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Emotional Depth 4: Deep Point of View

A skill that leads straight into strong, emotive writing is Deep Point Of View. And I mean deep. This is often a very hard skill to conquer, but it’s so effective I felt it needed a whole day’s work. Deep POV is an art, because it’s putting yourself so totally into the character you basically don’t appear (and by this, I mean what is commonly known as “author intrusion”); it’s all the character. What also disappears in deep POV to a great extent is “tags” — the “he said, she thought/ pondered/ wondered” that jerk readers out of the character’s head, reminding them that they are not the hero or heroine — and that’s what we, as writers, don’t want!

What this is, is adding depth of emotion while stuff is happening, not apart from it in patches, which can be boring if it goes on too long — but weaving emotion through the scene right through the action and dialogue. Because, no matter how great or innovative your plot, it won’t get past the full ms stage to that elusive contract — the magical “call”, without that punch, that kick — the true, rich, strong EMOTIONAL PUNCH that deep POV can provide. Deep POV, with all its jam-packed emotion, grabs you with hard-hitting emotional punch! In this way, our writing is never tame. It has the fire and guts and spirit — the life all its own — to succeed in this crazy industry we’re in. So what we need to do is live the story so deeply that emotion will flow. It’s still hard work, but it will be wrung from you like tears during Titanic.

Here we go. The opening to my first book, Her Galahad, is hopefully a good place to start showing you what I mean. I can put the opening lines simply:

Tessa Beller knew he was here. Her golden eyes filled with the old, familiar terror; beneath her raven-black hair, her scalp prickled with the sweat of fear. Cameron, her violent, abusive husband, had found her again, even in this remote Outback town. It was time to run.

Good solid writing. It’s given the reader a few things: setting, what she looks like, she’s on the run from her husband and she doesn’t want to be found. Set up for a romantic suspense? Sure. Showing, not telling? Doubtful, but maybe. But is this deep POV? NO! Could it be done better? Definitely yes! Here is how I really started Her Galahad. This is from line one:

It happened again.

The quiet whisper of chilling menace limped up her spine and entered her flesh with pinprick accuracy, congealing her blood to ice. This primitive instinct, like a savage voodoo curse, always came when she had to run. Run for her life.

The depth of terror that came alive when Cameron was close.

A furtive search of the school grounds, the lane and the road beyond revealed trees, grass, the half-tarred road, softly lowing cows meandering around the paddock opposite the tiny Outback school. A tranquil country scene; nothing to fear.

But she wasn’t paranoid. The pulsing beat of urgency inside her — the need to bolt — never failed. Cameron was here in Lynch Hill, using his cultured angel’s face, the smooth persuasion of his TV evangelist’s voice, the aura of wealth and success to get the information he wanted.

Have you seen this woman?

Like a nightmare in automatic rewind, she could almost smell his spicy lime-coconut scent lingering in the air: the subtle benediction of fear. I’m here, Theresa.

This tells the same story, but weaves in sights, scents and sounds, and Tessa, but from right inside her mind and heart — at least, I hope so! I wanted you to start on Tessa’s journey right from line one. This is deep POV, right inside her mind, where the reader is seeing, feeling, almost smelling her terror. Things like her description, who Cameron is, even her name, are unnecessary right here. You’re in her head, and saying her name, describing her or Cameron is superfluous at this point. Obviously I have to do this soon — and I did — but I wanted the scene set first, right inside her mind, before I got to the details.

I know what I’m saying breaks the “rules” you’ve been told about. You must always name your character immediately. You must describe them. Explain who is who. Well, no editor who’s read this book has touched the start at all (and there’s been 3 so far — 4 including the St Martin’s Press editor). So rules can be bent. Especially when you use deep POV. I mean, when you’re thinking hard or scared, do you think, “I’m Lisa Chaplin and I thought, I have to bolt, because my husband is violent and abusive. Oh, but hang on, I’ll just check the mirror first, toss my shoulder-length brown hair and flash my blue-grey eyes”? No! It’s Run! That one word is deep, deep POV — and it works. Like help me or I’m going to die. Strong, emotive words, stronger for their very simplicity — and need no explanation. (A common mistake we all make: “Run!” she cried, trembling all over, etc. Is that any more powerful than, “Run!”?)

To do deep POV right, there are certain things we’re all fond of that have to be left behind, and that’s tags. Tags — “he said, she screamed/whispered/wondered/thought/cried” are what I call necessary evils — things that are occasionally needed, but jerk readers out of the story. Sometimes they must be used for clarity, and I do use them; but rarely when I’m in deep POV. This works equally for comedy as suspense or straight romance — any genre — and it also does one other wonderful thing for us: it automatically cuts down on adverbs. Deep POV involves using signature actions to identify characters, using only one person’s thought, but never saying “he thought”. Weaving emotion right through dialogue and action is the key to this emotional punch. The only way to show this, again, is to give a working example — and if this doesn’t work, someone please tell me!

Here’s the start of chapter two of Her Galahad, when my hero and heroine meet again for the first time in six years (yes, I broke that “they must meet within the first five pages” rule too, by putting both of them in chapter one, seeing each other — he knows who she is, but she doesn’t — as you are about to see):

He staggered back under the twin impact of her body crashing against him and the bag she carried thumping into his gut. The echoes of her first scream still rang in his ears; her second, riding on its wave, hit a new note in piercing pitch.

“Be quiet! I won’t hurt you.” He grabbed her shoulders to steady them both. “Where’s your car?”

She blinked and stared at him; her shrill cry stopped with shocking suddenness. Laughter replaced it, a wild sound of disbelief — but even the cynical twisting of her lips lit her exotic face with all its crooked charm. “You’re really something, aren’t you. ‘Hi, Tessa. Long time, no see. Where’s your car?'”

He grabbed her arm, pulling her with him through the door to the verandah. “Where is it? We’ve got to get out of here!”

The laughter snapped off as a shuttered light. “It was you — outside the school today. I thought — I thought — it can’t be him! Then you left — and — but you must have known it was me — “

He pulled her off the verandah and down the stairs, around the faded English gardens to the barn-like garage at the back of the house. “We can talk about it on the road. Just run!”

With the sudden fury of a lioness she lashed out, struggling to break free of him. One fist found its mark, attacking arms and chest already battered; her nails clawed at cuts still open and bleeding. “Get away from me! Don’t touch me!”

He grabbed her wrists, trying to hold her writhing body still. “Have you gone nuts? Beller — s after us! We’ve got to get out of here now!”

She stilled, panting; then she jerked out of his hold, her face blanched, her eyes glassy. “I thought you were dead!”

He rocked back on his feet. “What?”

“You — they said you were dead — ” she whispered.

He blinked and frowned, reasserting mental control. Of course they did. Damn fool he’d been to not think of it before!

Did that mean Tessa had never —

He shook himself. “Well, you can see I’m not. Now that’s established, which car is yours so we can get out of here?” He reined in the fierce desire to shake her — he had to get her trust, and bloody fast. “Every second counts. Get in your car!”

She broke away, bolting to a beat-up brown van. “Thank God, a four-wheel-drive.” He threw himself onto the passenger seat. “We’ll need to go over some rough roads to — “

She leveled a small gun in his face. “Shut up.”

He shut up. Yeah, she’d changed all right.

In all this, I use one tag only, and then to show the depth of her shock. I could have used several “he thought”s or “he was confused”s etc, but why? Why tell the reader something they already know, when it’s so clear that these are his thoughts? This is deep in Jirrah, my hero’s, point of view, and when you are deep into someone’s POV, how someone says something (angrily, shouted, growled etc) isn’t as strong as what we see (he rocked back on his feet; she levelled a small gun in his face). It’s what accompanies it that tells us how they’re feeling — the attendant body language — that we see, and take in, and gauge others on. This gives emotion at exactly the same time as action and dialogue, sights, scents and sounds — we’re seeing/feeling what they see/feel — characterization complete!

In my final version I’ve added subtle touches, like an artist’s paintbrush, to make this scene live. Time of day, the sights, sounds, scent, action and reaction — and I’ve gone right inside her mind for her emotions, not just told the reader how she felt. I gave part of her past without delving into a long, involved flashback, and I’ve set up a whole new avenue for a storyline. What secret is in her past? I don’t know yet, but I do want to find out what act has ruined her life — don’t you? I want to know if this guy’s the hero, and what he expected to be next in line for, or whether the real hero’s about to come on in and save her, or she’ll kick some ass herself!

To me, this is emotional depth: showing, not telling, raising emotional responses and questions in the readers’ minds. I have answered the questions I need to, and hopefully opened the way for more questions, leading the reader on to find out what has happened to this girl. Instead of just one act, you create a world within a world, a scene with a life all its own, with its own tension and emotion, and giving depth to a heroine who is really performing an act that is seen as outdated. A paragraph that could just be a lazy “filler” for quick drama now becomes an island, with a bridge for the emotional roller coaster to continue.

How did I do this in my books?

This would be an excellent question to answer. Have you ever seen an actor giving an interview about their character, and kind of jeered at them for talking as if the character was real? I know I have! Yet that’s what I am now telling you to do. Interviewing your character is helpful; being your character is even better! Role-playing is a fantastic method to give real, true emotional depth to your characters. I do this all the time. I become the hero, or the heroine. I create soundtracks and signature oil-scents for my book, so that I feel I am in their world. I close my eyes and put myself right into the world where they are. I try lines for specific scenes, and feel the emotion.

I’ll try on a scene for the book I’m doing now. I’ll burn rose and lavender, or an ocean scent I have, play “How Can I Not Love You” (Anna and the King) or “The Lover After Me” (Savage Garden), or “Still” (Macy Gray), absorb, imbibe the lyrics. I close my eyes and sway, sing, willing myself to be the character I need to be. Then I take myself in my mind to the Mediterranean island, to a yacht on the sea, where my heroine has to bluntly tell her scarred, damaged hero that she’s in pain with wanting him. She’s risking emotional suicide here, because she truly believes that Tal, my hero, loves her as his best friend, without sexuality and he’s broken her heart before. So I become Mary-Anne, insecure former fat girl who lost him ten years ago to the town beauty. I’m looking up at Tal; I see his face before me — and I say the lines that come to me. And I don’t block a word, no matter how silly they sound. I want to make it real, so I have to feel the emotion and write the response.

I imagine I am the heroine — that it’s me risking pride and heart to get what I must have. How humiliating would it be for me — for any woman — to have to tell a man how much she wants him, sure he’s going to say no, that she’s his old friend and nothing more? She’s risking it all, in an honesty so painfully deep, it’s killing her — and that gives me the depth of emotion she must be feeling. And though that line may be deleted for something better later, the intended emotion comes through. The role-play has worked for me once more. And never forget the emotional input of sights, scents and sounds as he/she feels. It enriches the tapestry and gives the reader a totally sensory as well as an emotional experience — the complete journey. Help your reader to walk right into your world, and snuggle right up!


How about one of you suggests a simple paragraph, and we’ll work together to see how much deeper we can go? We can role-play, think of the scene, the appropriate scents and music — and then we can re-write the paragraph together, with compelling emotional depth.


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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