You might be surprised to learn that “seasoned” writers will still, on occasion, get this highly vague editing note: Add More Depth.
This might refer to a character, a setting, a scene, and yes—even backstory (when appropriate).
The following 6 ways are by no means the only way to trounce flat characters or override repetitive tropes, but they are a steadfast group that always get me thinking about how much more is actually needed to bring that element of the narrative to life.
And that’s the key—deeper doesn’t equate to excessive.
Utilize All 6 Senses
This is the “go to” sense for any writer who is not blind (a good friend of mine is a blind English teacher with a passion for short stories, her writing is gorgeous but very different). We see things and do our best to convey that onto the page. This is the perfect first step as it helps us to simply get the story written.
Using this sense to help deepen the narrative works in 2 distinct ways:
This is the book equivalent to the theatrical “slow motion” feature. When the narrator helps to emphasize the importance of a moment/item/action the reader is pulled in as the tension rises and they start asking questions like, “Why am I being shown this?” Making them want to turn pages and learn more.Pulling Focus
This is the book equivalent to the director of a movie having a monochromatic backdrop and one child out of twenty wearing bright red ribbons. When authors mention something seemingly innocuous but clearly “different” or “other” it sends off warning bells in the back of a reader’s mind to pay attention!
An evolved use of sight is not about adding mundane description, but key details in little bits at just the right moment to make an impact.
This sense (and sound) are the next most relied upon, though even moments of touch happen less than half of the time in our writing. Going deeper doesn’t mean liberally sprinkling more instances throughout the identified moment—it means taking those existing moments present in the scene, with those characters, and fleshing out the true meaning behind the physical feeling.
If you write that the bark was rough, take another look at how you can enrich this moment by adding an emotional connection or making the language more vivid.
The bark was rough.
The bark peeled back more than just a layer of her skin.
The bark scraped her already raw flesh.
As you can see, a few more words either evoking an emotion or helping to make what already exists more meaningful will bring greater depth to your writing.
Writers often make reference to visual elements that have potential to be more than what they are. We talk about clock towers, alarms clocks, drinking hot tea/coffee, walking, running, and so many other everyday items/actions it’s easy to forget the sounds that accompany them. Now, you would never add a sound reference just anywhere—it’s all about drawing attention to something to make the reader think.
If all your character is doing is walking from the car to the store on an average day, you don’t need to say anything more. However, if this is not an average day and a lot of stuff has been happening to make that character dour, upset, or even depressed, by integrating an element of sound to that simple walk we get vivid words like:
Scuffed. Shuffled. Ground (as in grind). Dragged. Scattered. Clattered. Slid…
We also get the chance to heighten reader awareness by drawing attention to:
The whisk of cloth. The drumming of fingers. The rattle of breath. The whoosh of blood …
You can infuse layered information through implication—by using more descriptive vocabulary (stronger verbs), and insinuating mood through sound-oriented action. These subtle changes in the focus of a sentence or scene can reveal more about what’s happening than simply relying on visual cues to relate potential sound cues.
This sense (and taste) are often the least used, and therefore tend to act like beacons to readers. Should one of your characters be blind, you will of course rely on this sense much more heavily. However, traditionally it only comes into play when an obvious source of smell enters the narrative: baking, rotten garbage, dead things, fresh laundry… and then, in a first draft, writers are more likely not to linger on these descriptions.
Depending on what is happening in a given scene, you can bring a greater awareness to the reader by allowing a character to react to their surroundings when scent is an option.
If your character is in a bad mood, perhaps freshly baked bread would normally make them salivate and think of home but in this instance it makes them gag. Why would lovely, warm, bread have that effect? Either your reader will already know because of something revealed in an earlier scene or it will be new information to entice them to keep reading.
By layering clues like this you are building a deeper understanding not only of the scene but the characters in those scenes.
This sense is often reserved for food and drink. And while we naturally describe these elements we don’t often attribute an emotional or physical reaction to them. Not everyone has sensitive taste buds that come alive with the delight of food. Some people eat only to remain healthy, because the food is bland no matter how much spice is added; while some people experience a kind of flavour nirvana.
Consider how your character experiences food and question their response to it:
Why might she close her eyes when eating apple pie? Is this a good or bad thing?
Do certain flavours evoke an emotional reaction? Does the taste of bitter wine calm or anger your protagonist?
By building on what has already been revealed about your characters, exploring their state of mind will turn a simple sip of peach nectar into a moment of enriched understanding for your reader.
This sense has always been linked to intuition or gut reaction. Most of us listen to our gut and we all know about the famous women’s intuition. What we don’t often do is associate this sensation with the 5 senses. Not everyone has this ability and not everyone knows how to interpret what their gut is trying to tell them. That’s okay. But most people like a good mystery.
I like to refer to this sense as mystery because that is how readers tend to interpret it in your writing.
We are encouraged from sapling writers not to include a lot of backstory into our narratives—it slows the pace and risks overwhelming readers with too much information. But backstory is vital to fleshing out character motivation and plot.
Add hints and clues, which may or may not be revealed to varying extents, throughout your book (a strange scar, a repetitive habit, a ring on a necklace, a scrap of paper folded and refolded sticking out of a back pocket, a refusal to go somewhere or speak to/about someone…).
If you are able to include at least one suggestion of detail in each chapter, you will be actively working to hook your reader into wanting to learn more.
These moments of mystery work best when gradually expanded over several chapters, or even the entire novel. The reader then gets to play detective and use their intuition or gut instinct (the passive gathering of clues in their subconscious) to solve the mystery.
If your characters have no mystery, then they are at great risk of being flat and uninteresting.
Adding depth to your story is like building the perfect cup of coffee or sundae: some readers will understand you perfectly with just the hot, robust, black beverage or cold, uncomplicated, creamy vanilla but every once in a while adding a special touch (like Irish Cream) to either treat will bring your reader greater satisfaction.
Just remember, too much of a good thing will have the opposite effect. It’s all about balance. You need to carefully determine what kind of detail is needed to make that element of your book come alive as you decipher what Add More Depth really means.
MJ Moores is an author and freelance editor. Her love of speculative fiction shines through in her sci-fi/fantasy series The Chronicles of Xannia and her non-fiction e-books cover topics from marketing for beginners, to Goodreads, and publishing options. Connect with MJ online at her Author Website and Infinite Pathways Press.