Taking the Reader Deeper

When I think about the writing of fiction, I tend to think best in images. What I mean is that instead of just saying that a novel needs to have momentum from the first page to the last, I use the image of dominoes falling. I tell writers that on the very first page they need to knock down the first domino and make sure the following pages keep the rest of the dominoes falling.

Lately, another image about writing fiction has come to mind. I think it all started when I realized that I was seeing some very fine writers producing novels that really could not be faulted technically. The characters were okay, the first domino was successfully toppled, the plot was good…..so why was I rejecting this novel?

The image that came to mind was that of a large woods thick with trees in the middle, but with fewer trees on the outer edges. In short, it was a woods that began with a few trees and as you walked deeper into the woods, the thicker the trees got. I don’t know about you, but a woods thick with trees is a lot more interesting to me than one with a few scattered trees. The heart of the woods is really the best part of the woods.

So it occurred to me that although some of the novels I was reading were okay, perhaps even good, they were still skirting the edge of the woods. The writer was content with just being a good writer technically. And yet, to me, as a reader, I wanted more. I wanted the fullness of the story the writer was seeing but not fully communicating. And I knew the fullness of the story could only be found if the writer would venture deeper into the woods.

I hope that makes some sort of sense. I suppose I could also liken it to a swimming pool. The shallow end of the pool is fine, but to really swim, you need to get out in the deep water.

Years ago (many years ago), I had an enjoyable job driving a bookmobile for the county library. I loved that job. I did it for several years and could imagine doing it for the rest of my life. But then I got to thinking….do I really want to stay here, unchallenged, and not find the (hopefully!) deeper and more rewarding life God may have for me elsewhere?

In talking to a job interviewer, I explained my problem. He pointed me to Psalm 107:23-24 which says

Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

He said that to see the works of the Lord, you had to go out to the deeper water. I followed his advice, took the job he offered me and the rest is history. A glorious history, really. God has led me into a remarkable ocean of discovery in my life. And hopefully, there are even greater depths ahead.

In fiction–as in real life–the wonders are in the deep places. Your novel will be best written as you take yourself into the deep end of the waters….or deeper into the woods of your story. That’s where the riches are to be found.

How to do this, you ask? One way is to let each succeeding draft take you there. Every draft of a novel should not only become better technically as you iron out the grammatical and copyediting mistakes, but it should also take you deeper into the woods. Deeper into the real story that you’ve only seen from afar before now. Perhaps one entire draft could be devoted to adding depth to the story….taking it deeper into the woods.

Another way is to make sure you believe your novel is really happening. It sounds strange, but when an author is writing a novel, he must, on a very real level, believe the story is happening. To the extent the story is real to you, so will it be to your readers. This brings up the Mary Gordon quote I often cite. Ms. Gordon says her characters are so real to her that when she gets to heaven she plans to look them up and ask them how things went for them after the novel ended. That can only come from a willingness on her part to believe in her characters and in the story they have to tell. To walk deeper into the woods with them.

I believe this relates to what Henry James called “felt life” in fiction. Does the reader feel the life of your story….or is he merely observing the actions of the characters you’ve created?

I’m sure writers who have mastered this aspect of fiction have their own ways of taking their story deeper. Try to find your ways. If nothing else, invest a full next draft of your story in finding ways to take it deeper into the woods. It will be well worth it…and perhaps the most important element of fiction writing you will master.

9 replies
  1. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    This is the part of the class where the student knows deep in his heart the teacher has brought up something profound and meaningful and so needed in his work, but he can’t clearly get his arms around it. He’s a little lost in the woods. He raises his hand and says, “Could you give us an example? We really want to understand this clearly.”

  2. Nick says:

    I’ll search for one, Michael. I wasn’t sure I was being clear. It was clear to ME, but then I wrote it. I do need it to be clear to my blog readers too. Give me a day or two to see if I can find a good example. Likely it will be a before and after. I might write it myself if I can’t find an example that makes my point.

  3. Tami Meier says:

    Out of all your blogs, this is my favorite. I love the word pictures of the dominos falling and taking your readers deep into the forest.

    Your word picture will not be soon forgotten and I will take it to heart.

    Thank you!

  4. Nick says:

    Thanks, Tami.

    Michael, I went to author Susan Meissner for an example. She is one of my favorite authors mostly because she does venture deep into the woods with every book she writes. I was blessed to be her editor for her first nine books. My favorite is “In All Deep Places.” I highly recommend it as an example of “deep woods” writing.

    Susan has taught a workshop with author Lisa Samson on adding depth to fiction. When I asked her this morning how she might answer your question, she responded by using the word “layering” to describe good fiction. She wrote:

    “The quickest example I can give is to think on two planes. Character and plot. Just those two. People will care about characters where the plot is incidental if the characters are deeply layered and people will care about the plot if the characters are incidental for the same reason. And to me, layering a plot or the character with depth is simply (ha! as if it were simple) endowing the plot or character with a personality that appeals, even assaults, all the senses. Not with overdone purple prose but with subtle skill. I usually recommend reading ‘Peace Like a River’ by Leif Enger. He doesn’t have drop-dead gorgeous prose on every page, if he did it would be sensory overload. He weaves it in gently, knocking your socks off such that you pause for a moment to recover from the exquisiteness of a single paragraph and you look down at your feet and there are your bare toes.”

    Michael, I will still try to come up with examples. But in the meantime, read one of Susan’s novels and see how she creates “felt life” in her fiction (to use the Henry James phrase). Creating felt life is the same (to me) as adding depth to your fiction….or going deeper in the woods for your story.

  5. Nicole says:

    Nick, I agree that In All Deep Places is one of Susan’s best. And her prose is “pretty” and deep. She manages to keep the layers subtle and restricted.

    I would suggest that the current preferred word count limits inhibit the desired depth. Some do well with those limits (i.e. Susan, Chris Fabry), but others write at the edge of the woods possibly because of them, although some write formulaic to please the “rules” police. JMO.

  6. Jan Cline says:

    Oh my goodness. This lines up with other encouraging words I have been hearing over the last few weeks. I long to go deeper into the woods, but it is scary. Since I last emailed you about my MS, so much has happened and I have felt the call of the deep woods so to speak. But Im also learning not to go in there without the survival tools. So I am stuffing my backpack with everything I know will help me, my bible, an editor and courage from above – to name a few. Dennis Hensley told me on Friday to “fix it and send it.” A gentle nudge into the trees. Im going to find a picture of deep woods to put above my desk to inspire me.
    Thanks Nick
    Jan Cline

  7. Wijaya says:

    Your maple is simply befiutaul. Closest match I’ve spotted is a Virginia Creeper growing through some trees. Stunning.We’re having a strangely warm late September/early October. In fact, we’ve had a heatwave (no exaggeration) which feels entirely wrong (though I know that sounds perilously close to a complaint, it’s not meant to be – just an observation). The temperatures are up in the high twenties (t-shirt and shorts weather) and yet the leaves are changing colour and falling. Very strange and unsettling. Sunday I drove down a winding country lane overhung with horse-chestnut and oak trees. It was hot so my car windows were open. Had the strangest experience of hearing repeated popping sounds as I drove over conkers and acorns. During a ‘normal’ autumn, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of this! As I say, mighty odd. But I gather that more seasonal, chillier weather is on the way. 🙂

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