Last month in the Book Length Project Group, we talked about depth and how you create it in a story. There were lots of suggestions around the table:
- Create a back-story.
- Use fore shadowing.
- Show the social context.
- Develop character and motivation.
- Use setting to ground the reader in the scene.
- Layer the story with interweaving plotlines.
- Use different points of view.
These are all great things to do, but what is depth anyway and why is it important?
What is depth and why is it important?
In our group, we knew depth was something that is good to have but we struggled to articulate why and even what it is. We all agreed that we’d know it when we saw it!
Depth can be about multiple things. It can be:
Distance – from the surface to the bottom of an object or a body of water
Intensity – for example, of colour or of silence
Profundity – such as heartfelt emotion
Complexity – of a subject or idea.
These qualities can help to engage a reader, make them feel for a character, wonder what is going to happen next, become absorbed in a subject, and keep reading.
Something that has no depth is shallow, superficial, or lacking in substance. Everything is immediately apparent. There is no mystery and no need to keep turning the page.
How do you create depth?
The suggestions offered by the Book Length Project Group Members canvas tools that writers already use to create a story – plot, setting, character, point of view. Here’s how some of these tools can work to create depth.
You can add depth to your plot by increasing the complexity of your story in a way that keeps the reader interested in what is going to happen next. You can do this through:
Foreshadowing: reveal information hinting at possible future events
Red herrings: divert the readers’ attention or lead them down the wrong track
Back-stories: give clues to a character’s motivations and future actions by revealing something significant that happened before your story started
Setting can be used to add depth by engaging all of the senses. Using sight, sound, temperature, touch, and taste can help to ground a reader in a scene.
Setting can create intensity in a scene by complementing (or juxtaposing) the action. For example, in Lyn Yeowart’s 2021 novel The Silent Listener, the main character, Joy, comes to critical realisations about her family in the dark, sparse kitchen of her family home.
You can also use setting to add complexity to the plot or action. Instead of being a pretty backdrop, the setting can be an obstacle preventing the protagonist from achieving their goal. Think about the climax of Jane Harper’s The Dry, where the killer uses the parched, tinder-dry landscape to foil his arrest. (You need to read the book to find out if he succeeds!)
Characters with depth are like real people. They have strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, and dreams. We can identify with them because we recognise them in ourselves or in people we know. We become invested in their fate. We want to know what will happen to them. To give a superficial or flat character depth, think about:
Internal changes: how does the protagonist change internally over the course of the story? Do they come to a different way of seeing things? Do their feelings about an incident or another person change as a result of what happens in the story? Do they fall in and out of love?
Changes in external circumstances: does the protagonist move from rags to riches (and back again)? Do they lose a loved one? Do they leave home? Do they abandon a soulless job and embrace their life passion?
Goals: what does the protagonist want to achieve? What do they want to prevent from happening? What does the antagonist want to achieve?
Conflicts: what conflicts do the protagonist need to overcome to achieve their goals? These conflicts might be external (such as with the antagonist) or internal (like conflicting goals or misplaced loyalty).
Point of View
Point of view can influence depth in different ways. For example, first person point of view is the closest to the action and can create immediacy and intensity. Third person point of view provides access to characters, events, and places, giving more opportunity to reveal back-stories, red herrings, and distractions. Third person omniscient or multiple points of view provide access to different perspectives and characters’ internal thoughts and emotions. This allows you to tap into the complexity of competing goals and motivations.
The Book Length Project Group meets on the third Sunday of every month at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne, Western Australia. All FAWWA members and friends are welcome to join us. Go to The Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (fawwa.org) for more information.