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?

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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.

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Some of the Small Things

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Rejoice, newcomers and old fans alike, and get ready to travel back in time to an older day, a day wherein writing topics were discussed!

Which really doesn’t make this post that different from what currently goes up the site, except that the BaBW posts you’re about to see here are old rather than new. Because Classic posts are all about returning to some of the posts of old in order to introduce newer readers to the admittedly bogglingly-large archive of BaBW posts. At four years with a new post almost every week … it is a bit of an archive dump.

This week? We take an in-depth look at some small but surprisingly vital elements of character design and writing in your works,  things that may seem unimportant, but can really provide that extra polish to make your story shine. In other words, some of the small things.

Underpowered and Overpowered Characters—
The real question that they want to ask, I feel, is this: how do I create a character with enough skills and talent to overcome what I place in his path without giving them too many skills and talents?

Because you see, that’s the real challenge that these writers are worried about. They want to create characters that can survive everything that the plot is going to throw at them, but they don’t want their character to just magically have the skills to survive everything. And of course, they don’t want a character who survives off of dumb-luck either. Both of these approaches will—while they work at first—gradually eat away at the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They may not ruin it (after all, there are plenty of other moving parts to enjoy), but they certainly will lower the expectations.

Showing Character Through Dialogue—
So, to start off this week’s writing guide, I have a question for all of you. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

“No thanks,” he said.


“No, thanks,” he said.

At first glance, any editor can tell you what the problem is. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second is grammatically correct.

Except therein lies our problem. Because while the second is grammatically correct, contextually, it’s incorrect.

Worldbuilding Colloquialisms—
See, the thing is, colloquialisms and slang are one of those things that we don’t often think about unless it’s pointed out to us, because by definition a colloquialism is not something formally recognized (except in title) nor literately correct. A colloquialism is just a quirk of day-to-day dialogue, an odd phrase or word that has taken on a new—and often temporary—meaning. They’re rooted in culture. Deeply rooted in it, in fact. So deeply rooted that most of the time, we don’t even think of them. We just use them, lose them, and pick up new ones.



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Being a Better Writer: Politics

Oh dear, what have I done? Why did I ever even write this topic down? What was I thinking? And then I picked it?

Actually, it’s not that bad. Some of you readers may have had similar reactions to seeing this topic, considering what it could discuss … and let’s be honest, that is a topic I could discuss, and likely will at another time.

Just not today. No, today’s topic of politics isn’t going to be involved with the real-world, thankfully (because that’s a mess). No, instead I want to talk about the politics in your book. No, not those “social politics” of the theme and whatnot. Not that at all. That’s the other topic, the one most of us dread because it’s so overblown these days.

No, I want to talk about the political sphere of your story. The politics in your story, that the characters are part of. Not the reader.

Now, because I’ve seen this topic broached before at conventions, writing classes, and the like, I can imagine what the average response is to this topic. Either a confused expression (fairly common) or a deadpan,  bored look coupled with the thought “Well, my book doesn’t involve politics or anything like that, so I’m just going to zone out” (which is equally common, in my experience). But … you’re wrong. If you’re thinking that right now, you’re wrong. And here’s why.

Almost every story, no matter the subject, will involve politics of some kind. In some way, from some angle. Politics will be there.

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Being a Better Writer: Don’t Neglect Your Backdrop

Apologies for the delay. My other job scheduled me for several Mondays in a row, and I wasn’t able to get this post done well enough in advance to make the release date. Next week’s post should be done more in advance, however.

There was a post I made here, once, where I brought up the “painted on backdrop.”

If you’ve not seen a lot of old movies, this may take a small bit of explaining, but not much. But in the days before computers, if you wanted to shoot a scene someplace and make it look like somewhere very different (say, your desert lot was perfect for the shoot, but didn’t have the canyon-filled background you needed), you didn’t need to travel somewhere expensive. Instead you would just use a cleverly design backdrop, a piece of canvas with the background you wanted painted over it. Carefully, mind you, so that shadows and whatnot lined up.

Now, sometimes, especially for a film that had either lower production values or was designed to mimic a stage production (such as a musical, where backdrops are a part of the charm), you could clearly see that the characters were interacting in front of the backdrop. But for a lot of other productions, sometimes you would be hard-pressed to tell that what you were seeing wasn’t real.

None of this is news to anyone who’s seen an old movie, or has any familiarity with practical effects. Oftentimes it’s very impressive to see the “how it was done” for an old film and discover what was a special effect, or a model, etc, etc. It’s impressive how often we were all fooled by something!

Okay, okay, so what does this have to do with writing? Good question! Obviously we don’t have painted backdrops.

Or do we?

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Being a Better Writer: Empty Details

Today’s topic is a bit of the inverse of the one I wrote last week. I didn’t intend for this at first—in fact I had no plans for an inverse article when I sat down last Monday; the appearance of this one is entirely coincidence brought about by something I was reading.

But coincidence aside, it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss, because it’s something that can crop up all to easily in fiction … even among experienced authors. For example, while I tend to notice empty details occurring pretty regularly among young writers, I also occasionally find them in finished works as well (one such notice being the result of today’s topic). Given all the time that I’ve spent on this blog discussing the importance of little details and how we can feed things out to our readers, I feel that it’s important, then, to discuss the inverse: empty details.

Empty details are the result of trying to add too much detail to one’s writing. It can stem from a number of sources. Maybe the author in question feels that the isn’t enough going on and tries to liven a scene up by adding more detail. Maybe they’re worried that their dialogue seems sparse (this is one area where this issue seems to crop up most often). Or maybe they’re just trying to reach an arbitrary word count for the day.

It could be any number of reasons. Well, the end result is that they fill their scene with these empty details.

Right, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. What do I mean by it?

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Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

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