well-written lateral story movement vs storytelling

There are two levels of writing learners need to master when they’re telling a deliberate, meaningful prose. What the characters are doing on the page and how what the characters are doing on the page builds the linear progression of the story are two different levels of storytelling.

The events of the story should drive the tension and the reader forward. Every time the reader puts the book down and comes back to it, they make an active choice to invest their attention capital in finishing more of the work.

This is why the reader doesn’t have time to invest their attention in stories full of well-written lateral movement. On the surface of this kind of prose, things continue to happen to the character but none of it progresses the need for more character development. Think of the example of the young person trying to get into Julliard where they only have conflict once they are not accepted.

All that practicing and working, once it establishes that the character is willing to work hard to accomplish their goals are lateral movement to the established story. They can practice harder and work harder, but unless something stops them from doing either, the story (and the character) can’t progress until the rejection.

Which — at that point — is just one of two established binary options. And a character working hard and getting in is practically no story at all. Even very good writers would struggle with saying something unique that can engage its ideal reader with those story bones.

We talk about the ideal reader a lot, but we never talk about the ideal reader’s ideal story. The ideal story is the perfect work without tension, character development, conflict, or all three and more and still creates a meaningful experience that leaves the reader with lasting, positive impressions of their time invested.

The ideal reader has shelves of existing internationally award-winning authors that avoided foundational structure work entirely and still move nations to tears. But a lot of those authors have only managed to capture lightning in a bottle once.

A story without tension because the author began the story without the intention of creating a source of conflict on the character’s path is not the same thing as a work where the lack of tension engages the reader.

I cannot tell you how many times in the past decade I have been told the lack of conflict or tension was intentional. This was always said in tones that ranged from “frosty” to “I’m just so sorry you can’t understand my authorial intention.”

Their intention to not use conflict to create tension to create meaningful change in the protagonist is obvious in a work.

But no matter how I phrase “the lack of tension and conflict does not serve the story in any meaningful way while their absence detracts from the work enormously. If the intention was to build an engaging reader’s experience, this draft of that effort did not accomplish that goal” could not be heard.

Exceptions do not prove structures are not necessary to tell a meaningful story.

A single indication that telling was just as good as showing would not have stunted my growth as an artist forever. But multiple assurances of it would have convinced me the method could still work much longer than it did. I’d probably still have realized, eventually, that a method that only produces meaningful work randomly from most writers isn’t a good method to practice.

But I’d be years behind my growth because I would have known — and wanted — to believe otherwise.

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