Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

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Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

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To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

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Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.

Author: Donald Levin

A prize-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of six Martin Preuss mysteries: Crimes of Love, The Baker's Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and the newest, Cold Dark Lies. He is also a contributor to Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity's End, and has recently published a sequel to his contribution, The Exile. He is also the author of The House of Grins, a novel, and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine. He lives and writes in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for the Martin Preuss Mysteries.

One thought on “Promoting Depth in Fiction”

  1. Holy, moly, Don! Now I’m convinced that I’m writing with the mentality of a 2nd grader compared to this. So much to think about here. I mostly write by the seat of my pants with a sloppy sort of inner sense of what the better books I’ve read are like. Lots to think about here.

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