Diving Deep Into Third Person Point of View

Have you gotten feedback from readers, agents, or editors telling you they can’t connect with your story? Or that you’re doing too much telling instead of showing? Or maybe they can’t tell what your characters want?

While a variety of problems can lead to this sort of feedback, one thing definitely will–using distant third person for the point of view (POV) instead of deep third. Way back in the olden days, when Jane Austen wrote lines like, “Elizabeth knew rather than felt herself to be happy,” writing in omniscient POV or distant third was pretty much what everyone did.

But, that was back in the days before movies, Netflix, video games, social media, text messages, emails, and incessant notifications on one’s cell phone. Austen and her peers only had to compete with each other for readers’ attention, and maybe socks that needed darning or other evening chores.

Today, we live under a constant barrage of visual and auditory noise. The inputs far exceed our brain’s ability to cope, and we have to block out anything that doesn’t capture our instant attention.

Or, there’s going insane. Think I’ll go with the former option.

Bottom line is, thanks to all this technology surrounding us, we expect an immersive, engaging experience with pretty much everything, including books. Entertainment is cheap and widely available, and if something starts to get boring, no problem. A thousand more options are right at our fingertips.

Now, while I’m not sure this is a good sign for the human intellect, it does seem to be the trajectory we’re on right now. Reading a classic book takes effort to plow through pages of description and omniscient narrative that have gone out of style. Many of those books, while highly regarded, aren’t all that highly read.

So, if readers want to be immersed in the story, to feel like they’re experiencing it for themselves, what’s the secret?

Two options–either first person POV or deep third. Today we’re going to look at deep third, both at what makes it different from distant third and some tips for writing this way.

Let’s start with an example. Here’s a tidbit of a scene in which our 10-year-old POV character has to make a choice. I’ve written two versions.

Version 1:

Ben sat at his desk playing with the new Lego set he had received a couple of days ago for his tenth birthday. He had always enjoyed building the Minecraft sets best. He had a whole collection of them lining his shelves.

As Ben reached to find the next brick he needed, he looked out his window. His room was on the second floor, in the back of the house, and from here he could see the whole backyard. When Ben looked out this time, he saw movement on the path leading into the woods.

His position at the desk made it hard to see, so he leaned forward, closer to the glass. He thought he had seen his older brother, Jake, who was sixteen. But Ben was pretty sure Jake wouldn’t be stupid enough to sneak out to the quarry. Their mom had forbidden them from going back to the quarry again because a middle-schooler had drowned in the water last summer. She was afraid Ben or Jake might get hurt. Of course, Ben knew better, but mothers were like that. Just to make sure they obeyed, she had threatened to ground them for a month.

Ben didn’t think Jake was willing to risk being grounded for that long, especially since he’d promised to take Ben to the derby car race next week. Ben looked out the window again, and this time he was sure it was Jake, along with a couple of his friends. Ben felt anxious and annoyed at Jake. He knew telling their mom was out of the question. He didn’t want Jake to get in trouble. But he was pretty sure she’d find out one way or another.

He decided he would have to go stop Jake himself. Even though he felt a little bit worried that he might be caught, he thought it would be better than letting Jake go. The Legos were abandoned as Ben stood up and left the room. 

Version 2:

Ben dug through the pile of Lego bricks to find the piece he needed. This Minecraft treehouse, a gift for his tenth birthday a couple of days ago, would make the perfect addition to his collection.

Motion below in the backyard snagged his attention. He leaned over the desk, craning his neck to get a better view. That flash of silver behind the fence looked like Jake’s Detroit Lions cap. But why would his sixteen-year-old brother be sneaking back to the quarry?

After that stupid middle school kid had managed to drown himself last summer, Mom had made the quarry off-limits. No matter how many times they’d assured her they would be safe, she wouldn’t listen to reason. She’d even threatened to ground them for a whole month if they went anyway.

Jake wouldn’t risk getting grounded for a whole month, would he?

But that kid in the red shirt was definitely Jake, along with his two best buddies. Ben shook his head in disbelief.

What about his derby car race next week? Jake had promised to take him. But if Mom grounded him… Ben bit the inside of his cheek. Telling her was obviously out of the question. But she was going to figure it out. How stupid could his brother be?

He’d have to go stop Jake himself, before Mom caught either of them. Getting grounded right now would be the worst. But he could be careful. Ignoring the way his insides twisted, he abandoned his Legos and walked out of the room. 

You could probably tell right away that the second version is much more engaging and immersive than the first. Ben is the same kid in both stories–worried about his older brother getting into trouble and not being able to take him to his race. He makes the same decision–to risk getting into trouble himself to try to stop his brother.

Now, there’s nothing exactly wrong with the first version. It tells the story using correct grammar. It just doesn’t pull you into Ben’s experience. We sit in the audience watching Ben’s story, rather than living it with him.

How do writers pull off this deep third magic? Gotta admit, I’ve received a lot of comments along the lines of “too much telling” and “I couldn’t connect with your character.” But now that I’ve been doing this writing thing for several years, the pieces are (thankfully) falling into place.

So, now you can benefit from all of my terrible writing. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Tips for Writing in Deep Third POV

  • Know your MCTo pull this whole deep third thing off and let readers inside your MC’s head, you’ve got to get into their head first. If you don’t know what your MC wants, how will your readers? Whatever scene you’re writing, think through the entire sequence as if you are your MC. At every moment, what do they want? What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What are they trying to accomplish? If you’re feeling stuck, try journaling in first person as your MC.
  • Show don’t tell: Yes, that classic bit of advice. Which had more impact? Me telling you Ben felt worried, or me telling you his insides twisted? In the first, I’m delivering a bit of information. In the second, I’m describing an experience you’ve probably had. Who hasn’t felt nervous before? Using internal reactions is a great way to show how your character feels. If you need help with this, I recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus. Another way to show what’s going on with your character is to share their direct thoughts. Instead of “Ben felt annoyed at Jake,” version 2 uses, “How stupid could Jake be?” to convey his annoyance.
  • Cut distancing words: Certain words act as an immediate cue (in most cases) to show you’re writing in distant third. In a way, they provide a barrier between the reader and the MC, as if the author is there interpreting events. In rare cases, you might want this distance, especially if you’re writing about a truly horrific event and want to give your readers some space. But in almost all cases, cutting these words will immediately make your writing more immersive. Look for words like “felt,” “saw,” “thought,” “wondered,” “decided,” “looked,” and “heard.” Often these words are preceded by another barrier word, “could.” Use the find feature in MS Word to slay this little gremlins before they take over your story.
  • Avoid overusing the MC’s name: You might of noticed this in my two versions above. The first uses Ben’s name repeatedly, while in the second it’s used only a couple of times–once at the beginning and once later for clarification. I fall into this trap all the time when I’m writing. Writing is sloooooow compared to reading, and often it seems like I haven’t used my MC’s name in a long time, when in reality it was in the previous paragraph. But in real life, do we ever think about ourselves in third person? Using your MC’s name too often reminds your reader they’re reading a book, not living out a wonderful story in their head. Favor pronouns over names unless it’s necessary for clarification.
  • Choose strong, specific verbs and nouns: Some people are really down on adjectives and adverbs and tell you never to use them. As you can probably tell, since I’ve used plenty of them in this post, I’m a fan of making use of the bounty of English words available to us. BUT, using fewer words makes for leaner, tighter writing. If you can replace your verb + adverb combo with a stronger verb, by all means, do it. Cutting out all that excess wordage will help keep your reader immersed in the story.
  • Include sensory details: Now, in keeping my example short, I didn’t include too much in the way of detail, but note that the second version has more than the first (despite the fact it’s shorter). Instead of wasting my word count telling you where Ben was looking, I cut straight to him noticing his brother’s silver ball cap. Most of us don’t observe everything about a place or person, but we tend to hone in on a couple of very specific details. What a room smells like. The body language of the person we’re talking to. The temperature of a cup of coffee. The feel of the carpet beneath bare feet. If your MC does the same thing, their story will draw your reader in deeper.
  • Choose active over passive voice: Readers like action, not to be told who or what received the action. Using active voice conveys a sense of confidence or ownership, as if you’re telling readers, “yes, this is what happened and he or she did it.” You’re also telling them that they’re in good hands, because you, as the author, know what you’re doing. So instead of, “The Legos were abandoned,” the stronger choice is, “Ben abandoned the Legos.”

How’s that to get you started? If you’ve got other ways to help dive deeper into third person POV, please leave a comment and share. You never know who you’ll be able to help out. Until next time, happy writing!

Image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license.


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