In my series on reducing bloat (aka revising an overwritten manuscript), today we'll be tackling tangents, a term you might associate with geometry. My MC Danielle, an gifted artist, struggles terribly with geometry in particular and with numbers generally. When she initially signed up for classes, she was sure shape-related math would be breeze-easy for her arty brain.
See, friends? This is how tangents worm their way into your work. It's exceedingly easy for one thought to trigger another, unrelated one. Suddenly you've followed a rabbit trail into a deep thicket.
I don't yet have a fail-safe for preventing these mental hiccups while drafting. But I have found that longhand free writing warm-ups help me gain focus before diving into a real manuscript in process.
There are a number of places tangents often appear in pieces I've critiqued (and my own drafts): moving from here to there, dialogue transitions, descriptions and internal monologue. Let's look at each.
Beginning writers often falsely believe they have to account for the MC's every move. Thus they write some intensely boring descriptions of waiting for the bus, or bickering with siblings in the car, or roaming soulless suburban subdivisions.
Unless something plot-twisting happens during movement, cut these yawn-inducing scenes. Instead, use narrative summary to get your character to the location where important action will occur. Remember that not everything your character does merits being dramatized (like potty breaks, for example).
My thighs are burning by the time pedal to the top of Breach Point.
When we return to Caitlin's place, she's sitting on the porch smoking.
The windows are dark when I reach the rectory. So far, so good.
In The Two Towers, Merry and Pippin spend a day with the Ents' Council and learn from Treebeard that it took from mid-morning till dusk for the Ents to complete their initial hellos. Are your dialogue scenes like this? Wasting a full page each on saying hello and goodbye?
Maybe your dialogue gets tangential in the middle, when one character wants to change the subject and fearing a non sequitur, you waste line after line moving from one topic to the next.
How do you repair this? Mix in other narrative techniques: narrative summary, thought, action.
To skip lengthy meet and greets:
Once everyone was introduced, Penny said...
We exchanged the usual BS about track and chem before I got the nerve to ask, "You think that guy we saw last night was breaking the law?"
To suddenly shift topics with thought:
Jerome was not going there with this girl. "So, what'd you think of Hayden's plan?"
Was he flirting with me? No freaking way. "I, um, just get headaches from ponytails after a while."
To suddenly shift topics with action:
Izzy checked her watch. "Well, look at the time. You give any thought yet to our project?"
Vic's phone buzzed in his pocket. "Shoot, that's my dad. He's probably hyperventilating that we still haven't found Kip."
Descriptive tangents are probably the easiest to identify. Your character might begin describing the lay of the land then expound a full-blown encyclopedia entry of your setting--its climate, topography, architecture, history, etc., ad nauseum. Or your heroine the fashionista savors every last detail of every outfit worn by every guest at a party.
It's so easy to get carried away in loving your fictional world. Just remember that your reader will savor more of the flavor if you sprinkle shorter descriptions all through the work. For more help with punchy descriptions, see my post "Engaging Descriptions Readers Won't Just Skim."
Exploring your character's inner world in all its rich vagaries might be fun for you, but as a reader I frankly don't give a rip if those thoughts go absolutely nowhere. Character monologues must have multiple purposes in the narrative or they're just filler. Revealing personality alone is not enough.
Monologues must drive the narrative by revealing inner tensions, moral dilemmas, past wounds, drives, desires, attitudes, prejudices, dislikes or fears that could help or hamper your MC in her quest.
Which of these areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?