Ah, depth. It’s one of the three dimensions, a measurement of how far from the visible surface an object extends. It’s also a measure of how seriously a person should be taken. And it’s one of the most important aspects of a story the author can consider, but one that’s rarely discussed. So what is depth, to the writer?
In terms of how you write stories, depth is actually a mix of the two.
The depth of your relationship with another person is the total of a lot of things. How long you’ve known them, how much you’ve learned about them in that time, how committed you are to understanding them, how well your personalities match and on and on. The deeper your relationship with that person, the more things you share with them. Most relationships begin with brief conversations or fun times. They grow to encompass shared efforts and rough patches, reminiscences of shared experiences or revelations of the past. Eventually, you have a deeply committed friendship or intimate romance.
But what happens if someone tries to skip all that build up and go straight to the commitment or intimacy? Well, usually you go out and get a restraining order, because that’s just creepy. The relationship doesn’t have the depth to handle it.
A relationship is a lot like a container. If it’s not deep enough to hold what you’re trying to put in it, the excess will spill out and cause a mess. That doesn’t necessarily mean legal injunctions, but hurt feelings, misunderstandings and, yes, outright creepiness can result, just to name a few possibilities. While the measuring and assessing of depth isn’t quite the same for storytelling, the basic principle is sound.
Back when I talked about enrichment, I mentioned this idea. If you try to put significant ideas and concepts into a story that lacks depth those ideas aren’t going to have anything to hold them, and you’ll come out as preachy, flat or just plain ol’ dumb. Your story needs to have a strong connection with your reader to carry your themes and the story itself, or you might as well just go and write an essay (Walden Two, I’m looking at you.)
Depth for your story is built in pretty much the same way you build depth in a relationship. Let the reader get to know your characters, listen to them talk, experience a few ups and downs and generally get comfortable with them. Then, and only then, are you ready to start hitting them with the hard stuff. Don’t start your story with the heavy background, start at a point that shows your characters at their best advantage. Don’t try and explain all the action at first, let your readers decide they want to know what’s going on by giving them hints to draw them in.
Of course, balancing what your readers are ready to know with giving them enough to make the story work is an art and not a science and you’re likely to wiff on it a lot before you get it down. There’s also no great writing exercise for creating depth in your stories, if there was you’d probably see it more in writing books or magazines. Verisimilitude is a similar concept, but only relates to making characters and situations seem believable.
Finding the touchstones that create deep and engrossing stories is a matter of a lifetime of reading. But you won’t be able to write deep stories just by reading. My suggestion is this: If you want to write a deep story, start by finding a story you found with particularly rich themes. Then read it again (I know, hard work, right?) Write down every moment where you feel you got a better understanding of a character or theme in the story. Then transform that into the outline for a story of your own. You may not ever write that story yourself, in fact, unless the story is fairly short or you have a lot of free time I wouldn’t recommend it at all, but just the process of building that new story in your head should give you a better grasp on what you like in a deep, enriching story.