Thursday, June 10

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, June 10, 2010 14 comments
If you're just now joining us, I've been doing a series on the problem of "overwriting" and how to repair work suffering from this malady.

Here are the links to my earlier posts in the series:

Part 1- Overwriting: What is is?
Part 2- Overwriting: Diction
Part 3- Overwriting: Babbling

Today we come to tangents, a term you might associate with geometry. My MC, an arty New York girl, 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 dropped down a rabbit hole into Wonderland.

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 my work: 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.

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.

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."

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?


  1. Movement totally gets me. I just cut tons and tons, and probably still could cut tons more. To show how useless it was, my beta reader couldn't even tell I'd cut.

    Great post!

  2. This makes me feel better. In my previous ms, I did all of these! I don't think I have too many in this ms. :)

  3. Great reminders to write what's most important to move the story forward without letting the story bog down. :0)

  4. You provided excellent dialogue transition examples. :)

    The last two are my vices during my first draft. I rip out most of it in the second draft. They're easy to spot, indeed.

    Another wonderful post, Laurel.

  5. Great post, Laurel. I'm bad with description. I love doing my similes/metaphors and they carry me away like a gold leaf on a sparkling stream, cascading down the hills as ... um, what? LOL

  6. I'm loving this series, Laurel. I used to do WAY too much internal dialogue. I think I've gone to the other extreme now, and I need to pump it back up a bit.

    Have a great weekend!

  7. This is something I need to be conscious of; I am easily off onto tangents in real life. :) Thanks for sharing!
    Happy weekend,

  8. Yay, I've got another link for next week. :D

    This is great as usual, Laurel. I was guilty of # 1 for my last novel. Fortunately one of my old crit partners wasn't shy in cutting it out. Now I have no trouble cutting to the important parts . . . the same deal with dialogue.

    I made the mistake in #3 for an assignment. The teacher loved it, but I felt it was too much once I put it in my wip. I cut quite a bit out because it wasn't allowing the story to move. I felt like I was taking a bathroom break when I read it. :)

  9. These are great tips! I struggle with action, thinking I need to account for a character's every movement. That is something I keep an eye out for on revisions and cut, cut, cut!

  10. Janet: Indeed,when no one notices cut material, it was the right decision to jettison!

    Jemi: I know what you mean. I'm incredibly encouraged when I look at early drafts and see how far I've come in the past few years.

    Kathi: Keeping one's sight on the main narrative thread is truly key.

    Victoria: Moderation, my friend! But many would envy your skill with description. It's a rare gift to write them as engagingly as your do (at least in the excerpt I read).

  11. Lola: thanks. I hope no one minded the YA-ness of them. It's the style that comes to me most naturally.

    Descriptions are most powerful in moderation. Ditto with monologues, though in YA, I see far too many yammering MCs.

    Talli: I know what you mean. It's easy to overcompensate when you notice a problem. Balance is key.

    Karen: I've had a lot of poor models of efficient storytelling in my family. Tangential thinking must be genetic. :-)

    Susan: Fantastic point! Action scenes can bog down a lot in minutiae. I might ask someone to do a guest post on that since I'm more of a dialogue gal.

  12. Stina: thanks for all the linky love. Glad you're finding this series so useful. After learning so many lessons the hard way, I'd like to spare others who come behind me.

    How much description is too much is such a tough call and somewhat a matter of taste. Kudos to you for having the courage to cut something lovely. Keep a clips file--you may find use for that description in another ms.

  13. Great post. I think on a larger scale, you could apply this to subplots as well. Not all subplots hold their weight in a novel and are simply tangents that should be cut so the book is more streamlined. Every subplot should contribute to the main plot in a strong way and if it doesn't, it should be axed.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  14. Valuable posts. I think a lot of beginning writers get trapped up by endless dialogue that has the characters going 'round and 'round in circles, getting nowhere.
    Now, I tend to get entranced with metaphors and similes. (Maybe too much worship at the altar of Michael Chabon.) One will do. But I'll throw in 3. My CPs constantly sing me that hit song from "A Chorus Line."