Friday, August 24, 2012

Vertical and Horizontal Writing--What They Are, How to Write Them, and Why Each Brings Interest to Your Story

The short-story writer, AndrĂ© Dubus, described writing as having vertical and horizontal moments. In an interview for the anthology, Novel Voices, he spoke of the challenges in his first novel, The Lieutenant: “I’m not sure I knew how to bear down then. . . . I was writing what I call hori­zontally, making scenes go. In my forties, I switched to writing vertically, trying to get inside a world and inside a character.”  

Have you ever driven long distance through the Mid­west of the United States? The horizon stretches forever, across a landscape that is flat and predictable. I loved driving the endless prairie roads when I lived in Minnesota and took summer trips through North and South Dakota.
But I longed for a little variation in the unending peace of the grasslands, which sometimes had me struggling to stay awake.

When I reached the western edge of these states, and the mesas and mountains began to rise, my heart thrilled. I always looked forward--after three days of flatness--to the Badlands. The newly vertical landscape provided more ten­sion and interest, a happy contrast to the sleepy time spent knowing exactly what was around each turn in the road.    

Just as the variation of landscape excites a long-distance traveler, unexpected moments charge your book with energy, suspense, and tension.

If we adapt Dubus’s terms, these ver­tical moments could be external--a suspenseful plot twist, such as the final scene in an emergency room when a patient is flatlining--or internal moments where a character makes a life turn and we, as readers, witness the profound change.

During a vertical moment, the reader is tense and engaged, whether the plot is taking us around mountain switchbacks past high overlooks with breathtaking scenery or through a teary acknowledgment of truth. These moments are shown to us, and we’re placed right smack in the middle of them, on the edge of our seats.

Books Need Both Vertical and Horizontal Moments 
In books, you need both vertical and horizontal mo­ments. You need the passage describing a quiet bedroom at sunrise, the light coming through in filmy curtains, as well as the lover driving away. A resting moment of setting can serve as an essential prelude to the action happening in the next moment when someone turns the ignition and leaves forever. Same with the slower moment of two people taking a long walk on a beach, easy with each other, discussing a trip they’re about to take where some event will change their lives.  

Few writers can keep the edge required for vertical writ­ing throughout an entire book. That’s good, because most readers don’t want to stay on that edge for three hundred pages. Even in suspenseful writing, we need moments to catch our breath and reflect, to think about what’s happened, to figure out what it means in the bigger picture of the story.

A balance is required, and finding that balance may be the next step on your book journey.

The Difference in Later Drafts
In early “islands,” writing tends to be predominantly hor­izontal.  

We’re still telling ourselves our story, warming up to our subject. Essentially, we are spending time describing what we would write, rather than writing it. Scenes are likely to be reflective, interior, and told rather than shown.  

It’s a very natu­ral process of getting to know our own material on the page.

Often, this early writing is not yet vibrant enough to let a reader really engage in the moment of each scene. It’s a bit like watching a slide show of someone else’s vacation. To us, the images are full of emotion, very alive because we hold the complete picture and sense of them in our minds and hearts.  

But to a reader, they do not yet live fully on the page. They do not evoke an emotional response in anyone else.

To begin balancing this horizontal effect, go deeper into either your events--more drama--or your players--more meaning.  Either will offer the vertical challenge that good story demands.

I love this quote by writer E.L. Doctorow:   “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”  

Our job, in learning how to write both horizontally and vertically, is this:  to take what we know and infuse it with immediacy and excitement.   

Sometimes this can't happen until the book is drafted, until we have charted the major course of the story.  Then, in revision, we begin to fine-tune the chapters toward the high-energy writing that a reader demands from a book. 

A favorite exercise from my classes helps you explore this--and begin to see the different kinds of writing you've already got on the page.

Exercise:  A Different View
1.  Choose one of your characters and write a short anecdote, interview, or scene from his or her point of view. Write the scene in either first person (the “I” viewpoint) or third (“he” or “she”). Don’t worry too much about how the scene flows at this point, just try to get the character doing something. Make sure there is another person in the scene, so your chosen character has someone to bounce off.
2.  Read through the scene and find an exciting part that pulls you in as a reader. Underline that sentence or section.
3.  Start a new page, using that exciting part as the beginning trigger, but this time change view­points. Make the scene come from the mirror­ing character, not your main character.
4.  Again, underline the most exciting part, and transfer it to a new page. This time, continue the scene, but switch back to the main charac­ter’s point of view. Also change voices, go from first to third person, or vice versa—using the point of view you didn’t use in step one.
5.  After you read all three scenes, ask yourself, Which is the best story? Why? Your answer may reveal who should be telling the story. If you decide to stay with your original character, this exercise should deepen your understanding of this character.


  1. Thanks for the insight into horizontal vs. vertical writing. The process you describe--first draft/slide show, second/going deeper--mirrors my experience with the writing of my first book. Now into a second one, I can see this more clearly. Hoping the vertical kicks in quicker this time! Will bookmark this exercise and use it as a writing prompt. Thanks again.,.,

  2. Thanks for visiting, Kenda! Glad the post was helpful . . .

  3. Hi Mary, I appreciate this post as I'm trying to revise a scene from my book. I wonder about the merits/danger of revising a scene from my book when I'm still(!) in the "generating content" of my book, and have a hazy sense of where it's going. I'm in a new writing group, which requires each of us to submit a project as often as possible, and then we get and give feedback. Their ideas are good, but can be specific, or more appropriate for a short story rather than a longer work. My instincts tell me to collect their comments, but keep going, rather than stop and revise at this point. Insights?

  4. So glad it was helpful, Gail! Yes, I agree that it would be best to collect the comments and keep writing forward. Until the draft is complete, it's better to just let yourself continue to write the scenes, or "islands," and not try to refine too much. You need a bigger perspective, in my experience, before revision really works.

    Of course, writers break that "rule" all the time and still do fine. But that's my general guideline for myself, until the first draft is done.