(aka when Tangents aren’t really so Tangential, aka Bringing the Subtext out of the Closet)

Intentioanl tangents title graphic with train track switches

Because they reflect relationships, stories are often complex. Sometimes the family storyteller has to apply a little tact.

At my last critique group meeting, one of my fellow writers submitted a piece ostensibly about a celebrity sighting. In reality, it was more about her relationship with her mother.

I think she’s on to something. Using tangents to approach difficult topics can work like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar.


Tangents are to writing as research is to rabbit holes. (My niece has been studying for the SAT, so I’ve been doing some comparative thinking.)

Obviously, the parenthetical phrase is a tangent. Whether my niece is studying for the SAT isn’t germane to the topic, unless I have a point to make with that tangent. But, often we do have a point. Perhaps the reader will gain some insight into us as writers or the story itself.

See, we don’t have to write our stories head-on. And there’s nothing wrong with giving readers something to help the medicine go down.  (For an example, see IIt’s not about the Band-aids.)

Quote by thomas Mann

Thanks to Douglas Wayne for posting this quote in his blog post, Subtlety, Subtext, and Why What You Don’t Say Matters Most in Fiction.

Advantages of Not Tackling a Topic Head-on

I recently read a Facebook meme that said inserting “Harry Potter and” before the title of any academic paper makes that topic much more appealing. Try it. It works. That little tangent defuses any anticipated dread or tension the erudite title might evoke.

Used well, tangents allow us to approach a topic with tact. They also allow us to show personality and work in emotional, social, and historical context. We give readers a view of the backstory as we take them down the sidetrack. Likewise, we can give readers comic relief from a difficult story via tangents.

Of course, such tangents need planning. We can’t just regurgitate all the extraneous information floating around in our brains as semi-related. We still have to engage readers. Give them interesting or entertaining insight.

Saying Things that Need to be Said

Sometimes things need to be said directly and unequivocally.

But not always.

Via tangents, we can demonstrate the art of taking a circuitous route of storytelling. Of taking love ones on an enjoyable ride, rather than the express train to those conversations that are hard to get folks to have.

In addition, we can encourage them to look at their own experiences to see what other stories lurk under the surface.

Your Turn

title Intentional tangents over traintracks background Have you told stories via tangents? How would they allow your readers to have a different outlook on an episode of the past?


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This