Critique Technique, Part 26—Tangents

Tangent lines and circles

Image courtesy Wikimedia

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?

 

Critique Technique, Part 25—Misused Backstory or Flashback

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Backstory and its kissing cousin flashback are techniques authors use to provide amplifying information about a situation, a location, or a character. Flashbacks and backstory differ from “front story” in that the author jumps away from the story’s current timeline to relate them, then jumps back (but not backwards) to the story’s present to continue.

Jumping forward in time—a “flash forward”—can have the same purpose, and everything below also applies.

Flashing back is in fact a technique for relating backstory. A brief interruption of the story’s flow, it can be:

  • Initiated by the narrator to provide information not available to the characters;
  • A character’s memory; or
  • A conversation between two or more characters (“You remember when…?”), to name just three.

The words “flash” and “brief” are important here: flashbacks are over and done with quickly.

Backstory can be told more leisurely, as a stand-alone scene, for example, but doesn’t have to be. It might take the form of just a single, telling detail. For example, there’s this line in the recent Robert Reed novella “Murder Born,” which centers around a couple trying to bring back their murdered daughter: “But that didn’t stop [Lauren] from…curling up on the mattress cover that was washed every two weeks, the same as always.” That last phrase, “the same as always,” is the droplet of backstory that tells us so much about Lauren’s grief, expressed in her continuing care for her dead daughter’s bedclothes.

So while “backstory” encompasses all the background information that doesn’t fit into a story’s or article’s primary timeline, what I want to concentrate on here are four improper or ineffective techniques of presenting that backstory:

  • Starting with backstory;
  • Using backstory too often;
  • Spending too much time in backstory; and
  • Using backstory as front story.

We’ve all run into stories—maybe even written them ourselves—in which the author starts by explaining everything she feels the reader will need to know in order to “get” the story once it begins.

When a new member of my own writers’ group announced a few meetings back that he intended to start his novel that way, he was, shall we say, “counseled” against it. After a few repetitions of, “No, Jim,” “Don’t do it, Jim,” “You wanna get smacked up-side the head, boy?” (we didn’t really say that—so far as you know), he conceded the wisdom of our advice. We’ll see whether the wisdom stuck with him when we get chapter 1.

You know, of course, to start in medias res and filter the backstory in later.

The next three techniques have an important element in common: they cause the reader to lose track of the primary story line. And a confused reader is something you don’t want—unless you do for the purpose of pulling her through to the end, but that’s something else altogether. For our purposes here, confusing the reader is a bad thing.

Using backstory too often is another case of the author wanting the reader to know everything she knows about the story, characters, setting, situation, etc. This time, the desire gets manifested as flashbacks or backstory details being inserted at every opportunity, whether they’re necessary or not. “Necessary” is the key word here. You, as the independent reviewer, aren’t emotionally invested in the story, so you have the ability to look at a detail, a flashback, even a whole chapter, and ask, “Do I need to know that?” The more often you find yourself asking that, the more likely it is the author is using backstory too much.

Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info dumps, lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters. Yes, deciding how much is “too much” can be subjective but again, if you lose track of the main story line, the author is guilty of this error.

If the author is suffering from either of these problems, the flow of the story will come to a grinding halt as it wanders off into material that isn’t relevant to the story’s current moment. (We’ll talk about tangents in more detail next time.)

Here, then, are some questions you can ask yourself regarding backstory and flashbacks as you review someone’s work:

  • If you’re reading the beginning of a story or article, did the author jump right into the action and fill in the backstory later, or did he start with background information that could have waited?
  • Is the author peppering me with so many background details that I get confused or lose track of the story line?
  • Is the author dumping information, either through the narrative or via her characters, and causing me to lose track of the storyline?
  • Is the author spending so much time in backstory that I can’t tell what’s backstory and what’s front story anymore? In other words, has he lost track of his story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you can start examining what information is necessary at that moment in the story, what can be told later, and what may not need to be told at all. Providing that information to the author will help her improve her work.

What other things do you look for when determining if backstory and/or flashbacks are being misused?