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If you look up “tangent” in the dictionary, it takes a while to get to the definition like this one from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary: “digressing suddenly from one course of action or thought and turning to another.”
Tangents share a characteristic with excessive backstory and flashbacks: they start from the current story moment and then shift in time, place, point of view, or topic. As with a flashback, the author may mean to provide some kind of amplifying information, but then he forgets to stop after providing it and wanders not only off the beaten path, but off any path at all.
Sometimes that can be intentional, for example if she’s trying to produce a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing. The sneaky truth, though, is that while stream-of-consciousness writing seems to be unstructured and uncontrolled, it’s actually very tightly controlled when done well. A tangent, on the other hand, if unplanned is a sign the author has lost control of her work.
Back in Part 20, I used the following as an example of too much setting detail, but it’s overflowing with tangents, too: “…the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which was hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around, always clockwise, never counterclockwise, to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided handle that Rosalee bought for just 50 cents at the neighborhood garage sale over in Johnsonville from that nice lady wearing the darling sundress with the purple and gold iris flower pattern that went so well with her blond hair, that was now sitting on the linoleum with the orange and white pattern of squares and triangles and the 6” diameter water stain reaching out from the far wall, in front of the oak veneer bookcase that Rosalee bought on sale for just half price at the dollar store because it was a display sample and they wanted to get rid of it, especially because the middle shelf was missing a couple of screws and so it sagged toward the back and she—Rosalee, not Janetta, the sales clerk with the gold teeth who always wears those big silver hoop earrings—hadn’t had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up the nickel-plated #10 by 1½” hex head screws that would be hanging up in the rack down toward the end of aisle 13, up where she’d have to stand on her tippy-toes to reach them, in the dark blue plastic pouch that she found so convenient if hard to open, meaning she’d have to find those Fiskars scissors with the pretty pink plastic handles her Gramma Gemma had given her when she was just six and working on her Kindergarten Christmas card project—the one where she spilled Elmer’s glue and silver sparkles all over the sort-of-brand-new kitchen table—and still had and they were still sharp after all these years, but even after she fixed the shelf the bookcase would still be wobbly and she doubted she’d be able to get her collection of The Great Books with their wonderful brown leather covers embossed with real gold and that still smelled real good, like an old saddle maybe, or Aunt Barbara’s fancy coat with the long sleeves that she wouldn’t wear in the winter because it would get wet, if you put your nose up real close, to stay in it because it would probably collapse in a heap.”
Yeesh. How many tangents does the narrator take us on in that mess? I stopped counting at a dozen.
Now, in the right context, that long sentence could be just fine, a clear if exhausting illustration of the manic and scatter-brained narrator’s personality. With or without a larger context, it’s easy to see how each tangent splits off from the previous line of thought, only to have another tangent split off from it. That’s the problem with tangents: with every new divergence, we get farther and farther from the original storyline, until, as with excess backstory, we lose track of it entirely.
Tangents also disrupt a story’s flow. Even when the events of a story are chaotic, a tangent swirls the reader off into a whirlpool of confusion, perhaps never to return again, or to be brought back by a forced and awkward transition.
As a reviewer, the other problem you can face, especially when reading something for the first time, is determining the author’s intent. Is he, as I suggested above, illustrating something about a character or a chaotic situation? Is the use of tangents a stylistic choice that supports the story? You might have to wade through the entire piece and then look back on it before you can decide.
To wrap up, then, here are some questions you can ask yourself when you come across material that seems like a tangent:
- Does the material support the larger story in a clear and definable way?
- Where does the tangent begin?
- Does it come back to the main storyline with a clear transition?
- Does it come back to the main storyline soon enough that I don’t forget what the main story is?
- Could the author use the material in the tangent somewhere else?
- If so, how, or does it just need to be deleted?
How do you identify tangents and how do you help authors avoid them?