Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Depth Done Right

An Example of What I Try to Teach…

I’ve been reading the new Dean Koontz thriller series that started with The Silent Corner. His character, Jane Hawk is great.

Now I study Dean Koontz a great deal because his writing is often invisible, his characters built to be real people, his plots usually twisted. And he is a master at all kinds of techniques, from floating viewpoints to pacing that won’t let you go.

So on looking back through the second book of the series, The Whispering Room, I happened to notice how well Koontz sat the scene with depth every chapter in one way or another.

Now we have a Depth workshop that we suggest everyone take before any other. It shows you how to do basic depth, in other words, hold a reader in a story.

Then we have Advanced Depth, Research, and Plotting with Depth workshops that add to that basic first depth course. But sadly, so often writers who learn depth forget to add it in at the start of every scene, at the start of every chapter, to ground the reader in the setting.

So let me give you a simple paragraph, actually only one sentence, of Dean Koontz doing depth right, with details and a ton of opinion through Jane Hawk about the setting she is in.

This is from the opening of Chapter 27 of the second part. About fifty chapters into the book at least.


The city bus growled through the late morning, seeming to be out of control when it gained any speed at all, lurching to the curb at each of the frequent stops, air brakes sighing as though with exasperation, wallowing back into traffic that didn’t want to admit it, less a motor vehicle than some hoven beast asserting privilege by virtue of its size.


One sentence.

The next paragraph starts…

At her window seat, Jane Hawk kept her head turned…

We got the scene clearly and completely. The entire chapter is only about 400 words, used to show how she escaped something in earlier chapters. A filler chapter, basically for the reader to be clear she is fine.

A lesser writer would have just said she got on a city bus and have her sit and worry about her kid. But I just wanted to show a master at work because I know a lot of you don’t study or read Koontz, even though he might be the second best storyteller working next to King. And a ton easier to study.

So for those of you who think depth is only needed in the opening, nope. Every chapter, every scene opening if you want to hold your readers in your book. And trust me, Koontz will hold you.

And in places in this series, you might not want to be held in the story. (grin)


    • dwsmith

      Yeah, I checked that three times myself, but that is the exact word he used. Remember, when storytelling comes first, all the basic rules of grammar and words go away in service of the story. Koontz is a master of that and the word makes logical sense even if not exactly correct.

      • Bill

        I couldn’t agree more with this. I didn’t even notice the word until these comments pointed it out. I was lost in the scene of that one sentence to take any kind of notice.

    • Thomas E

      A “hoven beast” is a very rare British usage; it refers to a disease in cattle where essentially the animal ferments its food in its stomach and swells up to a huge extent.

      Dean Koontz must read a heck of a lot to be able to add a detail like that to his fiction.

    • dwsmith

      I am constantly typing in other writer’s words to try to figure out what they did. I honestly didn’t notice this was one sentence when I looked back at it. It was only when I was reading it a third time that I noticed that and why it made complete sense to be one sentence because it was the experience of sitting on that bus all complete. He made the reader feel the bus and with what the character had just been through, it was a numb feeling loaded with opinion.

  • Teri Babcock

    Yeah. I love studying Koontz because he’s working at such a high level and yet accessible. It’s easier for me to tease out what he’s doing and why it works. King is hard. It seems like he should’nt be difficult to study, but he is.

  • David

    I started reading The Silent Corner a few days ago on your recommendation. Really great read.

    I hadn’t read Koontz in years, though I loved Intensity and Velocity and always admired him as a master of thriller pacing. The thing that struck me reading him this week was his choice of verbs. Strong, vivid, active.

    In the brief excerpt you cited: growled, lurching, sighing, wallowing, asserting.

    I retyped the first two chapters of The Silent Corner just to get the feel of it in my fingers and head. Good stuff. It’s a compelling read, and I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    • dwsmith

      David, all those verbs are opinion of the character at that moment. Not the write, the character. That is what I mean in the fourth week of Depth talking about opinion.

  • DS Butler

    One long sentence to set the scene then straight to character. Perfect example of depth without long-winded descriptions. Did he used to write gothics back in the day? I seem to remember reading something about that.

    Have you read Stuart Woods? What do you think of his work? He writes in such a sparse style but still keeps me turning the pages.

    • dwsmith

      Koontz had eleven or more pen names, wrote everything across the board. The Dean Koontz name happened to take off first and he ended up buying back or getting back all the other active pen names except for a few Leigh Nichols books he never got back in his control. There are rumors he still writes under a number of pen names.

      And yes, love Stuart Woods, met the man once.

      • Philip

        It’s funny, Dean, but I have a theory that you wrote either a certain Stuart Woods or Jeffrey Deaver novel. I know you signed an NDA and can’t confirm but you mentioned you had to ghost a best seller’s thriller due to deadline issues, so it’s fun for me to study the writing style and try to guess.

        • dwsmith

          You would never guess. I am a master (or was) of copying another writer’s voice and style and syntax.

          And I doubt if either Woods or Deaver ever had anyone ghost anything for them. Not their way of approaching publishing.

  • Maree

    I got mad at Dean Koontz for never finishing his Chris Snow series and stopped reading him.

    Now that I know more about the publishing industry I’m sure that it was most likely some sort of publisher obnoxiousness. I wonder about how many authors I’ve boycotted for that over the years. I remember writing to one who told me as diplomatically as she could that she’d changed publishers and they didn’t want any of that ‘magic stuff’ from her.

    And even now that I know, I still can’t help hesitating. One of my favorite volumes is a Dean Koontz anthology. But still I hesitate.

  • Dave Raines

    Late to the party but – I love Dean Koontz, he’s written some of my favorite books, but sometimes he is SO effective I can’t read him! Some of his descriptions of how depraved human beings can be – a few words, an incident – just shut me down when I am in some mental spaces. I’m partway through In the Corner and he’s foreshadowing stuff about Jane’s son, while never leaving Jane’s viewpoint. And I just had to walk away for a while. This, even though the good guys usually win with Koontz – but they get hurt, first. If these were cardboard characters, it wouldn’t matter, but they’re not.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Dave. His characters are real, frighteningly so. And he does it so simply, on the surface. And he knows how to build in dread and tension with just a few words here and there. I often will put one of his books down to give myself a rest from the reality, then go back to it because I can’t shake it from my mind.