Critique Technique, Part 47 — Danglers

Shoes hanging from a wire
Photo by dhannte, via

When we think about dangling things—in writing, anyway—we usually think of dangling modifiers, the grammatical fumbles that lead to sentences like, “After spending weeks in the forest, the town was inviting.” So, the town spent weeks in the forest, eh?

For this article, though, I’m thinking about a different kind of dangler: a story line, event, action, or character the author lavishes some attention on, then forgets. It’s never developed, it’s never finished, it’s just left—you guessed it—dangling.

This is a continuity problem and it can be hard to catch, for both the author and the reviewer. Why? The author had some reason for putting that character, event, action, subplot, or story line in or she wouldn’t have done it. But then any one of these things happened:

  • She got wrapped up in moving the other characters, plots, and subplots forward and forgot about it.
  • She failed to follow up or follow through on the consequences of that event or action.
  • She had no idea how to finish the plot line or bring the character back in, and so never did, hoping the idea would finally come to her.
  • She thought she had finished that work, but hadn’t.
  • She cut the scene that completed or resolved the plot line, event, action, or character involvement during her editing for other reasons and didn’t realize how that affected earlier scenes.
  • The character or plot line was one of her “darlings” and she couldn’t bear to cut it as she should have.

Whatever the reason, there the plot, event, action, or character dangles, twisting in the wind.

It can be hard for a reviewer to spot danglers because, as with padding, he may not have enough material at one time to realize that a particular event or action, story line, or character’s role was never concluded. The reviewer doesn’t have many good ways to overcome this incompletion problem. He needs (a) a really good memory for the details of the story, (b) to have gotten enough of the story in a short enough time to have the chance to catch the dangler, or (c) that stroke of good luck—which usually comes at an inopportune time—in which he suddenly realizes, “Hey, what about…?”

Catching that Dang Dangler

So if catching and fixing danglers falls back on the author, what might she do? Probably the best way to do it is to lay out the story in some form so everything is visible. She can do this any number of ways.

  • Timelines or character lines drawn out on sheets of paper or in some electronic format. A character line tracks a particular character and what he or she does or has to deal with. Each character in the story has their own line, and they run parallel to each other. One form of this technique literally shows a solid line when the character is present in a scene, a dashed line when they’re mentioned but not present, and no line when they’re absent.
  • Sticky notes or index cards that track each plot or character line, neatly spread out wherever there’s enough space: on a cork board, wall, or floor… until the cat or 2-year-old finds them. Playtime! Scrivener has a cork board feature but it’s not flexible in the ways you can place each simulated card. It’s possible to color-code each card, which helps some, but it’s still not as helpful as it could be.
  • Get creative with the tools in your productivity software (Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, Libre Office, Apple iWork, etc.). I use an Excel spreadsheet that shows, scene by scene, who does what. Each scene gets its own row and each major character their own column. Sometimes I’ll even give the secondary characters their own columns. This technique is better for tracking character appearances and disappearances but it could be modified to track plot lines. You can also use the table function word processors have but Word’s doesn’t work well for me.
  • Use some other kind of project planning software, if you happen to already have it and know how to use it. These packages can be expensive, though, and they have a lot of other tools that may not apply to story development, so I don’t recommend buying one just for this.

Questions for You

These tools are fine for the author, but what about you, the reviewer? Let’s assume that you (a) have reached the end of the work, (b) have the right turn of mind for remembering these kinds of details, (c) were really taken by a character or story line and have kept them or it in mind, or (d) have been taking notes on the work throughout your review. Then you can ask questions like these.

  • Was there a character or story line that seemed important at the time but was never developed, was underdeveloped, or just disappeared from the story without explanation?
  • Was there an event or action in the story that seemed like it was going to be significant but never was, and there was no clear reason why it wasn’t?
  • Could the author combine two (or more) characters—or even story lines—to get rid of a dangler?

If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, discuss your discovery with the author. Landing the dangler may be as simple as adding a scene, or even less, at a strategic spot. On the other hand, the author may discover she needs to add or rewrite a lot of material, even remove large portions of the work to solve the problem. That’s not happy news but it’s far better to discover it while the work is still in draft than to have a sharp-eyed reader point it out after it’s published because the author, reviewer(s), and editor(s) didn’t catch it.

How do you catch danglers? Don’t leave us hanging! Drop on down to the comments box below to share your suggestions.

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