How Much Depth?

Section MMX, paragraph a, clause ii, of the Rules For Writers specifies that a story shall have a depth of not less than….

Just kidding. Here at WSW, we don’t think much of so-called “rules for writers.” This is purely an exploration of a question Chuck Litka brought up in response to my post on my writerly dream. Namely, how much depth should a book have?

By “depth,” I mean both things like re-readability as well as how many subtle nuances it has.

There are some stories that are fun, but don’t really bear multiple readings. There are other stories that are so incredibly dense you can’t even tell what they’re about without consulting reference books.

In my opinion, it’s better to write the former than the latter. But best of all is to write something that works as a story, but can also be re-analyzed over again and reveal new facets.

One example of a book like this is Dune. The main plot of Dune is actually very simple. (In the broadest terms, it’s the same basic plot as The Lion King.) But everything else about Dune is not very simple. The world of Dune is full of complex political ideas, Islamic influences, environmentalist themes, abstract philosophical concepts, and some really trippy things that are probably best chalked up to being written in the 1960s. Herbert himself said the book had many different layers.

If you like Dune, you can re-read it multiple times to follow all these different threads. But if not, you can still think of it as a book about a guy on a quest to avenge his father and claim the throne and leave it at that.

Note that I’m not saying a story needs to have this level of depth to be great. Right Ho, Jeeves is one of my favorite books ever, but I wouldn’t call it multifaceted. It’s just fun, plain and simple.

But say you want to write a fantasy epic of immense depth and complexity. It needs some serious of world-building. Or what about literary fiction? Should you work to fill it with layers of meaning and symbolism?

And maybe the most critical question of all: how much “depth” in fiction is in the eye of the writer, and how much the reader? Hemingway said of The Old Man and the Sea: “The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man.” This hasn’t stopped many people from saying otherwise. So maybe every book is as deep or as shallow as the reader wants it to be.


  1. chucklitka says:

    Like Berhold, I’m a story first person, both as a reader and as a writer. That said, there are many reasons and ways to read a book, and many reasons and ways to write one, none being superior to any other. As a writer you have to recognize that you can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try. Perhaps the true classic books are the books that come closest to pleasing everyone, entertaining as they enlighten, leaving readers thinking. They are masterpieces. But masterpieces are rare by definition, and though we all aspire to write one, I suspect that we will come closest if we write what we love.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “So maybe every book is as deep or as shallow as the reader wants it to be.”

    Or as shallow as the writer wants it to be. 🙂

    My Susan Hunter books are pink, fluffy, and are meant to entertain for a few hours. My Murder books are uncouth.

    I love being in this lane as a writer. Drivel, cliches, shallowness … I love writing these books and have had enough success over the years to know there are readers who like to escape with this type of book.

    Very nice ponderment, Berthold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Great observation, too. There are certainly times when I want to escape into something light.

      Liked by 1 person

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