius for help with this.
WOW: Great, I will check those out. Thank you! How can you tell if a character’s why is relevant for the scene you’re writing?
Lisa: Again, I would point to the books I mentioned above. Every scene should be your characters’ next step to solving their story problem, right. That’s how you move the plot ahead. They have a reason for going to that specific location, talking to that specific person, etc. An actor might ask: What’s my motivation in this scene? The why is the fuel behind decisions.
WOW: It seems like when looking for the why, we end up exploring a character’s past. Do you think creating a detailed character history could help write more effective deep POV?
Lisa: I’m not a planner, myself. I don’t really create a detailed personal history for a character, though if that’s your bent and it helps, have at it. My personal style involves a lot of inefficient rewriting, trying to figure this out, unfortunately. I continually strive for an efficient method to sort this out.
I tend to look at what I do know of my character’s past, the big things, and then drill down into how that shaped the character. I look at what their concern was at that time and what solution they came up with to resolve that concern—knowing that those solutions (particularly if they were a child) won’t always be productive or healthy. I get curious about how they think of themselves based on their concern and solution.
I call it talking to the kids at the table (a collection of your character’s younger selves). Our characters must decide whether to let those past events (those kids) hijack their decisions, to ignore or squash the voice with the concern, or (for those with a healthy understanding of their emotions) allow those voices to inform their decisions. There are consequences to squashing those concerns and to allowing those younger selves to take over. We can allow the concern to inform us without necessarily adopting the proposed solution.
WOW: I love that: “Talking to the kids at the table.” Let’s move on to how writers can use setting and description. You mention in your book they can be used to mirror how a character feels. What are some other ways writers can use subtext in deep POV?
Lisa: Subtext is a really powerful tool! My writing improved exponentially when I learned to use this effectively. I love to use subtext to show intimacy, relationships, power imbalance, authority, tension, and conflict. Lots of interpersonal things that can really bring a character and a scene to life. There are so many nonverbal cues in everyday life. Just start paying attention to what’s actually said, and what you understand to be said. You’ll be surprised at how much of communication is done simply through body language, expressions, gestures, and tone of voice.
“I would argue a beat is always better than a tag in deep POV.”
WOW: A big “aha” moment for me when I was reading your book was the idea of using beats instead of dialogue tags (for definitions, see the sidebar below). When is it most effective to use beats instead of tags?
Lisa: I would argue a beat is always better than a tag in deep POV. An effective beat not only attributes speech, but also gives the reader more information about how the character feels, what they want, what they perceive about others. Effective beats can also keep the reader rooted in time and place (setting). Deep POV notoriously adds to word count, so any way you can be more efficient with words is a good thing.
WOW: Yes, efficiency is always a good thing! What are the most common things writers get wrong about deep POV?
Lisa: For beginner authors, learning to identify and avoid author intrusion is difficult because so much that’s acceptable in a shallower writing style ends up being author intrusion in deep POV. These authors often haven’t begun to drill into emotions and subtext and the like.
For intermediate authors, it’s drilling down into the emotions. Learning to distinguish between a primary and secondary emotion and blending them without leaning on author intrusion.
I still struggle with this. We all, at some point, lack the distance required to see the subtler aspects of author intrusion. That’s what an editor is for, right?!
WOW: Yes! Thank goodness for editors! Are there times when it’s better not to use deep POV?
Lisa: Deep POV does not fix story problems. For those still learning about plot, structure, conflict—all deep POV seems to do is confuse them further.
A lot of deep POV is about pacing. Where do you want to slow things down? Where do you need to speed things up? If your whole novel is in deep POV, you might want to strategically use shallower writing styles or telling to capture an out-of-body experience, time slowing down or stopping, create some surprise for readers by pulling back on the camera lens for a moment, or simply moving the story ahead.
If the whole novel isn’t in deep POV, then deep POV becomes a powerful tool for those moments where you’re looking for an emotional gut-punch for readers. Going deep, amid a shallower writing style, forces readers to lean in and can really deliver powerful emotional connections.
“Going deep, amid a shallower writing style, forces readers to lean in and can really deliver powerful emotional connections.”
WOW: Ah, yes—emotional connection—the key that keeps readers reading. What are some of your favorite novels written in deep POV?
Lisa: I haven’t found a lot of novels in the genres I read that completely obey deep POV. Most authors I’ve seen use some aspects of deep POV and ignore others.
I love George R.R. Martin’s storytelling style. It struck me as very intimate and personal (so much so that I had to quit reading Game of Thrones series part way through because after he killed the third character he’d made me love, I just threw the book across the room—but I loved his storytelling style).
But he uses dialogue tags and more telling than would strictly be allowed. K.M. Weiland’s novel, Dreamlander, is written entirely in deep POV, and I really enjoyed that. I read a lot of epic fantasy, and unfortunately, deep POV is not widely used in that genre. I wonder if Tolkien would’ve used deep POV if the technique had been popular in his time? Hmmm...
I’m a big fan of Patricia Briggs—her Alpha and Omega series. I find she uses a lot of deep POV techniques, but again, she cheats deep POV a lot, too. I love Room by Emma Donaghue, The Help by Katherine Stockett. There are a few young adult series where I’ve enjoyed the deep POV—Divergent series, Hunger Games series, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.
What I love about deep POV is that the character can’t lie to the reader. Sure, they can be deceived, but even in the case of an unreliable narrator—you know when they’re unreliable (like in Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook).
You have to make deep POV work for you, not be enslaved to it. Use it strategically to create a specific effect or feeling for characters, and let the reader lean in and infuse their own emotions into it; so, it’s no longer your story but begins to feel like the reader’s story.
WOW: After picking your brain and reading your book, I can certainly see how the techniques used in deep POV can draw the reader in, effectively eliminating the author in the reader/character relationship. Methods like showing instead of telling, incorporating both primary and secondary emotions, using beats with dialogue, and truly understanding your characters can all help to deepen POV.
Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time to answer our questions. I hope readers will check out Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers for even more tips on how they can use deep POV techniques to keep readers wanting more.
The following definitions and examples are direct quotes from Lisa Hall-Wilson’s book, Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers.
A beat is an action or bit of internal dialogue that attributes speech, so it pulls double duty. Beats not only show the reader who’s speaking but also move the story forward.
(Tag) “I like the purple sweater,” Jennifer said. She pulled the hanger off the rack and held it up.
(Beat) Jennifer pulled the purple sweater off the rack and held it up. “I like this one.”
In deep POV, the goal is to remove the author voice entirely if possible. The story must read like it’s coming directly from the POVC [Point of View Character], and the writer becomes invisible. Telling is one way the author’s voice intrudes into the story and creates distance for the reader. There are a few other ways that can be very subtle.
Unbeknownst to Sarah, a monster lurked in the woods behind her house. (If Sarah doesn’t know it, the reader can’t either.)
Jane’s face went scarlet. Had she really just said that out loud? (Jane can’t see her own face so how does she know it’s scarlet? She could feel her face flush or heat up, but she can’t see the color of her own face.)
Ryan couldn’t take his eyes off her in that Stella McCartney gown. (Unless Ryan is a fashion editor or photographer, it’s unlikely that the reason he can’t take his eyes of this girl is because of the label on her dress.)
This is author intrusion. This example works for anything a character labels: car parts, names of flowers or trees, etc. It would be natural for a mechanic to open the hood of a vehicle and know the names of the parts there; but if your character is an accountant who’s never gotten grease on his hands, that’s author intrusion.
Learn more about Lisa’s book by visiting her website: www.lisahallwilson.com
Michelle Cornish is a freelance writer, mom of boys, author/illustrator, and former accountant with a passion for teaching through stories. When she’s not writing, you’ll find Michelle in small-town Canada, cartooning and losing to her kids at Uno! Visit her website at www.michellecornish.com.