Deep Third, Demonstrated

I write in deep third person point of view – fathoms deep, dungeon deep third person point of view. A couple of weeks ago, while doing a TASTE ME author chat for a friend’s book club, someone asked, “Okay, what exactly does that mean?”  (Lesson Infinity +1 in how readers and writers sometimes don’t share vocabulary, or care about the same things.)  

It occurred to me that some of our blog readers might not know what this means either, or that maybe our readers might find it interesting to see how one author – me! – achieves her personal, preferred point of view. As always, your mileage may vary.       

A couple of (overly-simplistic) definitions to start: 

Point of view (POV) – the narrative voice or mode that an author uses to convey what happens in their story.  Examples are first person, second person, and third person.

Third person point of view – a mode in which the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings or opinions of one or more characters, using “he/she” rather than “I” language.  Comes in subjective, objective, and omnicient flavors.   

I see “deep third person” POV and “third person subjective” POV as being analogous.

As both a romance reader and a romance author, I have a strong preference for deep third person point of view because I want very intimate access to the physical and emotional layers of the story. (Romances are about feelings, right?) The more viscerally I experience a characters’ feelings, reactions, and dilemmas, the more engaged with the story I’ll become. 

With the rest of this post, I’d like to demonstrate how I expose that saturated physical and emotional layer using some simple revision techniques.  Consider the following two (quick ‘n dirty) sentences: 

Will’s ankle was swollen and he was getting more and more concerned about his diminishing supply of medication. It was almost exhausted, and he knew that unless he found help soon, he would not be able to continue. 

((shrug)) An OK early draft that gets the point across. But it could be stronger. Let’s  first omit some extraneous words, and simplify the language: 

Will’s ankle was swollen and he was concerned about his medication supply. Unless he found help soon, he wouldn’t be able to continue.

Better. Next, let’s raise the stakes by layering in some specific details:   

Will’s ankle was broken and he was out of pain medication. Unless he found help soon, he’d be in real trouble. 

Next, eliminating Will’s name from the narrative when we’re in his point of view brings us closer yet. (Will wouldn’t think of himself as “Will”, right?)   

His ankle was broken and he was out of pain medication. Unless he found help soon, he’d be in real trouble. 

Better. I feel less narrative distance than I did in the previous example.  Next, I’ll add some gender-specific language for authenticity, and provide additional details that help flesh out the scenario: 

His broken ankle throbbed like a mother and he was out of morphine. If he didn’t find help soon, he’d be up shit creek.  

Now we’re in both his head and his body. His ankle hurts – badly – and naming the medication fleshes out characterization. (Access to morphine?)  Next, showing a character’s thoughts brings us deeper:   

His broken ankle throbbed like a mother and he was out of morphine. “If I don’t find help soon,” he thought, “I’ll be up shit creek.”  

Hmm. Can I show Will thinking, without using the word “thought” in the narrative? Why, yes, of course I can – by using italics and first person POV to indicate thoughts!    

His broken ankle throbbed like a mother and he was out of morphine. If I don’t find help soon, I’ll be up shit creek. 

He’s in pain, he’s out of meds, he’s in trouble, and he knows it. Yet…he’s still looking for help, not waiting for it to come to him, which was a conscious characterization choice on my part. I could easily have written him having a different sort of thought.   

And deepest of the deep – 100% interior monologue: 

Broken ankles throb like a mother, and I’m out of morphine. If I don’t find help soon, I’ll be up shit creek.

I would argue that this last example is less successful than the one immediately above it, but I wanted to take the POV progression to its deepest logical conclusion.  (Note that if you remove the italics, you’re in first person POV.)  

I think providing a judicious balance of external cues, tags and physical detail while accessing the personal, internal layer ratchets up the tension and raises the stakes without exhausting the reader.  Would you agree that we care more about “Later Will” than “Earlier Will?” And using fewer words to boot?

So in this example, I used simple revision techniques and careful word choice to dive ever deeper into Will, exposing more and more of his physical reactions, his thoughts and aspects of his character as the examples progress. Through each revision, the two sentences became leaner, meaner, more specific…until Will is exposed, right down to the bone.    

And I find the unanswered questions raised by these two sentences equally intriguing: Who is this guy? Where is this guy? How did he break his ankle, and how did he get his hands on morphine in the first place?  

Did you find this exercise useful? What do YOU think happened to Will? (I’ll share the scenario I had in mind later in the day.)

Tamara Hogan’s debut urban fantasy romance, TASTE ME, was released earlier this year by Sourcebooks Casablanca. Underbelly Chronicles Book Two, CHASE ME, will be published in June, 2012.

39 responses to “Deep Third, Demonstrated”

  1. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Love the demo.

    I gotta admit, Tamara, I don’t always know the terminology but I think I do that deep 3rd thingy. Not always. Gotta mix it up a little. When it comes to words, I’m of the less-is-better philosophy. Sometimes I wish I could pull more words out of my…my hat (descriptive words especially), but I’m not a word waster. And I love dialogue, internal dialogue too, but yeah, in snippets. Drives me nuts when I read long stretches of internal dialogue, because who does that for real?

  2. Great example, Tammy. Staying in deep 3rd is extremely difficult. While I employ it, I often step back in narrative just for a break from the intensity. Does it work? I think so, but only time will tell.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Gwyn – you’re right – once you start working in deep third, it CAN be tough to stay there. I’m working on a scene for my third book right now where it would be SO MUCH EASIER if I could just allow myself to use “she thought.” But I seem to be pathologically incapable of doing it. Gah! So maybe I have the oppposite problem?

  3. Fantastic post, Tammy!!! And I agree about the miscommunications between readers and even other writers. I was just at a chat yesterday talking about page proofs and I’d been talking about them for about 5 minutes when someone finally asked, “What are page proofs.” Oops. Lesson learned!

    And your examples are great! Like you, I agree that the next to the last one worked best, but still you did a wonderful job showing that progression.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Writing vocabulary can sure be arcane sometimes, can’t it, Darynda? I don’t think I’ve found a reader yet (unless they were a reviewer, too) who knew or cared what the difference was between paranormal romance and urban fantasy romance. And some of these terms can change publisher by publisher, as I discovered last week when I was explaining to a published writer friend that I’d just received developmental edits for my second book, CHASE ME. ‘Developmental edits’ is what Sourcebooks calls editorial revision notes.

  4. Rita Henuber says:

    Zowie! Great deep third explanation. I’ve had two references (one from Suzanne Brockman) I’ve used since I first started writing. Now I have another –much better-one. Deep third connects the reader to the character. For me, what level of third is also dictated by situation. As in your examples you WANT the reader to feel his pain. Deep third also gets twisted in the show don’t tell stuff. A lot to consider here. Thanks for making me think.

    • I have that Suzanne Brockmann booklet, too! She’s great, and Tamara’s comments have really solidified it for me. It’s great to have examples!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Another thing that can be challenging craft-wise when writing in deep third is that the author’s voice must be secondary to the character’s, if that makes sense. This is even more of a challenge if the story has multiple POV characters.

      In my second book, CHASE ME, my villain is alien born, and seeing Earth for the first time. Writing from his POV really gave me a workout.

      • Rita Henuber says:

        I think of the authors voice as being the characters subconscious. I allow my character to say and do what I did, would like to do, (ya know when the kid in the grocery cusses his mother out and she does nothing) or never would do. (snatch the little bugger up and throttle him).
        I would think it would be very difficult to write a scene as you described. Why I stick to contemporary.

  5. I loved these examples, Tamara. Wish I had this post about five years ago. It gets the point across so well! Thanks.

  6. Thanks, Tamara for the examples. I love reading and writing deep third, but as I look at your examples, I see that I’m probably a level or two above the deepest point.

    What hit home the most was your comment about the deepest third you could go was only a step away from first person. Interesting, and I’d never thought about it like that, but of course, if you go deep enough, you ARE the person. LOL Nice.

  7. Love deep third POV. It’s what I write in also (or at least try to!). I just can’t seem to care about the character if I’m not firmly, solidly, emotionally in their head. And the only way to achieve that is deep third. But you make an awesome point that readers who aren’t writers don’t share the same vocabulary or care about the same things. They just want great books, and IMO, deep third can take good books and make them great.

    Awesome post! Thanks!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Cynthia! When I was writing my first book, I initially thought I was perhaps over-reliant upon physical and emotional action/reaction sequences. They felt…almost mathematical to me. (“She has to act before he can react. What does she do, how does he interpret that, and how does he then react?”) until a writing teacher waved my concern off, saying, “You just write in deep third POV. Don’t worry about it. It works.”

      Two simple words – “it works” – from someone whose opinion I valued made all the difference in the world, turning what I thought was a negative into a positive. Yay, teachers!

  8. Stacie says:

    This was incredibly helpful. Thank you.

  9. Beth Langston says:

    I write in first person most of the time (for YA, that’s fairly common). So I’m usually down at your last example–without the italics. But I still found your examples great–for the “show, don’t tell” aspect of it. Maybe I should practice writing in deep third more often (and switch the SHEs to Is.)

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Beth – I think one of the resons I enjoy reading first person POV is that it’s the deepest of the deep. But for some reason, it doesn’t feel natural for me to go there as a writer, and I’m not going to push it. I don’t feel I’ve been writing long enough to start experimenting with my voice yet. 😉

  10. Tina Joyce says:

    Love the way you laid out this progression step by step, until we got to the deepest of the deep. I like the second to last example the best as well, mainly because (for me) it lends variety–and I like to see the italics mixing and mingling with normal typeface. 😉

  11. Diane kelly says:

    Great examples! They really bring the scenes alive.

  12. Sandii says:

    Excellent post, thanks Tamara. It changes the impact of that sentence so much. I’m going to go through my WIP and see where I can use it for more of an emotional punch.


  13. Vivi Andrews says:

    I absolutely love deep third POV. Excellent demo, Tammy. I’ll be referring folks to this post often.

  14. Hope Ramsay says:

    Nice post, Tammy.

    I truly hope that the copy editor for my last book reads it. 🙂 Every place I went deep she added thought tags so that the deepness was destroyed.


    His broken ankle throbbed like a mother and he was out of morphine. If I don’t find help soon, I’ll be up shit creek, Will thought silently.

    I was glad, however, that my hero was thinking silently. Thinking out loud can be dangerous. 🙂

  15. Kim Law says:

    Great post! If I don’t forget, I’ll be sure to direct some of my chapter mates here when I get home from work. We have a few newish members, so they’ll LOVE this quick and easy example!

    I have to say, though, I personally think the example: “His broken ankle throbbed like a mother and he was out of morphine. If he didn’t find help soon, he’d be up shit creek.” Was the best one. I still feel like that last sentence is deep in his head, even without going the route of the italics. If the whole scene/section is deep POV, then writing it like this certainly doesn’t pull me out.

  16. Elise Hayes says:

    Love it, Tammy! For me, the big shift (in terms of producing a gut-level change in my reaction to the example) came when you dropped his name. That’s an interesting point and one I’ll have to think about as I revise.

    I have tried to get better about expressing the thoughts, emotions, and response to the world from the character’s specific POV (based on their gender, class status, hobbies, life experiences). It’s a much slower way to write (for me), but much, much more effective.

  17. Great post, Tamara. I first learned about deep POV from Suz Brockman too, but you did an excellent job showing the steps to reach deep into character’s head. This is a post that needs to be read by every new writer. I know I’ll be using it over and over. Thanks!

  18. Tamara Hogan says:

    The situation I had in mind for Will: he’s an Army medic whose chopper has been shot down.

  19. This is fantastic, Tammy–thank you! I have to revise my newest book. It’s currently in first person present. My last three books have all been in fpp. But this one…I’m beginning to think it needs to be told in third person past. It’s gonna be one heck of a revision!

  20. […] Tammy demonstrates her approach to writing in deep third person point of […]


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