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Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! The movie starts with a brief prologue in voiceover that tells us about a princess who escaped an underground kingdom to see the world above and her father, the king, who remained hopeful she’d return one day. In 1944 Spain, 10-year-old Ofelia travels with her very pregnant mother to the old mill where Ofelia’s stepfather, Vidal, is stationed with his army troops. Vidal is a truly awful person and really only cares about his wife as the vessel for his child. The first night, Ofelia is woken by a fairy, which leads her to a labyrinth in the woods nearby, and at the center of it, she meets the faun, who looks really freaking cool. He tells her she’s the princess from the prologue and that she must complete three tasks before she can return. Ofelia agrees to the tasks, and her fairytale story is woven into the story of what is happening with adults in the old mill, primarily Vidal, Ofelia’s mother, the doctor who tends her, and a housekeeper. Vidal is the actual worst in every possible way, and Ofelia’s mother is not doing well in pregnancy. It’s thought that this is, at least in part, because of her travelling during this late stage of her pregnancy. Ofelia meets several strange and magical creatures who become central to her story, leading her through the trials of the old labyrinth garden. On successful completion of her tasks, the faun returns to Ofelia and tells her to bring her baby brother into the labyrinth. Vidal pursues her. The faun tells Ofelia that opening the portal to the underworld requires the blood of an innocent and suggests a few drops of her baby brother's blood, but Ofelia refuses to harm her brother. Vidal takes the baby from Ofelia and fatally shoots her. The housekeeper takes the baby from Vidal, and one of the rebels kills him. The movie ends with drops of Ofelia's blood falling down the center of the spiral stone staircase onto an altar. Ofelia then appears in a golden throne room. The king of the underworld says that she passed the final test, which was to choose to spill her own blood rather than that of her baby half-brother. The movie ends with a voiceover epilogue that explains Ofelia eventually became ruler of that realm and was beloved by her people.
Jeni: Carly, what’d you think about the movie?
Carly: I love this movie. It makes the magical feel real. Which, I guess is the point. But it is beautiful and dark. Scary and whimsical. I honestly don’t have anything bad to say. The only thing was my husband got so mad at Ofelia eating the grapes when she was told not to. He had no patience for it. And it was definitely the most fairy tale moment. I in particular loved the ending and the open-ended way you can choose for yourself what you believe. Was it all in her imagination? Was it all real? Did she become the princess or was killed? I like being left with those questions and being able to come up with what I believe. What’d you think?
Jeni: OMG it’s so sad. I have a harder time with sad than scary because sad feels more real to me. But this movie is just such a perfect combination of so many elements. I love the fairy tale element because of how it blends so perfectly with the harshness of Ofelia’s real life. But even the fairy tale is not lighthearted. It’s very dark, even scary sometimes, like a good fairy tale should be in my opinion. Can you imagine the Disney version of this movie? So, yeah, if you like Neil Gaiman-style dark fairy tales like The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Neverwhere, you’ll love this movie. And of course it has that Guillermo del Toro flair to the imagery. And let’s talk about Doug Jones, shall we? He played two parts in this movie, the faun who’s almost benevolent and then the Pale Man who definitely is not and is in fact suuuper creepy. And he’s the same actor who played the fish man in The Shape of Water. And he was in Hocus Pocus! So, yeah, watch all the Doug Jones movies. Anyway, loved this movie and I really enjoyed watching it again with a more analytical eye. So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Deep POV, definitely. I mean, it does a lot of other things well, but we’ve already talked about those topics and I don’t think we’re ready to repeat any yet! So we get to understand Ofelia so well and how she sees the world. We see things how she sees them. She sees these fairy-tale, magical moments, so we see them. We are deep into her point-of-view and that shows us things in a vastly different way than if we were in someone else’s POV. We see the mandrake root look like a wailing baby instead of a bit of regular root, we see the fairies instead of insects, we see a magical doorway instead of a chalk outline. If we were in her mother’s perspective we wouldn’t see the magic, but because we are in the POV of a small child that loves fairy tales, we’re able to see these things. If we were in a birds-eye-view we would see things as ourselves, and whether or not we see the magic would be up to us as viewers. But with a deep POV we get to see this magical world through the eyes of the main character. We put ourselves into her shoes instead of watching from afar.
Jeni: So deep POV is pretty popular right now, and it’s been the most popular narrative mode for quite a while in publishing. Any POV can be deep, whether that’s first, third, or second person. I know a lot of authors get feedback about needing a deeper POV and wonder what that even means. Deep POV is a step further than traditional limited POV, which is sort of the opposite of omniscient. In deep POV, the author tries to create the sense that the reader is experiencing the story the same way the narrator experiences it. That means we really have to limit how much filtering is done in the language, so the author should more or less be “invisible.” In other words, everything is shown through the lens of the narrator’s mind: what they experience through their senses; how they react emotionally, mentally, and viscerally; how they process new information they receive; how those reactions highlight their emotional wound and motivation and how that connects to their external actions and decisions. I know it will make Carly happy for me to mention that deep POV means the narrator is unreliable because everything is so close to what they think and feel that they aren’t able to really be objective.
Carly: Deep POV is so popular because it forms an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist. It easily pulls the reader into the book. It grows that connection so readers feel like they are on the journey as well, they aren’t just hearing about the journey. It adds depth to the story because we can understand the layers of decision making the character is going through, we can feel all the emotions, and we get an inside look into why the story happens a certain way. Basically, it is more interactive. Readers get to feel engaged in the story by understanding not only what is happening, but why and how it is happening. They get to interact with the story on another level because they dig into these layers of understanding and forge these connections. Without deep POV we have a distance from the story that makes all of these things more difficult to create.
Jeni: How does an author decide if deep POV is best for their story? Consider industry conventions for genre and age category. For example, contemporary young adult fiction is very often first person, which should always be deep POV, or a deep third person. It’s really uncommon to have a YA contemporary in omniscient. That’s not to say it can’t be, but that would be one thing to consider. Deep POV is great for fun, quirky characters or characters who may not fit a specific social norm. It can also be really helpful when you want the reader to know things the protagonist hides from other characters. If you love digging into characters’ thoughts and feelings and getting to know them really well, this is a great option. If you want your reader to identify really strongly with your main character, there’s nothing better for that than a nice deep POV. Lastly, deep POV is really best for stories that only have one narrator, maybe two, because of how much the reader needs to be able to engage with that character.
Carly: So how do you deepen a POV in revisions? What do you look for? First of all, use a strong voice. Show us who your character is, make us feel like we understand them on a deep level. You don’t want a stand-in for the reader, you want the reader to dig into the psyche of your character. Create that strong voice through filters. How does your character view something in a way that is specific to them. Don't be afraid of figures of speech, swearing, and personal interests they relate to. All details and descriptions come from the POV character’s observations. What does your character notice when they walk into a room? They don’t notice every detail, but they’ll notice specific things first. Like I always notice when I walk into someone’s house if they have books. But I won’t notice if their molding was installed correctly. Then show us their internalized thoughts. What are they thinking about in the midst of the action or conversation. If someone says something snarky do they notice it? Does it annoy them or do they brush it off because of years spent dealing with it? What judgments and opinions do they have about the world around them. The connection between the main character and the reader should be that of a really close best friend. That friend you tell everything to without fear of judgment. That friend that gets why you’re annoyed or sad. That friend that is there for your journey. The reader is that friend. The character tells them everything. Not to say they can’t keep secrets from the reader, but it needs to be done in a specific way. Choose words that show judgment and opinion. Then you want to limit dialogue tags, filter words, and passive voice. But we’ll get into that in a bit.
Jeni: Deep POV is not for every story though. One big limitation of deep POV: nothing can happen outside the narrator’s POV so you might need multiple narrators and all the narrators will need their own voice, plot and character arcs, etc. This also means you can’t describe things from an outside perspective or insert your own thoughts and feelings as the author. Something else to consider is whether you have an unlikable main character. Main characters need to be relatable and engaging, but that’s not always the same as likable. If you do have a main character who’s unlikable, it might be harder for your readers to connect with a story that’s 400 pages of a character they don’t really like. Similarly, there are times when you might not want your reader to connect deeply with a character. I have seen some multiple POV stories where the main character gets a deep POV and a secondary character gets a limited POV, or there may even be a second POV that’s omniscient in order to give the reader some of that outside perspective. It’s important to remember that there’s rarely a right and wrong when it comes to POV. It’s really all about what serves the story. Like pretty much everything else when it comes to writing advice.
Carly: There are a lot of common problems to look for with deep POV. We’ve got filter words, head hopping, passive voice, too many dialogue tags, not enough interiority,etc. So let’s start with filter words. They are words that create distance and for the most part can be cut out. They are words like see and hear. Instead of telling us that your character sees a book on the shelf, have them noticing the book. That brings us closer into their head. Then cut extraneous dialogue tags. You want to keep them to the minimum, only enough for clarity or if you’re using action beats. Then watch out for passive voice. Instead of the world acting on your character, you want your character to act on the world. They are the ones making decisions and doing things, so the reader should feel that activeness as well. Instead of “the door slammed shut” you characters should “slam the door shut”. Then you need to watch out for head hopping where the reader gets to see something that the main character doesn’t. It can be something minimal like knowing that another character in the room is curious about how much a book on the shelf is worth. How does the main character know that the other person is wondering that? If they noticed them checking a price tag, or know them well enough to know that, maybe. But otherwise, we’re seeing into the head of someone else. It is all about focusing on your main character and their interiority. You need a lot of that in order to build a connection with the reader. And that leads to our final common problem: and that is how it works with voice. Voice is a tricky thing to write as it can sometimes feel ephemeral or vague. But it is all about showing your character’s personality and how they see things. If they don’t have a strong personality, the deep POV will fail because there isn’t anything for the reader to latch on to.
This month our query also sounds like it has a lot of suspense. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: You know, it always surprises me how we do this as a random drawing and yet somehow there are so often these strong connections between our movie of the month and the query we get. This one has such similar themes of isolation, loneliness, and even escaping into another world to feel needed. Okay, but beyond that, there’s a lot to love in this query. I really like that the main character’s emotional wound is front and center. It’s integral to this story. If we didn’t know about her loneliness and need to escape and how she creates this world out of her own personality traits, it would be a lot harder to see why this conflict is happening, what it means to the main character, and why she needs to be the one to resolve it. I also kind of love this meta look at what it’s like to be an author and how you put your own life into your stories, even when it isn’t really overt. That kind of “write what you know” thing. I think this is why fiction is so cathartic for so many people. It really helps us work through our own inner turmoil. So in terms of overall effectiveness, this query is pretty strong to me. What’d you think?
Carly: Honestly, agreed. It is a really solid query. One thing I would consider is moving the first paragraph down to just above the bio section. The first paragraph in this one has all the nitty-gritty details that an agent needs to fully understand the story. It is perfectly fine for it to remain at the top, in some cases that is preferable. However, with this one you’ll start with a stronger hook if we start with the second paragraph. It will pull us into the story instead of frontloading the query with details. Other than that, I think this is great!