Monday, July 9, 2012

The Intersection of Good Storytelling

To find this intersection the title alludes to, we need to think about the longevity and depth of a story: its horizontal and vertical roads. While editing a client’s manuscript, I began thinking about the two roads and how important it is for writers to travel down both in order to develop their stories.

Horizontal Road, in its basic sense, is the plot. It's what happens in the story. It's the making sure that all the pieces of the story are told so that the story makes sense from beginning to end. It doesn’t mean you have to follow a chronological, literally first thing first and last thing last, progression, but you want to make sure you leave no gaping holes.

Vertical Road is the depth of the story. It could be development of characters, development of setting—those things that connect readers, endear them to characters, to place and therefore make them invested in the horizontal road they travel while reading the story.

As you plunge into editing your work, think about these two roads.

For horizontal storytelling, think about your plot. Think about your main character (MC) and what the MC wants, what conflict(s) prevent the MC from obtaining that want, what obstacles the MC faces in getting the want, and how that struggle concludes. In my piece “8 Questions for Writers,” I talk more about the MC and the movement of the plot. As you’re working on the main plot, it’s important to think about your subplots, too. Because we are so focused on the main plot, sometimes the subplots fall flat and peter out before they reach their conclusions.

For vertical storytelling, think about your characters, the setting, the time, the atmosphere of your story. As the creator of a story, you know everything there is to know about your characters, places, atmospheres in a story. Knowing everything, it is up to you to decide how deep to layer this material into the story. We can end up being so exact, so telling of every aspect of a character, a location that we give no space for the reader to interact with the story. It is always important in developing the vertical storytelling to ask yourself, “What does the reader need to know in order to connect to/with the story and continue reading?”


Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. Her second mystery, Into the Web, was released April 2012, and recently, she's been published in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. Thanks for this explanation. I write "organically" and usually think of my writing as "the story" and "the characters." Nice to know there are more profound definitions for the way I work.

    Terry's Place

  2. Shon, I love this way of conceptualizing a story! Any one way of thinking will not connect with every writer; we need different models like this.

    Funny you should post this today as I was just trying to explain my minimum evaluation fee to a writer of flash fiction. On a per page basis, the fee sounds astronomical. Yet even in flash fiction you need both horizontal and vertical development; the difference is you must pull that off with much fewer words. Because you are still evoking a changing character in a larger world, the task for the developmental editor is the same regardless of length.

  3. Giving definition to essential elements sharpens parameters and increases awareness of the pieces that fit together to create a unified and compelling whole — and a great story.

    Excellent post, Shon!

  4. Very well explained! Now, if I could only find my map...

  5. I keep seeing you here and there!

    But this is an interesting way to think about character and plot. I'm revising right now, and I'm having a hard time figuring out how to approach it from a macro perspective without going in and wasting time fixing all the little things with the prose.

    Maybe if I apply this line of thinking...

  6. Thanks, Terry. I tend to think along those lines, too -- the story and the characters. One day, while trying to explain to client what I meant when I thought this, I began to use the terms "horizontal" and "vertical," and the client got it.

  7. That is SO true, Kathryn. Sometimes us writers don't see that until it's explained to us. And with something like flash fiction, it becomes even more tedious to edit because we still do expect so much from a work with so few words.

  8. Thank you, Linda! I'm a person that NEEDS definitions. They don't confine me. Knowing them helps me to know how far and where I can expand. I needed these definitions to better guide me to help clients.

  9. I'm everywhere, Chihuahua. LOL

    If you think of rounds of editing, it might be a good way to focus on working on your project. Do an edit for the horizontal aspect of your story. What is the main plot or plots? What are the subplots, and edit to make sure that, to the best of your ability before an editor jumps in there, you have full developed each plot. If a plot peters out before its conclusion, ask yourself if it's integral to the story. If it is, then consider where the holes are, why the plot peters out, and write, write, write until they are developed.

    With the vertical, consider your setting--how much does setting play a role in your story? Is it a character, too? Do you provide enough setting for its influence to be felt? Although setting is important, sometimes, it's MORE important to the writer so we s/he can get the story DOWN but all of the pinpoint accuracy in detailing would bog the story down. Consider your characters. Who are the main characters? The minor characters that play a role in the story? What flaws, idiosyncracies, mannerisms, backstory do we (readers) need to have so that these people become real to us, integral to the story?

  10. THAT'S the key, silfert. LOL Without that map, we ALL get lost.

  11. This is a good visual. I like the story arc we've talked about, too.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.