By Ross B. Lampert
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 had spent weeks in the forest, eh?
For this post, though, I’m thinking about a different kind of dangler, a story line 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, 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 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 finished had that work, but hadn’t.
- She cut the scene that finished off the plot line 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 or character dangles, twisting in the wind.
For the reviewer, it can be hard to spot danglers because, as with padding, he may not have enough material at one time to realize that a particular story line or character’s role was never concluded. From the reviewer’s point of view, there aren’t many good solutions to this 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 period 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…?”
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. This can take any number of forms. Here are three:
- Timelines or character lines drawn out on sheets of paper. (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.)
- 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!
- I use an Excel spreadsheet that shows, scene by scene, who does what. Each scene gets its own row, each major character their own column, plus one for all the minor characters. 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.
Danglers can be a real bane of a writer’s existence because if the author, reviewer(s), and editor(s) don’t catch it, they can be sure that after the story’s published, some reader will. *sigh*
How do you catch danglers?