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Immersive POV

Every fiction writer beyond the beginner stage knows about point-of-view.  It’s the perspective from which a story is told.  It’s the eyes through which we are seeing, the ears through which we are hearing, the mind through which we’re processing, the heart through which we’re feeling.

POV is mostly the protagonist’s, but it can also be any other character’s (as in multi-POV), an observer’s (think Nick Carraway), or even the author’s.  The prime directive of POV is also well known: keep it consistent, no head hopping within a scene.

There are choices in writing POV.  There is close or intimate POV.  There is objective POV.  There is zooming in and out.  Everyone knows where they stand on POV.  Everyone’s got their preference.  Is there anything new to say about POV?  There is.  Like everything else about literature, POV is evolving.

In recent years, POV has tended to become even more close and intimate than ever.  So much so that it immerses us not in just what a protagonist or POV character sees, hears, thinks and feels, but in every thought, memory, musing, speculation, wonder and nuance of a character’s consciousness.

Immersive POV is not just a camera angle, or a mind meld, but a total subsuming of the reader’s being into a character’s.  It requires the reader to not only see through a character’s eyes, but to become that character.  It demands that the reader not just pay attention but completely submerge.

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch (2013) is written in this fashion.  Its protagonist is Theo Decker, who at the age of thirteen is cast adrift when his larger-than-life mother dies tragically in an incident at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.  Theo and his mother are not even supposed to be there.  They are supposed to be on their way to a meeting (probably disciplinary) at Theo’s private school.  But his mother gets car sick in a taxi and so they take a break in the museum:

For me—a city kid, always confined by apartment walls—the museum was interesting mainly because of its immense size, a palace where the rooms went on forever and grew more and more deserted the farther in you went.  Some of the neglected bedchambers and roped-off drawing rooms in the depth of European Decorating felt bound-up in deep enchantment, as if no one had set in them for hundreds of years.  Ever since I’d started riding the train by myself I’d love to go there alone and roam around until I got lost, wandering deeper and deeper in the maze of galleries until sometimes I found myself in forgotten halls of armor and porcelain that I’d never seen before (and, occasionally, was unable to find again).

As I hung behind my mother in the admissions line, I put my head back and stared fixedly into the cavernous ceiling dome two stories above: if I stared hard enough, sometimes I could make myself feel like I was floating around up there like a feather, a trick from early childhood that was fading as I got older.

What is this passage really about?  In one way, it’s about nothing more than staring at the ceiling.  Staring at the ceiling?  For plot purposes, do we really need to know how Theo regards the Metropolitan Museum or its ceiling or how as a child he imagined himself as a feather floating around under it?

No.  We don’t.  On the other hand, the passage is meant to evoke Theo’s feeling of being lost in a world too big for him, of drifting aimlessly on random currents of air.  The passage is intended to make him fragile and vulnerable, thereby setting up the tragedy that will follow in just a few minutes.

On an even deeper level, an immersive POV passage such as this works to submerge us utterly in the narrator’s thought process, so thoroughly that every small idea, tiny feeling, minute distraction, random observation, little memory, idle speculation, momentary worry, and more are presented for our contemplation.  Nuances and nothings become elevated in importance. In passage like this, run-on sentences start to feel natural.

Do passages such as this illuminate the soul of another human, allowing us an experience another’s being more deeply than is possible by any other means?  Or, do such passages pummel us into a numb surrender to a protagonist’s mental and emotional nuances and trivia?

Tartt’s novel did win the Pulitzer Prize, let’s remember, plus rafts of praise, and some pretty impressive sales.  It’s a little hard to criticize a work of fiction so successful.  Clearly her Immersive POV writing works for many.  To a great degree it works for me, too, but I have a qualification and a caution to throw in.

Immersive POV is not the be all and end all.  As with beautiful imagery, it’s easy for authors to get stuck on “capturing” a character’s inner state, thereby contributing to a world “closely observed”, and the feeling that fine writing is what fiction is mainly about.  There is nothing wrong with fine writing, yet it’s also wise to remember that novels are a narrative art.  They tell stories.

Thus, immersive POV is neither good nor bad, but simply another tool of the craft.  When it works, as in Tartt’s passage above, that is not because it’s relentlessly intimate but because it uses immersion to build anticipation, apprehension, dread, disconnect, cognitive dissonance, foreshadowing, fresh worry, unsettling ideas, faint hope or any of the thousand other psychic disturbances that collectively we call micro-tension.

There’s another reason for caution: Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination.  Readers need space.  Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.  That is because what readers experience is generated not by your novel but by themselves.  A novel is not a substitute experience but rather a trigger for an original experience, one unique to each reader.

Immersive POV is the new way of narration; however, it is best used in service of an old-fashioned value: story.

Are you a fan of Immersive POV?  If not, why not and how do you otherwise involve readers in your protagonist’s experience of things?

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About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].