This opening paragraph from Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses is, for me, a supreme example of a writer simultaneously thinking about 3-D and 2-D in their work. In 3-D, this passage has the sensual details that bring the scene to life. We hear the floorboards, we see the flickering light, we feel the warm candle wax. Also in 3-D, we get the deep and restrained emotion of a character coming to encounter the body of a lost loved one.
The 2-dimensional aspect of the writing comes from the beautiful language used in this passage. Listen to the sounds and the internal rhymes in "lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass" or phrases like "guttered candlestub." Also, notice how McCarthy decided to ignore standard rules of punctuation so that his prose isn't interrupted by too many commas.
When we write, it's important to think about both the 3-D aspects of the writing--the details that make the passage feel tangible and emotional--and the 2-D aspects of writing--the language, the words on the page. Both of these elements combine to create a satisfying read.
Can you have one without the other?
I personally tend to err on the side of more 3-D than 2-D. I think I use a lot of vivid details and focus on the emotion. Other writers, including some entries in our first Genre Wars contest, focused more on the surface technical aspects of the writing. Yes, you can have one without the other. The reader might not even notice. But, when both are working together, you'll statistically have a better chance of engaging more readers and probably engage the readers' mind during more of your story (when the story lags, the language might still be engaging and vice versa.)
Sometimes, during revisions, I can get trapped into the mindset of only seeing one of these components and forgetting about the other. That's fine on a draft, but it can lead to shallow work if you don't eventually remember to go back again and consider the other component.
Do work in both 3-D and 2-D? Is there one that you tend to lean toward naturally?
Give us some examples where you have both working in harmony!