Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, January 09, 2013 16 comments
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.

Movement
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).

Examples
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.


Dialogue transitions
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.

Examples
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."

Descriptions
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."

Internal monologue
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?

16 comments:

  1. You affirmed what I have been thinking about dialogue transitions. Thanks!

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    1. More often that not, it's best to cut to the chase with dialogue.

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  2. Hmmm...I think blogger ate my comment. Well, if you take the original tangents I typed away, what you're left with is: Great post! Thank you! :)

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    1. LOL. We can't always count on technology glitches to curb tangential habits, but hey, every once in a while...

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  3. This is a great post. I bet there a few areas in my WIP that could use trimming. Yay, I just got new scissors. :-)

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    1. Glad it's helpful. Sometimes tangents eventually lead somewhere good; in revision the trick is to hide the brambly path that got your there.

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  4. I struggle with dialogue, exiting and entry tangents, but I actually need to add more description and internal monologue. For me, that seems to need to happen in second drafts . . .

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    1. I'd recommend Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover to help with that. She has some of the best advice I've ever read for filling in thin scenes to strengthen them (and not overdo or bloat) in revision.

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  5. Sure NOW I quit doing Cool Links! Great post, Laurel. I've got Elizabeth's book. I'll reread it before I revise my novel.

    I'm getting better at avoiding tangents, especially the plot ones. Now if it doesn't fit the book's themes, I don't go there.

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    1. Thanks, Stina. I think a certain amount of tangent-making is inevitable when drafting. But when revision time comes, its helpful to take a hard look at whether certain scenes or sections are pulling their weight or are merely dithering. Hope Lyon's book proves useful.

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  6. This is so helpful, Laurel. I especially liked what you said about fearing the non sequitur. That's me! I tend to ramble trying to lead into another subject and it always annoys me that I do this. Those are great tips for how to fix this problem. Thanks!

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    1. Sometimes it takes multiple rewrites to really nail a conversation that must shift from one topic to another. But seamlessness might not be the best thing for some convos either--you can communicate a lot having one impatient character change the topic abruptly.

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  7. What an excellent post! I always have to check myself on the internal thought bloating. I love being in my character's heads, but I know readers only care about the thoughts that push the story forward.

    Thanks, Laurel, for another great one!

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    1. The writers who do the internal thought stuff well seems to accomplish multiple things in it, often by raising emotional stakes, expressing new internal conflict or revealing past wounds.

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  8. Super helpful post. I'm still working on that inner thoughts and feelings stuff. My crit partners were always telling me to show more emotion. Now I'm starting to sound melodramatic. Still finding a balance.

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    1. Linking those inner thoughts and emotions to plot events--reacting to what has happened, worrying about or eager for what's to come, having a moral dilemma about them--that's what makes the interiority pull its weight. And as I mentioned earlier, Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover has great tips for adding this kind of material so it feels organic and improves the story.

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