Linnea Sinclair on Deep Third Point of View

Today’s guest at my local RWA meeting was Linnea Sinclair.

I have not really written about the RWA meetings. At my chapter, the meetings last four hours and go something like this:

  • Sign in/Mingle
  • Opening Remarks
  • Speaker 1
  • Break
  • Business Meeting
  • Speaker 2 (often the same as Speaker 1)
  • Adjourn

I did not stay for the second half of the meeting. I have certain challenges at home, and I usually decide ahead of time whether I can make the whole meeting, the first half or the second half. I make special arrangements if I want to attend the whole meeting, and this was not one of the meetings that I made special arrangements for.

Anyway, today Linnea Sinclair spoke about Deep Third, or deep third person point-of-view. Linnea gives lots of classes, some online and some in person. You can find her upcoming classes here.

I’ve only recently grasped the concept of Deep Third myself, and I am still very much in need of learning all the little nuances. It’s not really something I learned outright; I had to stumble into it the hard way, finally recognizing the technique in the various books that I was reading. I don’t recall the book that flipped the light switch on for me; I don’t think there was any one book. But I do know that I didn’t realize I had it until I was working on my Christian suspense, A Hollywood Miracle. That project is currently shelved (love the story, need more plot), but I am still using the technique in other stories and learning from it.

To illustrate Deep Third, I’ll share with you a little exercise we did in class. This is two versions of a short scene–one in simple third person, and the other in Deep Third:

Simple Third

Jennifer was surprised–and pleased–to see Mark walk into the coffee shop. She wondered what he was doing here in the middle of the afternoon.

Here’s how I made it into Deep Third:

The cup almost slipped out of her hand when Mark walked into the coffee shop. Jennifer felt the muscles on her face jump into a smile before she could stop it. What was he doing here? Didn’t he have clients scheduled? And what was that in his hand–a tiny black box?

It’s writing in such a way that the reader experiences what the character does.

Here are some of Linnea’s tips:

The reason a reader reads, she said, is to experience tension. Some people disagreed. She explained that you want to experience the tension in a safe way, in your armchair, while under no real threat.

And the job of the writer, she said, is to “manipulate the emotions of the reader.” And “the author must get out of the way, and keep backstory to a minimum.”

I didn’t “get” this technique at all until I wrote an entire novel in first person, and then decided to use third for a subsequent piece. I realized that I missed that first person experience, and I just wanted to write as close to first person as possible. I didn’t know there was a name for it. I was just trying to mimic the experience of first person.

Well, in her presentation, Linnea said that if you already write in first person, you are partway there. I was happy to hear this!

There was a big discussion about head-hopping. Lots of people like it, and they pointed out their favorite writers who employ the technique. Linnea made the argument that head-hopping was a technique that was popular for a while, but now–not so much. Editors are looking for writers who can elevate tension by keeping the point of view on one person and limiting what the reader knows by limiting what that character knows.

And the longer we are inside the head of one character, she said, the greater our emotional involvement in that character is. Therefore, even if you switch points-of-view between scenes and chapters, you are taking the focus away from your character.

It was a great workshop. If you write, this is a worthwhile topic to explore.

Here is an excerpt from a novel I’m working on, where I attempted this technique without even realizing it. It is a time travel historical called East of Yesterday. And yes, I improved it, post-workshop.

A confusion of lights snapped her awake. Bethany pulled herself up from the floor of the carriage and lifted the canvas to peer out back. A swirling mass of red, blue and white lights came to a stop just behind the coach as an ear-shattering blast of sound brought her children awake with cries of terror.

“Mama! What is it?” he daughter asked from the seat beside her.

Bethany had no idea—a bugle, maybe? Just as suddenly, the sound stopped. Her hobbled mules brayed in protest.

“What in the hell?” an unfriendly voice asked. Feet crunched on the hard surface of the highway, and then on gravel. “You in the coach! Get out of there!”

Oh good Lord, she thought. It’s a highwayman.

She grabbed the shotgun.

“Out of the coach, now!”

“Children, stay in the coach,” she said.

“But Mama!”

“Don’t talk back.”

She opened the door and jumped out, swinging the barrel of the shotgun toward the lights. She blinked at it. Was that some sort of white carriage? Or one of those newfangled motorcars?

A man in a dark suit yanked a gun out of his holster.

I’m not sure yet where this scene is going to fit into the story–right now, it’s a prelude. It’s probably clear that Bethany is a time traveler, and she’s come a bit far forward out of her comfort zone.

This scene demanded a very close third person point of view because most of the time, Bethany has no idea what she is looking at. Consider the first paragraph:

A confusion of lights snapped her awake. Bethany pulled herself up from the floor of the carriage and lifted the canvas to peer out back. A swirling mass of red, blue and white lights came to a stop just behind the coach as an ear-shattering blast of sound brought her children awake with cries of terror.

I was trying to think of how to describe police lights in a way that would be recognizable to someone reading it, but in such a way that I didn’t venture outside her point-of-view. I tried to experience her confusion.

Also, I mimicked the passage of time by choosing when to include description. The blast of sound brings her awake, but she can’t even begin to identify it at first. Then, her daughter asks her about it, and she associates it with something she knows. I don’t spend as much time on the bray of the mule, because that’s a sound with which she is familiar.

Again, while the policeman is reacting to the shotgun, she’s trying to identify his car. At this point, I identify the time period that she is from–she knows what a motorcar is. She’s from 1905. A police car would be like a UFO to her.

Feel free to critique. This is still a work-in-progress.

20 Thoughts to “Linnea Sinclair on Deep Third Point of View”

  1. Chicory

    Deep third: I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term before, but I know I’ve encountered it in Gillian Bradshaw’s children’s book, Beyond the North Wind, because when I went to re-read it I had a jolt of shock when the opening was in third. I’d remembered the book as written in first person POV.

    I really like your time-traveler, thinking the police are highwaymen. 🙂 I can see how she’d make that mistake.

  2. Deborah Blake

    Thanks for sharing this–I’m not sure I’d ever heard of this approach called by this specific term, but it gets back to the all-important “showing not telling.”

    And I am jealous that you have a local RWA chapter. The closest one to me is almost two hours away 🙁

  3. Tia Nevitt

    We have some people that come in from all around North Florida (and not so north) and Florida. I drive 45 minutes to get there but 2 hours would be way too much!

  4. Deep third person POV narrows you to character experiences through the five senses, thoughts and feelings, allowing the reader to become deeply involved with the character.
    Head hopping is frequent shifting of POV. Paragraph to paragraph and sometimes sentence to sentence. It’s a sign of a novice writer who is not able to ‘show’ the other characters reactions without getting into their head.
    Being an established author who head hops and a pre published author who does this are two entirely different things. Some people are POV purists and don’t think you should change POV for a whole scene. I don’t mind as long as there is a tiny break. Say the H&H are sitting at a table and you are in her POV. She gets up to check something in the next room and you switch to his POV. The scene continues from his POV.
    I very much agree with the conflict. Not knock-down-drag-out fist fighting, but the internal character conflict and the conflict between characters. Try Deb Dixons Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Or one of the Donald Maass books on writing. He says what sells a book is conflict. As one of the top agents in the country I’d say he know what he’s talking about.

  5. I have heard (well, read) about deep third person, and it’s the way I’ve always tried to write, even before I knew what it was called. I just love the sense of immediacy it gives. Now, I do employ multiple points of view about half the time in my novel-length fiction, but you can still use deep/close first person for all those points of view. Or at least, I do!

    I do think Rita makes an important distinction between multiple points of view and head-hopping. I’ve always thought head-hopping was basically omniscient pov, while only switching pov at distinct scene breaks was multiple pov. Maybe I’m confused about this. And omniscient is definitely difficult to do well for beginners, I believe, especially with an intrusive narrator technique (which I’ve noticed often goes hand in hand with omniscient pov novels).

    Interesting that Linnea Sinclair said publishing folks are looking for one person pov novels (or am I reading that wrong?). A friend of mine keeps getting rejections because her novel has only one pov, and it’s in first person. But I guess different povs are prefered in different genres.

    1. When you use deep third you almost always lapse into omniscient here and there but return to deep third pretty organically. The “intrusive narrator technique” you refer to is Editorial Omnipotent. The author tells you how the character feels, used to feel and how you should be feeling for the character. I don’t care for it. Author intrusion is like saying “Mickey ate his cereal not knowing it was poisoned and he would die soon.”
      Mysteries are almost always written in first person. You can have a 1st POV for more than one character. Most authors have a complete chapter in the different POV’s. Many YA’s are in first.
      Most romance is written in third. That isn’t saying you can’t do first. There are all kinds of variations out there. The key is whatever you do- do it well. It’s important to learn the rules and bend them to suit your style.
      If you are writing romance don’t you want to know how both the H&H feel about each other? Two POV’s. If you write suspense you may want to include the villain’s POV.
      Think you are making a movie. Each of your characters has a vid cam attached to their forehead. You have a view of the story from each character. Which view is going to be the most dramatic? That’s the one you use. Same with writing. Only you write the scene from the POV of the character putting to words all the drama and conflict the vid cam was showing.

  6. Tia Nevitt

    No, she didn’t say they were looking for one person POV novels–sorry if my summary made it seem that way. She thinks you ought to stay in one person’s head per scene, and I agree with her. But she did say that the more POVs you have, the less of a connection the reader will feel to each character. To which I agree when I contemplate books by authors like George R. R. Martin.

    I think that’s why Durham’s Acacia series appeals to me. Even though it is very much written in George R. R. Martin’s sweeping style, he has kept his POV characters to a minimum. And all of them, I love.

    1. See, that’s why I really need to read the Acacia books. I keep hearing about how good they are.

    2. Chicory

      Ah, so deep-third can include several viewpoints -just not at the same time. Thanks for clearing that up for me. 🙂

  7. {thoughtful look} It sounds like deep third person would be tricky to maintain. It would be worth it if the story calls for it, but it would be tricky to keep going. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  8. Tia Nevitt

    Like Rita said above, you don’t try. Use deep third when you want to really get behind the character’s emotions and let the reader experience what the character is experiencing. The more emotionally powerful the scene, the deeper you would go.

    1. Thanks. That does sound a little easier to handle. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  9. Megs

    Just to take issue with one point: head-hopping as a general phenomenon is not the sign of an amateur. It’s an older omniscient technique that the writer of “Dune” used to good effect. I don’t prefer it and it’s fallen out of favor, but if the shift from one POV to another is handled well and oriented properly, it’s certainly okay to use. There’s a bad technique and then there’s bad execution.

    Now, head-hopping as it’s usually DONE, yes, I’d say is amateurish. Because generally it’s done without regard for orienting the character, just willy-nilly. But the more I study the writing rules, the more I learn that first lesson over and over again: “Learn the rules so you know how to break them.”

    1. Tia Nevitt

      That is so true–HOW to break them. Many of my favorite fantasies from the 80s employed head-hopping, but as you stated, they always oriented the user.

      1. How to do something correctly is always the trick. Sometimes I can turn the correct way to write into a process. {SMILE}

        That’s a relief, since the wrong way to write stays a list, and I’m not good a memorizing lists. {BIG GRIN, wink}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  10. Chicory

    Doesn’t omniscient also have a sense of the author commenting on the action, though? Like Dickens comparing fog with Chauncery in the opening of `Bleak House’? I bring this up because when I started writing, I was a notorious head-hopper. I learned to write in first-person as a way of breaking myself of that habit. I love the omniscient viewpoint but there has to be an underlying sense of style.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I LOVED the way T. H. White would talk to the reader. And Karen Lord recently did this with her REDEMPTION IN INDIGO, and it worked quite well. The narrator even makes a brief appearance at the end. And didn’t Rothfuss do this with THE NAME OF THE WIND when he switched to first person? Of the three above examples, two had frames (NAME, REDEMPTION) and White’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING did not. It really was White talking to you. Loved it.

      1. Chicory

        `Johnathan Strange and Doctor Norrel’ is very omniscient which is one of the things I adore about the book. 🙂 But then, I’m in love with the writers of the Victorian Era.

  11. Megs

    Omniscient comes in multiple flavors, but the only thing that makes it omniscient is that the author is not limited by ANY viewpoint.

    This can mean that it’s written from outside of absolutely everybody. This can mean it has an intrusive narrator (or not). This can mean it goes into anybody’s head at any moment. So sometimes yes, sometimes no. Think about the difference of a fairytale that doesn’t get into anybody’s head and then one of those children storybooks with a grandfatherly narrator type voice that tells you everything and a few asides (C.S. Lewis did this in the Chronicles of Narnia, come to think of it). Both are actually omniscient. One is personal with an intrusive narrator. One is distant.

  12. […] Tia Nevitt talks about Linnea Sinclair’s take on “Deep” third-person here. […]

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