We often talk about the story arc and its component parts and features. But when we want to add depth to a story, we must look at it from a different angle. Yes, “Story” is an arc, but it is also like a pond. It is something vast and deep, set in an enclosed space.
We know it has a beginning and end, a top and bottom, with something murky and mysterious in the middle. We instinctively know the pond is made up of those three layers, although we may not consciously be aware of it or be able to explain it.
Today we will have an overview of Depth, a component of Story that we will be exploring over the next few posts. This is a part of the puzzle that eludes many authors as depth is an advanced concept requiring a great deal of thought to convey.
On our pond, Layer One, the surface layer, is the most obvious. When you look at the pond, it could be calm , or if a storm is brewing, it will be ruffled and moving.
First, we must understand that Story is an immense, unfathomable word-pond.
In Story, Layer One, the surface layer is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.
This is the setting, the action, the visual/physical experience of the characters as they go about their lives.
On the surface of a story, when you see something, you immediately recognize what you think is there. You immediately believe you know what is going on. This is the surface meaning. A gun is drawn, the weapon is fired—what happened is clear and obvious.
The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.
Realism is serious, a depiction of what undisputedly is.
Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. It takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning.
This will be a fun layer to explore, with lots of wonderful art to help us along the way.
Back to the pond. Beneath the surface is Layer Two: the middle, the area of unknown quantity where lives are lived, and events happen. Fish hatch, swim, and eat other fish. These are the creatures of the middle, entities who rarely breach the surface layer or see the bottom and who exist independently of them.
Yet their world has limits—they are confined, as we are confined by the sky above us and the soil beneath our feet.
In Story, Layer Two, the wide layer of unknown quantity is the Inferential Layer. This is the layer where Inference and Implication come into play.
We show why the gun is drawn. We imply reasons to show why the weapon was fired. We offer ideas to explain how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they squeezed the trigger.
We make these implications and let the reader draw their own conclusions.
In a good story, the path to the moment the trigger was pulled is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it, but your task is to fill the middle of the pond with clues, hints, and allegations. This is where INFER and IMPLY come into play.
You can only imply something to someone, in our case, the reader.
A speaker (author) implies. One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story. Take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it. Then write one word, “avenger,” on a note and slip it inside the envelope. The message (inference) inside the envelope (story) is conveyed to the listener (reader).
A listener (reader) infers. The listener (reader) deduces or catches the meaning of something that is not said directly. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note and deduce the meaning of what is about to happen.
The layer of implication must be done well and deftly because you want the reader to feel as if they have earned the information they are gaining. They must be able to deduce what you imply. As a listener (reader) you can only extrapolate knowledge from information someone or something has offered you.
Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.
This layer will be shallower in Romance novels because the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, there will still be some areas of mystery that aren’t spelled out completely because the interpersonal intrigues are the story.
Books for younger readers might also be less deep on this level because they don’t yet have the real-world experience to understand what is implied.
This middle layer is, in my opinion, the toughest layer for an author to get a grip on. We will go to popular literature to find examples that will lead us to draw our own conclusions about this layer.
Below the middle layer is Layer Three, the bottom of the pond. This is the finite layer: Whatever passes from the surface travels through the middle and comes to rest at the bottom.
In Story, Layer Three is the Interpretive Level:
This layer is sometimes the easiest for me to discuss because we are dealing with finite concepts. Theme is one of my favorite subjects to write about, as is symbolism. Commentary is something I haven’t gone into in depth, nor have I really discussed conveying messages. Archetype is another facet I haven’t gone into in detail, and yet it is a fundamental underpinning of Story.
I am looking forward to gaining more understanding of the subtler, more abstract aspects of writing as I do the research for this series. When I come across a book or website that has some good information, I will share it with you.
In the meantime, a good core textbook is “Story” by Robert McKee. If you haven’t already gotten it, get it.
Another excellent and more affordable textbook for this is “Damn Fine Story” by Chuck Wendig. Chuck delivers his wisdom in pithy, witty, concise packets. If you fear potty-mouth, don’t buy it. However, if you have the courage to be challenged, this is the book for you.
In my next post we will begin at the surface of the Word-Pond: realism and surrealism.
Credits and Attributions:
Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons