Critique Technique, Part 26 — Tangents

Lines tangent to circles and ellipses
Image courtesy Wikimedia

If you look up “tangent” in the dictionary, it takes a while to get to a 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, when done well it’s actually very tightly controlled. A tangent, on the other hand, if unplanned is a sign the author has lost control of her work.

Back in Part 20, I put in a long and rambling monologue as an example of too much setting detail, but it overflows with tangents, too. I stopped counting at a dozen of them and I know there were more.

Now, in the right context, a long sentence like that one could be just fine, a clear if exhausting illustration of a manic and scatter-brained personality. Even without a larger context, it’s easy to see how each tangent in that example splits off from the previous line of thought, only to have another tangent split off from it.

Problems with Tangents

The main problem with tangents is that their material has little to do with the story at the moment the tangent departed. If one of the lines in the diagram at the top of this article represents the main storyline, then when one of the circles, representing a tangent, touches it, the story loops of in a completely unrelated direction as it follows the edge of that circle. With luck, the loop will finally return to the original line.

If not, each additional divergence takes the reader farther away from the original storyline, until, as with excess backstory, he loses track of it entirely. The circles in the diagram above are all on different planes, which illustrates that separation.

Tangents also disrupt a story’s flow. Even when the events of a story are chaotic, a tangent can swirl the reader off into a whirlpool of confusion. At best, it may take a forced and awkward transition to bring her back to the main storyline.

A tangent can be a clear sign that the author doesn’t know what’s important in his story. As with backstory or flashback, he may be trying to force in information. Or the tangent can be a sign that he’s losing control of the story: he doesn’t know where it’s supposed to be going.

Uses for Tangents

Not all tangents are bad, however, at least so long as the author has firm control on them. As I noted above, one positive use for a tangent is to illustrate a character’s personality. Tangents like these need to be used with caution, however, because in addition to the problems I listed above, too many of them can exhaust the reader as she tries to keep track of or make sense of the character’s personality.

A tangent can also be used to plant a false lead or a false clue. Done with care and intention, this can really catch the reader’s attention and keep him wondering how that clue is going to matter. That false clue can be used to distract or misdirect a character too. “Red herrings” are a key tool for mystery writers, and tangents can be used to slip them into a story.

In every case, however, tangents like these need to be used with care. The author needs to know exactly what she’s doing in order to maintain control of the tangent and her story.

As a reviewer, then, a key problem you can face, especially when reading something for the first time, is determining the author’s intent. You might have to get through the entire piece and then look back on it before you can decide.

Questions for You

To wrap up, then, here are some questions you can ask yourself when you come across material that seems like a tangent.

  • If the author uses tangents repeatedly, is this a stylistic choice that supports the story? Does the tangential material do that in a clear and definable way?
    • If not, how is it failing?
  • Is the author illustrating something about a character or a chaotic situation?
    • If so, does he do it just enough to make the point? In other words, is he using the tangent in a controlled and purposeful way?
    • If not, what about it is not working?
  • Does the tangent begin and end cleanly, with clear transitions into and out of it?
    • If not, what’s wrong with the transitions and how could the author fix them?
    • Did the transition come back to the main storyline soon enough that I didn’t forget what the main story was?
  • Could the author use the material in the tangent somewhere else?
    • If so, where and how, or does it just need to be deleted?

How do you identify tangents and how do you help authors avoid them? I know you’ll stick to the point in your suggestions in the comments box below.

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