We often talk about the story arc and its component parts and features. But I often think that while a story is shaped like an arc, it is also like a pond filled with words. It is something vast and deep, set in an enclosed space.
We know our story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We sense something murky and mysterious in the middle. We instinctively know the pond is made up of layers, although we may not consciously be aware of it or be able to explain it.
Depth is a component of our story, and we will look at it over the next few posts. Depth can be a puzzle that eludes many authors, as conveying it by merely using words requires thought and a bit of extra work.
Layer one, the surface layer, is the most obvious when we look at our pond made of words. It’s what we see when we approach the shore. The surface might be calm when you look at a pond filled with water. Or, if a storm is brewing, it will be ruffled and moving.
The surface of the word pond is the literal layer. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. This is where we find the setting, the action, and all visual/physical experiences as our characters go about their lives.
Readers choose to buy a book based on what they see when they crack it open for a brief look. They recognize what they think is there because the book is in their favorite genre, and the cover and blurb reflect that. The opening pages let them see how the author writes, and they choose to buy or move on.
Inside the book, the surface reflects the actions and events. A gun is drawn, and the weapon is fired—what happened is obvious.
We play with the surface layer by telling our story using realism, surrealism, or fantasy.
Realism is a depiction of what undisputedly is. Romance, contemporary novels, political thrillers—any narrative set in the real world without introducing fantasy elements—is realism.
Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example, by the irrational juxtaposition of images—think Alice in Wonderland. It takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning.
Fantasy takes realism and imagines it as a different reality and world. Sometimes surreal elements are added. But a fantasy world is usually portrayed as our reality, and the fantastical elements are depicted as commonplace and ordinary.
This will be a fun layer to explore, with lots of wonderful art to help us along the way.
Back to that pond filled with words. Beneath the surface is the wide layer of an unknown quantity: the inferential layer. This is the layer where inference and implication come into play.
Perhaps at the outset, we saw a character draw a gun. This is where we show why the gun is there. We offer hints that imply reasons for the weapon being included in that scene. We show how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they squeezed the trigger.
All the characters have reasons for their actions. The author offers implications and lets the reader come to their own conclusions. The reader sees the hints, allegations, and inferences, and the underlying story of each character takes shape in their mind.
In a good story, the path to the moment the trigger was pulled is complicated. Perhaps no one knows precisely what led to it, but some characters have bits of information. Your task is to fill the middle of the pond with clues, hints, and allegations. This is where INFER and IMPLY come into play.
An author implies. Readers want to solve puzzles, but they need clues. One meaning is displayed on the surface of the story. But deeper down, we enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the narrative.
A reader infers. The reader deduces or catches the meaning of something that is not said directly by following the clues (inferences) we leave them. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they deduce the meaning of what is about to happen and receive a surge of endorphins.
They get another surge if they guessed wrong but see how it all makes sense.
No matter what genre we write, we want the reader to feel 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 book’s point isn’t a more profound meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, there will still be some areas of mystery that aren’t spelled out entirely 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.
Below the middle Layer is Layer three, the bottom of our pond filled with words. Whatever passes from the surface travels through the middle and rests at the bottom.
This is the interpretive level:
This layer is sometimes the easiest for me to discuss because it deals 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 underpinning of a story.
My personal goal is to gain a better understanding of the subtler aspects of writing as I do the research for this series. Whenever I come across a book or website with good information on these subjects, I will share it.