I am new to writing. I wrote a lot when I was a kid and teen. I wrote my first book at 6 and then again in high school. I was also in journalism. After high school, life happened. I took an almost 20 year break, so I consider myself "new". I'm currently writing a YA Paranormal, but I'm unsure if it's meaningful, if it has enough depth. How do I determine this? Can I provide a synopsis, is that allowed here?
@MatthewDave suggests asking yourself what your story is about. I would go farther: ask yourself what is the meaning of your story, what it is you're trying to say.
If you're saying nothing at all, then no, your story doesn't have much depth. And at this point, it's too late to change that - you'd have to start from scratch. "What you're trying to say" is the core around which you're weaving your story. It's what guides you when you need to choose whether events would go this way or that. It's not something you can add after the fact.
If you're saying something, your story has some depth. That's a start. Exploring complex ideas, addressing their multiple facets, perhaps touching on multiple ideas, is what would give your story satisfying depth.
As an example, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is, on the surface of it, about a group of friends who go to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Beneath that surface, Hemingway explores the Lost Generation and how they deal with the war trauma in the post-war years. And it is also a story about a man coming to terms with the fact that the woman he loves will never be with him. It is a story about people who might seem shallow at first, but are not; and about finding strength, day after day, to deal with life, and about so much more. All in a story so short I'm not sure if it qualifies as a novel or a novela. That is depth.
No, synopses are not allowed here for critique. But, the question "How do I know if my story has enough depth?" is a good one in my opinion.
I'd say you have a few ways to assess it.
Your instincts. Since you are asking, the answer might be that you need more depth.
Beta readers, writing groups, and so on. If readers say they are bored, then you have not given them enough to chew on and might benefit from more depth.
Craft books. It's great that you wrote a story at six. I did not. I generated my first story when I was about 30, and had kids who enjoyed Curious George, and I started making up Curious George stories with them--following the structure of every Curious George story ever written. It is amazingly easy to make up a Curious George story--because the structure is so well-defined. Similarly, craft books can break the elements of a good novel down for you--the pacing, plot points, structure, number of characters, types of characters, number of subplots, how to bring in senses, how to more fully immerse, how to tackle themes, and on and on. You can use what you like from such books and ignore the rest--Paranormal is its own thing, after all, and you have a story unique to you that you want to tell.
Favorite books. Which author have you read that you would love to meet in real life? Look at their books, and break them down. How do they pace their narrative? How many plots do they weave? How much background do they provide, and how is it given? How are themes spoken to? Then compare to your own work.
I think there's no short cut but to apply your own analytic and creative and instinctive faculties to it, and also be willing to take on other opinions on your work.
"Depth" is a word that could mean many things. In common among many of the ways I could apply the word "depth" to writing is a sense that there are connections within the writing that are not explicitly put forward in the sentences.
These connections may be between the backstories of the characters, or they may be between actions in one part of a story and another, or many other possibilities. "Depth" is where paying attention to the story gives the reader information about and a better understanding of the story.
Managing "depth" can be a difficult adjustment to get right. At one extreme you can demand perfect attention to and deep analysis of every detail for a story to make sense. At the other extreme, things just happen; every sentence stands on its own.
All right, examples:
John discusses having a dream with his teenage girlfriend about being attacked by a spider. Three hundred pages later, the ex-girlfriend is the CEO of a multi-planetary munitions contractor about to attack John's homeworld. John must choose the manner of defense, either accurate harpoon missiles or reliable nets. The ex outfits her fleet with 100% defense against harpoons because she knows he will avoid the nets because the icon next to the "fire nets" button looks like a web. She wins.
John had a girlfriend. Lots of stuff happens. Ex-girlfriend runs huge, evil company that attacks John's world. John chooses to defend with the weapon she is 100% ready to counter. Oh well.
Ok, the example is maybe too simple. But I think you would agree that the first example has more depth.
The real key is: How do you feel about it? If the story feels flat, add more depth. If you have to constantly check your notes to remind yourself why a character acted as they did, maybe the connections are non-intuitive, unbelievable, or excessively convoluted.
When you think it is about right, have someone else read it, and listen carefully to the substance of their feedback.
A good way to ask if your work has meaning is to ask this simple question:
What is this story about?
With this in mind, a shallow story pops out like a sore thumb; the extent their answer can go to is 'It's about good people who are kind defeating bad people who are selfish' would be a good example. Or to use an actual example, say, Twilight:
'It's about a wallflower girl getting romanced by a hot mormon demigod vampire'.
This alone shows there's little going on beneath the surface. On the contrary, my most recent unpublished novel was actually overwrought, meaning it was equally bad, but unlike Twilight, also unmarketable. When asking the same of 'The Tale of Amerei Gemcutter', the answer looks something like this:
'It's about a girl coming of age, escaping a neglectful family, learning a skill, then settling on a new family while understanding the balance between accepting her desires while doing what's right, while also having a man learning to balance reason with assertiveness, getting over his abusive family and past, and accepting his worthiness to become a parent.'
This is way too much for one story, and the publishers were right to reject me as overly ambitious and rambling. Contrast with something like Terry Pratchett's Mort, which is:
'It's about a teenage boy getting an insight into the nature of death, fate, and duty as he gets an apprenticeship with the embodiment of Death'
Or perhaps my latest novel-in the works:
'It's about a woman who was raised in a cult getting exposed to ideas beyond her paradigm, and how she matures to cope with this.'
The answer to this simple question says a lot about the story's depth and quality.
+1 Galastel; I would say one way to approach an answer to her question, "What is the meaning of your story", is to ask yourself What do my characters learn?
Deep stories, at least by my definition, have characters learning something about the world (our real world, not their fantasy world), how it works, what is important in life, what is not that important.
I certainly don't want to slap readers in the face with life lessons; but my characters always learn something I personally think is important about life.
For me, the definition of "shallow" is characters that prevail but haven't changed by becoming any better. That might be a fun read, an adventure with imagination and clever plot twists, and I'm willing to have a shallow good time. But those stories are not deep. I'm not going to read them a second time. I don't fall in love with the characters, or feel like they are real people. I don't feel compelled to keep the book, it is something I'll donate to a school.
I'm unsure if it's meaningful, if it has enough depth. How do I determine this?
You might start by asking yourself: what kind of meaningfulness or depth am I looking for?
With very few exceptions, a fictional work is at heart a story about a character. Really good novels, of course, go well beyond being just a story: they have a thematic meaningfulness (the work invites the reader to consider the issues raised), or a depth of characterisation (one or more characters are complex in nature, richly described, or deeply examined), or a complexity of plot (e.g. multiple sub-plots meaningfully woven into the main storyline; or a frame story; or a non-linear plot line), or an artistry in the language itself. The truly great works of literature generally tick multiple boxes.
But are you planning your first novel to be a truly great work of literature? Most of us would settle for far less on debut: for example, simply getting published is a tremendous tick of approval, because it means an editor thinks your novel has sufficient appeal that people you don't know will want to buy it.
So perhaps when you ask yourself about meaningfulness and depth, you might first consider whether any of the elements - theme, characterisation, plot, language - actually require more work. For example, not every novel needs thematic depth: in fact, most of the novels in the New Releases section of your local book store just tell an entertaining story, with minimal thematic content. Teenage Leigh tracks down a fugitive; Jane falls in love with Larry; Ruh-el finds the nor-dragon's weakness and saves her village; Murray finally gets a job, but not the one he was looking for.
Add a theme if you will: Leigh's "voices in the head" turns out not to be a mental health disability but a paranormal gift; replace "Larry" with "Fatima" and set it in a small-minded town.
Or is it depth of characterisation you feel is lacking? Are your primary characters underdeveloped: do they have clear strengths and weaknesses, a past and a purpose, real bodies and clothes and mannerisms? Do they evolve as the plot progresses? Are your minor characters just cutouts? Is there sufficient tension between the different characters?
Instead, is it the plot itself that lacks depth? Are there enough twists and surprises? Are there sub-plots you can add or explore? Is the story too linear?
Or perhaps you're just telling a good old-fashioned tale, no great thematic depth, the characters are well-crafted, the plot is entertaining, but is it the language itself that lacks complexity? Is there insufficient variation in tone, pace, sentence structure? Is the dialogue too predictable? Are the dialogue tags too flowery? Does the linguistic cleverness of the first few chapters tail off? Is there inadequate description of setting? How often are touch, smell or taste evoked?
It's easy for an emerging writer (I'm thinking of myself here!) to waver between an exuberant confidence in their own ability and a demoralising doubt in the quality of what's actually produced. Beta readers and redrafting certainly help along the way, and hopefully the above offers a useful mechanism to reassure yourself that your novel has the depth you're after (or to identify where further work is needed), but the most important task for any writer is a simple one: write write write.