Monday, April 20, 2009

On Adding Depth

I just finished up a round of submission letters this weekend and found the error of "a lack of depth" was the big issue this time. I see this a great deal and frequently tell people that adding depth to your story is crucial for getting the reader connected to the characters and the situation.

With that said, I think it is important to understand what we mean by adding depth. This is not simply adding more to the story and increasing the word count, although this is sometimes a bi-product of this process. Adding depth means that we are creating a story that has more of a three-dimensional feel to it.

To add the depth, try to think of the characters as real human beings. This means that they have feelings and emotions, and for the outside observer, we see those emotions come across in their actions, behaviors and voice. We hear it in their tone. We see it when they walk. The same has to happen in the story. This is that showing vs. telling argument again.

Adding depth will also come from the information you as a narrator puts into the story. This might be historical information, a fuller sense of setting and place and certainly the backstory on the characters. Be careful here of not doing too much or going over board with the backstory. We just need to know why they are doing what they are doing.

A good excercise to practice this type of writing would be to describe the room you are sitting in right now. Just do a physcial description first. Now, this may be an accurate representation of what is going on in the room but it really lacks depth. If you are sitting in a home office that is really your sanctuary to the world, give us that sense. Again, don't just tell us it is the sanctuary, take us into the room so we get that sense. Work with all of the emotions and all of the senses.

This does take practice but it will give the reader more to work with and certainly the story won't sound like simply a long synopsis.



  1. Submission letters? Are these really rejection letters that you are sending out on the material you previously requested? Or are these letters that writers have submitted and you are not requesting material on?
    At what point do you know that the story is lacking depth? Right at the intital stage or is it after you request a partial or even longer than that. After you request a full? Just curious.
    I'm going back to have a look at my WIP thanks for the suggestions.

  2. It's funny how such a simple thing: like 'being in the moment' with your characters can get away from you, when you're too close to what you're writing. Maybe you get too focused in on getting the 'story' information across to the reader? And when this happens, it comes off as the narrator talking at the reader instead of allowing them to absorb what is going on through the character’s experience. It’s tough to find the balance sometimes but I guess if we stand at a distance for a minute and do as you suggested, have a look around at plain old life - we’d be reminded that even though we may be writing fiction - there has to be some truth and substance to it.

  3. Murphy! Em, was right. You do look different!;D

  4. This sound like someone whose trying to let us down easy. Another rejection to go in my pile? This is all I need after a weekend slaving over my latest Ms. for what? Thanks but no thanks.

  5. An example of depth? What about the really wonderful first paragraph, first page, first chapter of the last Sarah Dunant historical novel? (Courtesan of Rome.) That is some just gorgeous writing. I don't know how it could be better, not by one word. It seems like a perfect balance of history, backstory, and engaging present action to me.
    Meanwhile, the new issue of Publisher's Weekly has news about the state of the industry, and the new issue of Poet and Writer features articles about how some are manging to stay afloat in the tanking economy as writers, as well as the number rushing in from other professions where they were formerly employed as writers. Won't this be an interesting year for all of us.
    A group of MFA graduates have banded together and are offering their services as "Book Doctors." Very creative. I have certainly wondered if I should get one of these degrees in self-defense, since then one gets recommended for grants and fellowships and all the good stuff, AS well as, according to the article, directed to agents who are friends of the writers on staff. Yes, that would work. At what point might I be hired as a "novelist" with comprehensive health and dental coverage, good sir? It can't be too soon.