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July 24, 2018

I’ve been talking about word count and bloat. In those articles I mentioned cutting irrelevant story threads, those tangents authors get onto that have no real impact on the plot.

Sure, they can be fun, but in the quest for word economy and getting to the point, are they really necessary? Or, as a lot of rock critics like to call guitar solos, are they just self-indulgent?

How do you even tell?

I cannot speak as much for literary works as for action based, but I will say that the literary novels I’ve suffered through apparently were allowed a lot more leeway on the rambling. Sometimes it was hard to tell because the story threads were so buried in description and internal character musings, it was difficult to find much story movement. There’s one particular fantasy author, who shall remain nameless, that would write a hundred pages where absolutely nothing happened at all. I’m not kidding. That was one reason his novels were always over a thousand pages.

There was another novelist who wrote a murder/thriller, literate style that clocked in around the seven hundred page mark, where there were multiple story threads and so much rambling, it wasn’t until the end that I figured out not only what was going on, but forgot whether some of the story threads were even relevant. I can just imagine if the publisher had let him get away with irrelevant threads with all the literate bloat that was already there!


The best way to describe a tangent is to have a story thread that if removed, will have no impact on the main plot.

If you were to go back and surgically remove the thread, bit-by-bit, up to the point where it merges (I assume it will) with the main plot line, and it makes no difference to the main outcome, it’s a tangent or irrelevant thread.

If somehow, you cut it, but it leaves a gap, a question that you have to stumble around to fill in, maybe it’s not.

Maybe this tangent can be re-worked in much shorter form, or maybe it needs to be left alone.


Plots do not have to be a single straight line from A to B. The best are, don’t get me wrong. However, there are plenty of the great ones that have twists and turns and branches that come together. These branches are not tangents.

They’re key elements.

There’s a difference.

Key elements are exactly that. They’re key to the plot. They’re not irrelevant material.


Back to my example from a previous article with Detach and trying to order at a fast-food place. They can’t get the order right. He goes through a routine with the kids behind the counter.

While this might be a fun scene, though not for any kids that have actually been behind such a counter, it’s one of those literary character-building things.

On the other hand, it takes up space, an entire chapter.

It’s a tangent that has nothing to do with the main plot, which was searching for gold on a sunken ship.

By surgically removing it, I took nothing away from the main story/plot and made the read much easier.

Okay, let’s make it a little more elaborate.

Say you build an entire thread around several characters who are widget makers. They produce a particular widget and you go into their lives, their production process and the delivery of said widget to the main character in the story. This thread merges with the main plot where the main character uses said widget to move the main plot along.

Now, what if your main character just used the widget and you deleted the history behind it? Would that make any real difference in the story? Despite maybe being an interesting little side-trip into the lives, feelings and maybe even funny circumstances in the history of this widget, does it really matter to the reader? Does it really advance the plot, or is it just your “self-indulgence” coming through?

Sounds like it’s time to kill a darling.


Tangents should be easy to spot once you do your read-through. In the frenzy of following your muse, verbal diarrhea comes out and, especially if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, what comes out comes out. The better you get at this, the fewer of these mistakes you make. However, don’t get hung up on worrying about this and that so that you stop writing! Let it all out and fix it on the first edit. That can be fun as well!

Now don’t get the idea that just because you’re an outliner, you can’t throw in the kitchen sink. It can happen for you as well. Maybe not as much, but just because you map everything out doesn’t mean you won’t add in an extra “city” that doesn’t need to be there.

Learning as you go is part of this wonderful passion.

Happy writing!

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