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Story - Depth vs Width

The X-Men characters Wolverine and Juggernaught

Storytelling - Depth vs Width


Status: seed

Suspension of Disbelief

When you tell a story of fiction, you are asking the audience to suspend their disbelief. To temporarily believe the imagined world of the story. Required for the audience to become immersed in it. Take the story of X-Men. Where some people, labelled mutants, have rapidly evolved. Growing abilities like teleknisis and rapid healing. In reality, there is no such things as mutants. The storyteller is asking the audience to ignore that fact.

A poster supporting the Mutant Registration Act



The suspension of disbelief is like an elastic rope. One end tied to the audience, the other to reality. The storyteller pulls the audience away from reality. When the story is over, the storyteller lets go and they snap back.

This suspension of disbelief can only go so far. If the story is too unbelievable. If the storyteller pulls them too far from reality, they will snap back prematurely. Disengaging from the story. We have all seen an action movie where the hero does something so unbelievable, so far-fetched, the audience says in unison "b#llsh!t!". This is the point where the storyteller loses the audience.

The Bat Symbol

The 2005 film Batman Begins avoids breaking the suspension of disbelief. Despite the story being far fetched. One man fighting mobs of criminals, evading police and concealing his identity. It avoids straying too far from reality by going deep into how he does it. Trained by ninjas to use martial arts, fear and shadow to engage many opponents. Combined with limitless wealth. Giving him access to sophisticated equipment. It also details how close he comes to failing. Every time he went out as The Bat, it wasn't easy. Always getting injured. Always one step away from getting captured or killed.

Depth vs Width

The X-Men character Wolverine

Depth vs width is an indicator of whether a story will maintain the suspension of disbelief or not. How deep the storyteller explores idea(s) vs how many ideas are being communicated. The character Wolverine from X-Men is an example of depth. His abilities are:

  • bones laced with adamantium (an unbreakable metal),
  • retractable claws,
  • hyper keen senses &
  • rapid healing. Making him almost unkillable and impossible to determine his age.

Wolverine's mutation gave him hyper keen senses and rapid healing. Consistent with the core idea of the X-Men story, mutants. His other abilities, the metal bones and claws come from exploring that idea. Derived by suspending disbelief and accepting mutants exist. Then asking what would that world look like? It's believable that the military would have interest in someone with rapid healing. They would make a better solider than an average human. It's also believable they would experiment to 'improve' him. Originally, it was the military that laced his bones with adamantium and gave him claws. Unbreakable bones are better than rapidly healing ones. Claws mean he doesn't need to carry a weapon, he is the weapon. Deriving ideas from the core idea allows the storyteller to add more fiction. Without moving the audience further from reality.

The X-Men character Juggernaught

The character Juggernaught is an example of width. His abilities are:

  • superhuman strength, durability and
  • immunity to most physical attacks.
A glowing red gem

These abilities are consistent with the core mutant idea. But... he isn't a mutant. He obtained them by discovering a hidden temple dedicated to the deity, Cyttorak. Uncovering a gem within and reading its inscription. This character isn't exploring the mutant idea, it's introducing new ones. Extra-dimensional beings and magic. Pulling the audience further away from reality. Putting more strain on the rope. Risking breaking the suspension of disbelief.


The creators of South Park describe this idea from a different perspective. When they have written an episode outline. A list of story beats (moments that moves the story forward). They check if the words and then belong between those beats. If so, they have something boring. Or in their words, "you're f#cked". Instead, the words therefore or but should belong. These words mean a story beat derives from the previous one. Going deeper.

Graph comparing Wolverine's and Juggernaught's story beats. Wolverine's only uses 'therefore', Juggernaught's uses 'and then'.

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Story - Depth vs Width
A sci-fi robot taxi driver with no lower body