Being a Better Writer: Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Welcome back readers! I apologize for the lateness of this post, but I had a physical therapy appointment this morning, and that took up the early part of the day when I normally would have been writing this post.

Physical therapy? Yup, you read that right. Those of you who’ve been keeping tabs on all my posts will know that several months ago I twisted my knee at work and tore my meniscus. Since then, it’s been a slow recovery (aided only with gnashing of teeth by my employer, who let me sit for 30 days without medical treatment or work, one day short of the maximum allowed by law) that has been greatly aided by physical therapy. My knee isn’t back to full ability yet, though it’s definitely getting better (thankfully, as knee injuries suck). And physical therapy will wreck you! Or at least, it’s wrecking me. I am sore afterwards. But, like I said, getting better. It’s a good sore.

Good thing, too, because the amount of money my employer is spending to avoid spending money on medical care is, quite frankly, insane. Later this week I have to go back to a different doctor for another check-up. Now, physical therapy is under the guidance of a doctor. Why are they sending me to another doctor? For independent confirmation that I need physical therapy and am still injured.

That’s right. They’re so suspicious of doctors that they’re paying other doctors to confirm that the first and second doctors aren’t trying to cheat them. Personally, I think that says more about the company than it does about the doctors, but that’s just me.

Anyway,  you’re not here to read about that, so let’s get things moving. Starting with the announcement that this is the first topic off Topic List X! The big 1-0! We’re here at last! And I’m glad, because there are some good topics ahead!

Starting with today’s. Today, we’re going to discuss horizontal and vertical storytelling: what they are, what they mean, how they work, how they differ, and of course most importantly how you can use them in your work.

Now, I’m going to warn you. What you read here may not line up 100% with what you’ve read or heard elsewhere. Why? Because people disagree on some of these terms and what they mean, probably as a result of their background in English. Suffice it to say, in doing research on this topic to keep myself straight, I found articles and discussion pieces that flat-out disagreed with one another about what was assigned—or perhaps a symptom of—each axis. Translation? There’s a little leeway here, and if you find yourself thinking “Well yeah, but I heard that …” well, you probably did. Far as I’m aware there isn’t some set-in-stone version of what we’re about to talk about, just one that’s a little general, the result being that some argue a particular facet of a story belongs on one axis while others argue that it belongs on another.

So then, with that warning in mind, let’s begin, starting with the very basics: What am I talking about when I say “Horizontal and Vertical storytelling?” How can a story be horizontal or vertical? Isn’t that a position?

If you had that last thought, then yes, you are correct. Horizontal and vertical are positions, and when we speak of horizontal and vertical storytelling, we’re talking about the position, or perhaps approaches, that each story brings to how it tells its story. Think of them, if it helps, as sliding scales ranging from, oh, zero to ten. Vertically and horizontally. And each story is going to take a position somewhere along those axis’s with how it tells its story. So, for example, a story might be, say, five ticks upwards on vertical, and eight clicks over on horizontal. Or a story might be only one or two ticks into vertical and seven horizontal. Or, ten and ten! Or nine vertical and one horizontal. Or even one and one, though … that’s not a good idea. Because if your story isn’t digging for the vertical, then it should at least be gunning for horizontal. Likewise in reverse.

Okay, got the picture in your head now? Figured out roughly what I’m talking about with regards to the whole horizontal/vertical thing? If you’re thinking of something like an x/y graph from algebra class, that’s exactly what you should be holding onto. Fix it in your mind.

So, now that you’ve got the picture, we need to assign some meaning to those two axis’s, horizontal and vertical. Something that gives them meaning. So, you ready? Here goes.

The vertical axis, the one that goes up and down? The Y, for those using the algebra comparison? This is the depth of the story. This covers things like worldbuilding, details, metaphor, pauses for prose, background, lore, etc. Stuff that establishes the world that the story takes place in. The higher along this axis the story is, the more you’re going to see about the depth of the world itself. So things like the history of the city that the book takes place in, or the religions of the world, or the lore behind some monster or … really, anything that makes the world deeper.

Deeper, personally, is the word that I prefer to use to describe this. The more vertical you get, the vaster the world your story takes place in becomes. The more the reader understands and knows about it. Or, as I said, the deeper said world goes. If you’re building a world you can lose yourself in, and the reader’s going to hear a lot about it, then you’re going to have a story that’s vertical.

Of course, I also mentioned prose above, which means we’ve already moved into an area of contention among various writers. See, some argue that vertical is solely reserved for content that does not move the story forward, but instead serves as extraneous stuff that may be nice, but isn’t needed. The oft-cited example here is purple prose, that overly-flowery language that really isn’t accomplishing anything as far as the story goes but serves to read nicely for the reader, or wax poetical on various aspects of the story. But they also argue that background material such as world-building, etc, that doesn’t move the story forward is vertical, while that which does is horizontal, and … Yeah, this one’s up to you really. Personally, worldbuilding should be in the service of the story one way or another, so I think this attempt at breaking things down goes a little too far, though if you’re a writer of more “literary” works where moving the story forward isn’t a concern, I suppose it may be of use to you. Me? Worldbuilding and lore, background, etc … all that stuff is vertical. As I said, if you’re putting it in the story it should have a purpose anyway.

So that’s our vertical axis: Things that make the world deeper for the reader. Worldbuilding, lore, background, etc etc etc. If a world is deep, meaning it’s high on vertical content, you’re going to end up knowing a lot about it, how it works, what is where, etc. Low means it’s going to be sparse on details. As an example, an action story about a digital heist that is high on vertical content would go into a bit of depth about the company that the protagonist was going to steal from. Where they came from, who they are, what they do, etc. And in a good story, this will all be relevant, either in the carrying out of the heist (such as who to target, etc) or in painting a picture for the reader of what’s needed for things to happen.

Now, the inverse of that will still have the same premise—digital heist. But that depth won’t be there. The reader won’t get all the details on the company the protagonist is after. They’ll be given quick, lightly-informative bites, direct and focused that allow the story to move on with what happens next. So, digging deeper into this example, where a deep story would spend time with the protagonist investigating the company’s security systems, going into how they work and the like, a shallow story may just sum it up with the narrative saying that they’d “checked up on security systems and knew what they were doing.

Okay, so that’s the vertical axis. What about the horizontal one? How does a story move back and forth on that X-axis?

Well, some of you might have already guessed based on the previous paragraphs, but the horizontal axis? That one is all about things happening. Vertical is depth, digging into the world and the lore, but horizontal is all about going from point A to point B in the story and how the story goes about that.

Sound a little, well … Simple? You’re not alone in thinking that. But that’s pretty much what the horizontal axis is all about—how determined the story is to make things happen. What things those are, well, that’s up to the author. But if things happen? You’re moving on that horizontal axis. The more devoted your story is to getting stuff to happen, the further along that horizontal axis your story is going to tick. And the less focused it is on making things happen … Well, likewise in the opposite direction.

Now, a little clarification here, as some of you might be saying “But wait, if nothing happens … how is there a story?” To that I respond by saying to think of the horizontal axis as a mark of how much happens, and how determined the story is to get there. For example, there are classic short stories that don’t rate highly on the horizontal scale, but instead go very deep. The whole story may consist of two characters talking, or even one character musing without much physically going on … but there’s a lot of depth to things, so that’s entirely fine.

Crud, the short story Vacation from Unusual Events is exactly that. Realistically, there isn’t much horizontal that happens in that story. There’s the opening with the protagonists in the tree, them descending the tree to check the campsite after the bear leaves, the dropping off of the one character for his flight home afterwards, and then the protagonist returning home. That’s pretty low on the “things that happened” scale.

But all the talking and discussion those two characters go through? All the musing and thoughts? That’s all vertical stuff, and that’s what makes up most of the core of the story.

So don’t think that a story needs to have lots of horizontal in order to be good. It doesn’t. Plenty of stories go vertical rather than horizontal.

Okay, so by now I hope you’ve got a good grasp on what makes up each axis. So now comes the real question that, as a writer, I hope you’re already asking: what’s the use of knowing this now that I know?”

To be fair, that’s not a bad question. How is knowing this useful? Well, in the same way that knowing what genre you want to write your next story in is useful. Or in the same way that knowing what made another story tick for its audience useful.

For example, currently I’m working on the sequel to Colony, titled Jungle. Part of writing this sequel is in making sure that it follows the same sort of vertical and horizontal placement that Colony did so that both stories feel “the same,” for lack of a better word. In other words, I know where Colony lies on the horizontal and vertical axis’s: Very vertical, and pretty darn horizontal too (there’s a constant snapping drive to the story that keeps everything going forward). Now as I work on Jungle, I need to make sure that the story achieves a similar “rating” of vertical depth and horizontal snappiness. By comparing the two, I can deliver a story that ideally will match up to the presentation style of the original, thereby satisfying the audience by delivering a similar blend of depth and action.

This is an extremely helpful analysis, because at the moment, with the current draft, it feels to me as though it is a little less horizontal and just a smidgen less vertical—things that can be fixed and will be as soon as the initial draft is done.

You can also use this method of analyzing your story just to look at a story that has no precursor. To “measure” it against both axis’s, see where it rest, and then potentially spot how it may not match your vision, either in that it’s too snappy on the horizontal or doesn’t have enough vertical for the amount of horizontal you present. Stepping back and looking at your story in such simplified terms can be quite useful for realizing where you need to make a change, but at the same time, the ability to discern which axis you need to adjust can have a lot of ramifications.

In that vein, I would like to spend a moment on balance. As you may have noticed, I stated a moment ago that Colony actually rates fairly highly on both depth and action. This is something you can do. Horizontal and vertical storytelling, you must realize, are not at odds with one another. While you can reduce one or increase one, these two measurements are not co-dependent.

Sands, I used a lot of italics in that last paragraph. But I want to stress the point once again: Horizontal and vertical storytelling are not co-dependent on one another, but rather independent. You can take a story that’s very vertical and add a lot of horizontal to it and vice-versa. It doesn’t mean that it will be a good idea, but there’s nothing that says it’s a bad one either.

Save one, teeny-tiny little note: Do not make a story that has both no horizontal and no vertical. A story that has neither of them isn’t really a story … just a collection of stuff. If you’re going to be light on one of them make sure you put more into the other. For example, a lot of literary fiction is largely vertical, but with very little horizontal. And likewise a lot of straight genre fiction—pulp stuff—is largely horizontal with very little vertical. And then there are a lot of works that jump around to various locations. Colony, as I’ve said, is both horizontal and vertical plus fairly well along in each, while another one of my books, One Drink, is very much horizontal with a lighter touch of vertical that was expanded later in the sequel.

Now, I want to throw a caution out here before we call it a day. Be wary of stretching your story by trying to force vertical or horizontal into it. Simply having a story that has lots of vertical but little horizontal doesn’t automatically make a story good or bad, so don’t feel that you need to stretch something that isn’t there. A story with a focus on vertical storytelling was likely written with that goal in mind; trying to add unneeded horizontal to it could be detrimental to the whole. There are good stories that focus on one axis or the other, and there are bad stories. So don’t feel that you need to stretch or pull one aspect of your story just because. If it needs it, sure. But don’t force it. Keep the goal in mind, and where the story performs best.

All right, I think that’s it. We’ve covered what I wanted to go over today in some good detail. So, quick recap: Vertical storytelling is about the depth of the story, horizontal about the movement. Stories are a mixture of both, and in different amounts that are not co-dependent. By looking at your story and asking “How horizontal is this?” or “How vertical is this?” you can help ascertain where your focus may need to be, or what your audience expects, thus helping you deliver what you (or they) envision.

So, looking for a tool to help you analyze your story? Open the writer’s toolbox and bring out the vertical/horizontal axis, and see where your work falls.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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