Being a Better Writer: Going Vertical

I’m back! No longer diseased! Well, not fully. And still with a recovering knee injury, but those things take time, or so I’m told by the doctors. But I am well enough to write write write at last! My mind is clear! And so after a long, unwelcome delay, we’re finally getting back to a follow-up post I alluded to some time ago.

That’s right, remember that post I wrote on Horizontal and Vertical storytelling a few weeks back? Because today’s post was originally, before I came down with disease that made me cough my lungs into a bowl, going to be the follow-up. Lousy timing, but what it means for readers today is that I suggest going back and reading that first post if you don’t remember the details behind it. Because I’ll give a quick, one-sentence recap related to today’s topic at hand, but after that I’m diving right into the thick of things, so if you’re not caught up on what horizontal and vertical storytelling are, you’ll want to read that link up above first, and then come back for this post.

Right, the preamble is out of the way, so let’s dive into it. Let’s go vertical and give our stories some depth!

Now, what some of you are probably thinking at this point, or were even thinking after that post a few weeks ago, is why I wanted to do a post on exactly this topic. After all, explaining to someone what horizontal writing is and how to do it? That’s pretty straightforward, since almost every story we’ve even been exposed to growing up (especially Hollywood action-blockbuster style stories) are horizontal focused. Point A to point D. Action beat to action beat.

We’re familiar with this kind of approach, and it’s what most think of when discussing stories. Hit the point, move to the next point, then the next, and so on and so forth. While not technically correct to call it such, for many this is essentially how they think of storytelling. Again, it’s not correct, but for a layman it’s pretty accurate.

My point is, explaining horizontal storytelling to someone is fairly easy and straightforward because most people understand how to tell a horizontal story. It’s familiar and easy to grasp. Vertical storytelling, on the other hand, is something that a lot of people aren’t familiar with up front. It’s not nearly as often talked about, nor as often recognized, though it can be present in many entertainment items you may have enjoyed.

So, with that as our backing, how does one go about building a story that has vertical elements?

Well, to start, I want to draw a line between two conceptions on the topic and really quick get into something that we’ll call Faux Vertical and Real Vertical. Vertical storytelling, as we covered in that prior post, is use of careful detail to create a world of deep lore and thought for your readers. However, this doesn’t mean that vertical storytelling is achieved by simply throwing out as much detail as possible. That’s Faux Vertical, ie shoving every bit of detail you can into the story just to make it “deeper.” And you’ll find stories that do this. It’s not uncommon. Crud, even one or two of the Wheel of Time books (Sorry Jordan, I love them but it’s true) were guilty of this.

Actually, with all apologies to Jordan, that happens to be an excellent example of both kinds of what we’re talking about here. See, for many of the WoT books, Real Vertical is the approach used (and what that is, we will get to in a moment, along with more examples). But for one or two books, Jordan changed styles and gave readers Faux Vertical, books that were filled with details that didn’t add anything to the experience or greater world at all (aside from “Hey, there’s a random kingdom here that will never be mentioned again!”). He later swapped back to Real Vertical, but it did leave a mark on those books (which are, for that reason among others, regarded as the lowest, weakest point of an otherwise impressive series).

The problem was that it wasn’t real depth. The detail that was added? It was simply … trivia. Random factoids (actually, more like encyclopedia entries) that added nothing to the overall narrative or world. Or rather, what it did add wasn’t … important. It wasn’t vital. It didn’t tie into anything or the larger scheme of things. It added nothing for its inclusion except, well, “stuff.”

This is Faux Vertical. Just adding detail and information for the sake of adding information. It doesn’t truly add anything to the story, or tie-in to the narrative. It’s just information. The kind of stuff you’d find in a guidebook. Detail for the sake of detail.

Now, really quick, I do want to make a quick distinction here. I’m not saying that any detail that doesn’t tie-in or add to the narrative isn’t important. After all, there’s detail that establishes setting, paints a picture of the scene, etc, etc etc. I’m not talking about that kind of detail. That’s fine, and should be in your work. And those can be a sentence or two, maybe a small paragraph if you’re really laboring some setting.

Faux Vertical on the other hand, is almost … well, think of it as “infodumping to make the world larger.” Trying to make one’s world seem deep and complex by giving the reader as much information as possible about everything. Is it something the author thought of while worldbuilding! In it goes, whether or not it really has anything to do with the events of the story or helps build the great world at all.

This is Faux Vertical. Or False Vertical. And … it happens. It’s often seen when a young writer wants to write an epic, an adventure with a lot of verticality, and doesn’t quite know how to do it. They get caught up in the idea of “more is deeper” and throw every detail they can at the reader.

Got it? Good. Because now that you understand what isn’t a Vertical story, or what doesn’t make one but masquerades/is commonly mistaken as one, we can look at the differences that make a story a real vertical story. I know, this might seem a bit of a backwards approach to some of you, but it should make sense by the end.

See, a real vertical story is going to have lots of details. There’s going to be a lot about the world that it gives the reader. However, there are some critical, key differences that the astute reader above may have already picked up on.

First and foremost is this: all the details serve the story.

Okay, let me explain what I mean by that. Above I brought up The Wheel of Time and how several of the books stooped into Faux-Vertical storytelling. Well, the biggest difference between the few books that did that and what had came before (as well as what came after) was that the detail and depth given in those books had no purpose other than to sound interesting. All the prior books? They were deep, yes. There was lots of vertical material, yes, but all of it served the story. Sure, you might get a paragraph on the setup of a particular type of tent, right? Except then the cast and characters would spend an amount of time in those tents, or need to construct one themselves, or a detail about their composition and makeup would be important for a scene a few pages or chapters later where a spy would cut through a tent wall to eavesdrop, or the characters would need to escape, or—

You get the point. These details, this material that the story included? It served the story in some way. Usually not immediately. But it was information that the reader could trust was important later.

That’s the first step of making a vertical story: Making sure that all the information you do add to the story isn’t just information, but relevant information, information that ties into things and helps make other aspects of the story clear.

Now, before I offer an example of this, I need to throw in another caveat: Such information doesn’t take effect immediately, but rather later, and relies on a reader’s ability to put two and two together to come up with the full answer. Or, to rephrase this, one often does not see the information needed to understand a facet of the story right before said facet is presented, but instead chapters earlier (or later, depending on the story). Think of it as sort of seeding a story with a lot of little clues to tiny mysteries that the reader must then pay attention to in order to gain a full understanding later (which on a side note, this is why some people do not do well with vertical stories; the mindset required to enjoy the story is something that they’ve never trained in or experienced, and they quickly become lost or frustrated when they both ignore details and then fail to build a base for later).

Okay, examples, both of stuff that ties things together and of the amount of time that can pass. And to many of your surprise, I’m going to pull my examples from somewhere that isn’t a written piece, but from a video game instead (the visual medium makes this easier to illustrate). Vertical games are rare, rarer percentage-wise than books I would expect, but when they do show up they’re excellent examples of vertical storytelling.

The example I want to use here is from the game Hollow Knight, an incredibly well-made Metroid-style title that makes heavy use of vertical storytelling. Anyway, early on in the game, the players come across a massive underground city-ruin known as “The City of Tears.” One of the big features of the City of Tears is the constant rainfall coming from above, slowly flooding the place. Many of the lower levels are indeed flooded, and the sewers, which the player also explores, are fairly flooded.

Of course, you may have noted that this is an underground city, which begs the question of where the rainfall/waterfalls are coming from.

Then, later in the game, much later, the player finds themselves in a vast underground lake, fueled by water coming from the surface—and if they open their map, they’ll see that the lake rest right above where the underground ruin is.

Ahah! Connection made! The lake the player is swimming in is above the underground city, and the water cascading down over the city is therefore the lake leaking through.

That? It’s a vertical detail (pun intended). The player is introduced to multiple details about the setting (water cascading from the ceiling of the city, the position of the lake) that explain why the lower levels of the city were flooded.

This is how vertical storytelling works, and Hollow Knight makes great use of it. You give the reader all of these details that then tie back into the narrative, into what’s happening, and come together to form an explanation.

So, how would that same explanation been handled had Hollow Knight given it a horizontal approach? Simple: The moment the character entered the city, the focus would have panned up, showing the rain/waterfalls, and then the roof of the cavern, and then the lake above that. Just “Boom,” here you go. Straight explanation before the narrative dove into the flooded city.

With the vertical approach, however, the player isn’t fed the information directly, but rather given all the pieces over a period of time and asked to put them together on their own. And while this may be an example from a game, the approach serves the same idea and execution in a work of fiction that’s written. The reader is given information about the world that ties into the narrative and what occurs in the story, but not immediately. Not at that time and place. And they may have to do some connecting on their own in order to pull together another aspect of the story and reach a conclusion about the greater world as a whole.

Colony (while still staying relatively spoiler-free here) does this as well (naturally). Information and details about the world and setting are doled out constantly, each of them not only affecting the narrative and the characters (such as the revelations that some details, like the planet’s mass and changing gravity, do not add up) but also combining with later details to give all new conclusions and bringing further light to the overarching universe. In this effect, these kinds of details that a vertical story offers are the kind that will add up to a greater whole once the reader adds them together. Sort of a two-plus-two approach, but the end result is five.

But again, all of this information feeds back into and shapes the narrative. In Colony, details are given about certain cities, such as refueling ports or agricultural stations (that latter one might be the sequel, but I digress) that then not only serve as bits of deeper lore about the universe, but also influences decisions of characters as well as larger, overarching pieces of the narrative. The details given aren’t just empty information (Faux Vertical), but instead real parts of the world that come together with other parts to shape and influence the story as it moves forward (Real Vertical). And they come together in the reader’s mind to expand into something greater.

If this sounds like a challenge to put together … Well, it is. Verticality isn’t easy. For the author, but also for the reader. Even well-done vertical storytelling isn’t enjoyed by those who aren’t readers of vertical material. A non-vertical reader … Well, we talked about this previously in the post discussing the differences between horizontal and vertical.

Filling a story with vertical depth isn’t easy. The details offered need to tie back in to the greater whole, either to the characters, expanding the world around them, or so on. These details then need to be doled out in some form or another so that they don’t bore the reader but instead encourage them to think more on them, with the goal of putting two and two together to come up with an even more expanded view.

Now, with all that, there’s one more thing to talk about. Some of you might be wondering how one combines the horizontal and the vertical. After all, the vertical is depth, while the horizontal is concerned with getting from point A to point B. How can you mix the two?

Simple. Okay well, not simple, but it’s doable. You make sure that the vertical material serves to support the horizontal, that it adds to it.

For example (and I’ll bet you did not see this coming), look at the first three games in the Gears of War series. Yes, the series often gets mocked as “dudebro” shooters with no sensibility, but they aren’t. Not really. And while the series does tell a very horizontal story on the straight approach, the games are actually chocked with optional vertical content—optional because of the nature of player choice, but vertical content all the same. Collectibles that add tiny details to the background lore, off-hand comments the characters make, even the settings that they travel through—all vastly expand the story to those that pay attention, allowing an aware, attentive player to answer many questions that the horizontally focused core narrative only raises. Gears actually has been lauded by those who go diving into the game’s lore for its successes in carefully packing so much of itself with vertical material—all optional in the case of a game, because players can simply ignore it.

But for those who do embrace it, the series is a good example of both horizontal and vertical storytelling meshed together. The horizontal concerns the core action elements of the story—the fights, the journey, etc—while the vertical contains all the background details that give the horizontal larger meaning and context.

This brings us back to what I said earlier about truly vertical storytelling serving the narrative, not distracting for it. You can write a story that is both horizontal and vertical—many do, myself included—and be quite successful at it. Just make sure that the vertical is there to serve the story, fulfilling a purpose rather than simply there to be “information” for the audience to push through.

What qualifies as having a purpose? That entirely depends on the story you’re telling. It could be details about the politics of your fantasy kingdom. Or specifications on how your space-ship reactor works. This is entirely up to you and the story you’re telling.

Phew. I feel like we’ve covered a lot of material here, but I do want to come in with one final warning, sort of a repeat of the last post as well: no matter how well you tie your vertical material into your horizontal, there are going to be readers that don’t like it.

Accept this. It will happen. Vertical storytelling requires both skill and effort to tell … as well as to read, and there are readers out there that do not care for vertical storytelling. They’ve never “trained” their mind to add two and two, they don’t want to, and they aren’t going to get around to it anytime soon. These readers will not pick up on subtle, they don’t expect to need to put the pieces together … and they’re not going to like what you make. Accept it, because it’s going to happen.

But does that mean you shouldn’t write a story with vertical elements in it? Of course not. If you want to, go for it. Those people are just not you audience. So don’t worry about them. Will they still stumble upon your works (and stumble through them)? Of course! Crud, look at the one-star reviews for vertical heavy works like Way of Kings on Amazon. There are people who just do not get the book and didn’t like it … but the book is still a huge success.

Right, let’s recap. When giving your stories vertical depth, the information you offer should tie into the greater narrative, ie be important to the story. Don’t create Faux Vertical content by simply dumping information on the reader that doesn’t serve a purpose. And don’t dump content in general; the reader should be able to put the pieces together themselves with each new bit of vertical content you provide, expanding and deepening the universe, which will make the horizontal aspects weightier.

And lastly, there will always be people who don’t like it, even when it’s well done. That’s fine. They’re not your audience. Write for your audience.

Good luck. Now get writing.



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