General Discussion

Narrative Depth
Abt_Nihil at 7:42AM, Oct. 27, 2011
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This is something that's been puzzling me for quite some time: When we talk about stories (literature, comics, movies etc.), what do we mean by depth? Obviously, the word “depth” in narrative contexts is a metaphor – how can we explain what depth is, so that the explanation can be taken literally (in a non-metaphoric sense)?

Personally, I've noticed that depth can mean two things: Either it means the story in question is deep in the sense that its real meaning is somewhere beneath its surface. That is, the narrative structure is complex, and while the story seems to be talking about something, there's something else, something deeper going on beneath. Or secondly, it can refer to the topic - some topics seem to be made for deeper, profounder statements. Topics like life, death, love etc. Sometimes, depth can imply excluding certain clichees and stereotypes. Yet, some deep truths are taken to be universal, and can thus very easily become clicheed.

So: What do you think qualifies as deep? Generally? And specifically, what sort of works struck you as deep? Do you generally go for deep stories? When should storytellers strive for depth?

(Please note that I don't mean “pretentious”… there may be a fine line between deep and pretentious, but I think that once something is pretentious, it isn't deep anymore.)
last edited on Oct. 27, 2011 7:47AM
Banes at 9:34AM, Oct. 27, 2011
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What an awesome subject!

My first thought was that it might have something to do with ‘theme’…like you said, what is the story really about…is it ABOUT something. A plot could be super complex, could be interesting and exciting, but does it have something that lingers with you after it's over? 

But I guess no matter whether there's a theme, or what the theme is, a
story could still be either deep or shallow………..a theme like “true love
wins in the end” could occur in a very original, moving story, or in the most superficial brain candy.

Maybe it has something to do with authenticity and insight? Like, the story shows an understanding of how people really operate, how we think, how we interact……?

In the world of comics, the story that comes to mind for me is “Y: The Last Man”. It's a great, epic adventure story, but the ending stayed with me for days. I just couldn't shake it, it had so much emotional power.

Fascinating subject, anyway!
ayesinback at 9:50AM, Oct. 27, 2011
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Good question!  but I confess, not one I have thought much about.
 
Rather than observe a parallel between deep and pretentious, I draw one with deep and “full”.  And for whatever reason, when you requested an example, the novel Sophie's Choice came to mind instantly.
 
So using that example, this story is about a woman crippled by her past.  On the surface, the reader can readily accept that that past is her time in the concentration camp.  But as the story progresses, the narrative fleshes out (“makes full”) her character, the supporting characters, including the narrator, the present setting, so that real people, not “placeholders” or archetypes, are revealed.  This is what I've assumed is meant by “depth”.
 
For me, such depth is critical, at least in this story, because the kernel of the story would not be as awful if it came from a general place.  The depth makes it a personal account with which this reader felt great empathy without ever having any comparable life experience.  And then from there, with a single account, even though a fictional one, a more profound perception is derived of how horrific all such accounts of the camps, of war are – and what one definition of “devastation” can be.
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mlai at 9:47PM, Oct. 28, 2011
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So you're saying that as long as you make your characters and setting “realistic” or “3 dimensional”, then any plotline can be qualified as “deep”?
 
For example, "Hello my name is Inigo Montoya you killed my father prepare to die."  About as simple and tropish as you can get.  But, if you make the reader feel about the characters as if they're his real life friends and enemies, then that simple plot is deep?

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last edited on Oct. 28, 2011 9:48PM
gullas at 5:39AM, Oct. 29, 2011
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Depth :


The vertical distance
below a surface; the amount that something is deep.
Measure the depth of the
water in this part of the bay.
(figuratively) The
intensity, complexity, strength, seriousness or importance of an emotion, or
situation.

(thank you wiktionary)
So in a sense, depth in a literarture sense would be the vertical distance of how much we sense and feel the story…
but ofcourse it involves around persons feelings, situations etc. 
 
last edited on Oct. 29, 2011 5:44AM
ozoneocean at 7:27AM, Oct. 29, 2011
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I think what Ayes says definitely qualifies as “depth”- ie. there's more to the characters than simply what's on the surface, they've been given depth- body. They're no longer just 2D cut-outs, but have a third dimension.
 
Reading the Odyssey has done that for me with ancient Greece and the Greek myths- in all the simplified versions I've read before or seen in movies etc Ancient Greece has always been a cut-out  fairyland background, with Disney type gods doing magical pointless crap all over the place for no sensible reason… Actually reading the source is different, it's rounder, there's more depth, the motivations and actions of gods actually make perfect sense, the world actually works and requires those gods to work! It becomes a living world and no longer a cartoon.
 
For my own work, I like to imagine to myself I that I've given it some “depth”, at least my own idea of it… Not in Aye's definition because I'm just not that good a writer, but more in the idea of hinting at “deeper” themes that are bellow the obvious superficial stuff of explosions, and sexy, pretty characters and mecha, ie. the realities and consequences of war and violence. But I fear I'm far too ham-handed with that stuff.
 
ayesinback at 10:36AM, Oct. 29, 2011
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mlai wrote:
So you're saying that as long as you make your characters and setting “realistic” or “3 dimensional”, then any plotline can be qualified as “deep”?
 
For example, "Hello my name is Inigo Montoya you killed my father prepare to die."  About as simple and tropish as you can get.  But, if you make the reader feel about the characters as if they're his real life friends and enemies, then that simple plot is deep?
I'm understanding “narrative” more along the lines of “story” than just “plot line”.
 
I love Princess Bride, but would not consider it a “deep” narrative.  Part of the joy of Princess Bride is that it IS archetypical and not real or realistic.
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mlai at 4:39PM, Oct. 29, 2011
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I'm simply using that line as an example of a heavily-used tropish plot line.  I am not using the movie PB itself as an example of deep narrative.

But I see what you mean about story vs plotline.

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ayesinback at 5:39PM, Oct. 29, 2011
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So -
 
Let's look at another example :  The Little Prince.
It's a profound tale, but not a deep narrative.  My question is:  what are we looking for from a “deep narrative”?
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Banes at 7:55AM, Oct. 30, 2011
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Maybe depth is revealed if we are able to read (or watch or otherwise experience) a story differently through time.

Meaning we can get something completely different out of it as we grow up ourselves.

Ozoneocean makes a great point about mythical stories that have a dimension we appreciate better once we have the tools to understand it (sorry Oz, if that wasn't your point…it's one thing I took away from your post!)


Some stuff I read at my age now resonates differently than it did when I first read it at say 18. Still compelling stuff, but it gives something DIFFERENT for me now than it did then.


It's a little different than just changing with age….I mean, an episode of Bugs Bunny offers one thing to kids and another to adults (actually, that qualifies as “depth”, really. It's got layers. But we wouldn't use that cartoon as an example of something “deep”).


As far as a narrative being deep…hmmm. Probably has something to do with TRUTH. It shows us stuff that's true-but-not-necessarily-obvious about humans…and relationships and societies (say, in Julius Caesar or Chinatown or Michael Clayton).


I haven't read the Little Prince, though –  
last edited on Oct. 30, 2011 7:56AM
Banes at 7:58AM, Oct. 30, 2011
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Oh, and the pretentious thing…that's kind of the OPPOSITE of deep, isn't it? That would be something that THINKS it's deep, but isn't. (my poetry, say……..:-))
bravo1102 at 5:38AM, Oct. 31, 2011
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Sometimes a story is what it is.
 
That was the wonder of Princess Bride.  It had no pretensions of being anything except what it was.  A simple story that twisted and played with the tried and true conventions so many had grown up with.
 
And sometimes you shouldn't ask anything more from a story and it is pretentious to constantly be in search of it.  I taught Literature.  There are some awfully tired stones out there that have given up a whole lot of blood to satisfy the pretentions to “deep” thoughts of so many would-be critics.
 
But then I come from the BTs (Before Trope when it was conventions, themes and cliches)  Reading the NYT critic's pages and then preousing the NY Post and Newark Star Ledger one is immediately struck by the difference behind pretentious and non-pretentious criticism.  How one reviewr can hate a movie for a complete lack of narrative as it flails away in incomprehensible imagery that subverts everything to the point of endless boredom and another finds it full of deep, themes that unlock the very gates of meaning.
 
Utterly laughable that a work can completely fail as a story-telling enterprise and yet be prized precisely because of it's boring tedious ineptitude.  I'll just point to my avatar for a last word.
 
Yes Jay, everything does stink.
Genejoke at 9:33AM, Oct. 31, 2011
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I don't write deep stories, sometimes my stories have multiple plot threads but deep? not really. I do on occasion explore some ideas with my stories but that is never the key aim of my works. If anything i have wriitten is multi facted, that is most likely unintentional.
ozoneocean at 12:54AM, Nov. 1, 2011
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So from what we've discussed so far, “depth” can mean that a piece of work has “deeper” themes than what can be obviously seen on the surface, It can mean that the work is more than surface or 2D because the characters and settings ect have a third dimension to them, and it can mean that the narrative structure or general writing style is very complex.
                            
Well Bravo, you can't just blow off all those definitions and say “but does it tell the story”, because that only means that while the work could be deep, the reader is all surface :)
I think you can come at depth in a whole number of ways, and really it just means that there's more to your work than is immediately apparent. It's not an either or thing, it's something you'd judge on a case by case basis…
                                          
Generally I like to read books that have a bit more too them so I've got something to think about, but I do enjoy a good superficial adventure story too! And if something seems pretentiously put together like say “The Name of the Rose” (Umberto Ecco) or “A Hundred Years of Solitude” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), where the books are well written, well put together, and well researched, but too well thought out and crafted (inside and out) for their own good that they end up virtually felating themselves in an act of literary contortion, then it gets a bit annoying.
 
last edited on Nov. 1, 2011 12:55AM
bravo1102 at 3:52AM, Nov. 1, 2011
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ozoneocean wrote:
                                          
Generally I like to read books that have a bit more too them so I've got something to think about, but I do enjoy a good superficial adventure story too! And if something seems pretentiously put together like say “The Name of the Rose” (Umberto Ecco) or “A Hundred Years of Solitude” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), where the books are well written, well put together, and well researched, but too well thought out and crafted (inside and out) for their own good that they end up virtually felating themselves in an act of literary contortion, then it gets a bit annoying.
Spare yourself and don't read Foucault's Pendulum because that is precisely what it does.  But then you realize that's the point of the book.  It's a satire of the literary gyrations that its author has been accused of and the gyrations of logic rife in conspriacy theories. 
 
I never claimed I wasn't a shallow person.  It is only that when others meet me that they keep insisiting I'm so deep and thoughtful and insightful.  I have never believed them yet they keep insisting nonetheless.  I just like a good adventure story.  Real life is deep enough with out fiction authors trying to prove how deep they are.
 
Tell the damn story as best you can and if someone wants to read stuff into it I say as the wisest author I ever read said:
NOTICE PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
 
Abt_Nihil at 6:58AM, Nov. 1, 2011
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Thanks for the great feedback so far! I think the discussion shows that this is not an easy subject, and we can mean different things by saying that a story is “deep”.

Genejoke & bravo1102: I agree with you that depth is clearly not required from a story. I think a story can be worth my while even if it isn't deep. But, apart from works I can enjoy with an ironic distance (“it's so bad that it's good”), I would require a story to be well told and somewhat smart. Which would imply that telling a story well is independent of how deep that story is.

Personally, I've found that I like a good mix. I need my simple adventure fiction to be complemented by something deep. Either in the way that one story combines both aspects, or it just means I have to alternate between deep and “shallow” stuff.

I think ayesinback has a point about fleshing out stories (and their characters), to make them more “full” and thus giving them more depth. It even makes sense metaphorically: The fuller something is, the more distance there is between its surface and its bottom (= depth). Or (again, metaphorically) it could mean increasing density, giving it more substance.

But I'd also say that that isn't all there is to depth. I agree with Banes: It is also about topic. And that's how I take ayesinback's suggestion to look at The Little Prince. The Little Prince is quite minimalistic in every aspect. But most fans of this book would probably say that it is full of deep insights into the nature of human life, how life should be, what's important in life, etc. Personally, I'm a bit sick of The Little Prince, because I feel it often gets abused by shallow people to decorate themselves with something deep. Its content isn't being discussed, it just gets quoted over and over, which is obviously the end of all deep thought. That isn't just the fault of the book, but also of the culture surrounding it. But in a way, the book invites this behavior, being written like a collection of quotes to begin with. Pretty much the same goes for Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, who are far too quotable for their own good.

Based on this feedback, I'd modify my account from my first post as follows. Depth can be/depend on:
- Topic (as bravo1102 has suggested, this might also depend on the audience, and what topic and presentation of the topic they're open for)
- Stories and characters being well-rounded, fleshed out, “full”.
- Stories being layered: Its meaning being somewhere beneath the surface, possibly with different meanings being hidden underneath it.
last edited on Nov. 1, 2011 7:04AM
Byth1 at 7:01AM, Nov. 1, 2011
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I never fully got what being “deep” is. Does it mean a story with complex characters? A bunch of subplots? A fleshed out universe? Never really figured out what I thought was deep. I guess “Watchmen” is pretty deep, but this is coming from my limited grasp on “Narrative Depth”. I never really go for deep stories though, I just go with the first idea that pops in my head. Anyway I never really care if something is deep at all, as long as it's good(I did sit through “Kick-A**” after all XD).
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bravo1102 at 12:26PM, Nov. 2, 2011
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Conversely there is the carefully crafted story full of deep themes and metaphyr that is always dismissed because they can't get past the surface.
 
After all Attack of the Robofemoids is a fable about chauvanism and post-feminism but all anyone sees is topless dolls.  Mask of the Aryans is about identity, whether racial labels or thinking you're an ancient king.  But again no one sees past the kitsch and topless dolls. 
 
There is a satirical undercurrent to Princess Bride that is often lost especially in how it regards language and appearances.  
 
Just because something looks shallow doesn't mean it is just as because something is presented with depth and meaning it may not really be empty.
ayesinback at 1:08PM, Nov. 2, 2011
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I'm reminded of a high school English class - an “advanced” high school English class, mind you - where each of the students was assigned several chapters of MOBY DICK to analyze and identify metaphors, symbolism (“depth”) and then spend a complete class time to present the finding to the rest of the class.
 
What an arduous experience!  Until one day, a class member made a very convincing argument that MOBY DICK, in its entirety, was nothing more than a metaphor for a banana split.  The whale was the banana, the ocean the ice cream, Ahab the cherry.
 

With almost any platform and an individual's faith and belief, there's very little that might not be considered “deep”.  Ever read the annotated Mother Goose?  Ring-around-a-rosie = the bubonic plague.  “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” = the Queen of Scots.
 
Most writers succeed or fail on nothing more than a majority's perception.
 
 
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