Keeping a plot focused is one of storytelling’s greatest challenges. Even the best of us sometimes wander off on tangents that don’t add anything to the narrative unless the reader happens to be very interested in the specifics of a rifle’s loading mechanism or domestic silk production in the Byzantine Empire. And while tangents are sadly common, some stories take it above and beyond, going on detours so convoluted or unpleasant that they leave the reader wondering what just happened.
Anne Rice’s foundational story of angsty vampires can be roughly divided into two sections. First come the chapters where Lestat turns Louis and later Claudia into vampires. These chapters are all about personal drama between the characters and the general unhappiness of being a vampire. Part one concludes when Claudia and Louis seemingly murder Lestat, then depart New Orleans in search of other vampires. The shorter part two has them find a group of vampires in Paris, then engage in more social drama before Claudia is killed and Louis kills the other vampires in revenge.
Or at least, that’s how the movie does things. In the book, there’s an entire side trip sandwiched between those parts. Instead of heading straight to Paris, Louis and Claudia first travel to somewhere in Eastern Europe,* thinking that’s where they’ll have the best luck finding other vampires. They even have some success, locating a creature that certainly appears vampire-like. But upon closer inspection, this creature is mindless, more like a zombie than a vampire, and Louis has to destroy it.
This goes on for quite a while, with the two of them finding several of these zombie-vampires, indicating that there must be different types of vampires in Rice’s setting. That’s actually pretty cool, but it has absolutely no effect on the rest of the story. After concluding that they won’t find any vampires here* that they can talk to, the undead duo head to Paris, and it’s like this section never happened. When Louis briefly asks his Paris counterparts about the zombie-vampires, he’s brushed off, and that’s the last time it’s brought up. As far as I can tell, these mindless vampires don’t appear in the rest of the series either.*
This side trip makes some sense from an in-character perspective. Louis and Claudia don’t know anything about other vampires, so they head to a part of the world that is associated with vampiric lore. But from a dramatic perspective, wandering around Eastern Europe serves no purpose. It doesn’t further either character’s arc, nor does it change what happens later. They don’t even get the idea to visit Paris from their time with the zombie-vampires; that’s a complete coincidence.
With the slightest tweak, Louis and Claudia could have been off to Paris from the start. Maybe they heard that Lestat was fond of French opera or what have you. Or we could have gotten a brief summary about how they searched other places but didn’t find anything until Paris, which is what the movie does. Either option would have let the story continue without wasting the reader’s time and without making it seem like these zombie-vampires might be important.
2. Pacific Edge
Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian California novel starts out normally enough, with our hero heading around town to show us how life works in this scifi world where everyone pulls together for sustainability and also plays a lot of softball. I dunno, the characters just play more games of softball than I expected.
Then chapter two opens with an italicized section that appears to be Robinson himself musing about how to write a utopia while on vacation in beautiful Switzerland.* He talks about how it’s hard to create conflict in utopian stories, and then the narrative returns to the protagonist as if nothing happened. What is going on?
Spoilers: This isn’t actually a set of authorial notes that the publisher forgot to remove, though it’s not easy to tell that right away. The only clue is that the section has a date for 2012. If you know that Pacific Edge was published in 1990, you can infer that this must be in-story text of some sort. But if you didn’t research the book beforehand, or if you just missed the date, it’s hard to see this as anything but an aside from the author.
The novel continues like this, with each chapter preceded by an unnamed author telling you about his writing process. Eventually, these sections describe worldwide events that clearly didn’t happen, which makes it easier to tell this is meant to be fiction. Still, it’s not until fairly late in the book that you find out how these entries are connected to the actual story: they’re a side character’s backstory.
That’s… quite a tangent to go on just to flesh out one character’s history, especially since none of these events change the main story at all. I suspect the real reason for these sections is to fill in the setting’s backstory, but since that backstory isn’t particularly relevant to what’s happening in the present, it’s just an unnecessary info dump with some added confusion as we try to figure out why the author is talking to us about his writing process. If sharing the process itself was Robinson’s goal, that’s what afterwards (and blog posts) are for.
Of course, the setting’s backstory absolutely could have been relevant to the plot with a few tweaks. One of Pacific Edge’s problems is that the villain doesn’t seem to be doing anything bad; he’s just building a new business on a hill the protagonist likes. But if this side character had spoken up about how he’s seen this kind of thing before and it always leads to ruin, that might have made the conflict matter more.
Blood of Tyrants is the penultimate book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and it has a lot of ground to cover. Our heroes have to navigate intrigue in the Chinese Imperial Court, uncover British opium smuggling, secure an alliance with the emperor against Napoleon, then race their dragons over to Russia and halt the French juggernaut. So, naturally, the book starts with protagonist Laurence hitting his head and getting amnesia!
Specifically, getting amnesia in Japan, where Laurence is briefly shipwrecked on his way to China. This whole section is a bit of a tangent, and it smells strongly of series bloat. In previous books, Laurence’s travels have always related to the Napoleonic War in some capacity. Usually, he goes somewhere to fight Napoleon or sometimes to arrange alliances, like he does with China later in this book. Once, he’s banished to Australia because of some light treason he committed in the war. The Japan trip isn’t anything like that. Not only is Laurence there by accident, but his visit doesn’t end up affecting the war at all. He picks up a minor NPC for the ensemble cast, and that’s it.
But at least the Japan trip is over relatively quickly, while the amnesia plot sticks around for most of the book. As annoying as it is, I can actually sympathize. After seven books, I’m not sure what character arc I’d have given Laurence either. He’s had an arc about bonding with his dragon Temeraire, an arc about falling in love, an arc about disobeying immoral orders, and much more besides. Such long-running characters often have trouble finding new ways to develop.
Despite that understanding, amnesia was the wrong choice, as it effectively regresses Laurence to who he was at the start of the series. The character we’ve grown attached to is gone, and the book’s emotional throughline is now an exercise in waiting for the protagonist to get his memory back. It was fun the first time Laurence had to adapt to his dragon and the culture shock of being an ambassador for Britain, but not so much the second time, especially since it happens on such an accelerated timeline.
It’s a relief when Laurence finally does get his memory back, but at best, it feels like the status quo has been restored. There’s little satisfaction in returning to the way things were, and so the entire amnesia plot ends up as an emotional tangent. On the bright side, the book’s external conflict is largely unaffected, but when you stick with a character for such a long series, you want the internal conflict to go somewhere as well.
In this far-future space opera story, the sisters Fura and Adrana leave their aristocratic life and ship out on a sunjammer, one of many vessels that scours deep space for valuable salvage left over from older civilizations. First they have to escape their overbearing father, then they have to learn the ropes of their new job and bond with the crew. It’s all very swashbuckly.
The big twist occurs when their ship is jumped by the evil pirate Captain Bosa. She kills most of the crew and kidnaps Adrana, while Fura barely manages to escape. Now Fura has to chase after Bosa, both for revenge and to rescue her sister from the freebooting scallywag. Sounds like a great plot!
Hold up though. Before we can get to that exciting stuff, Fura has to be captured by a bounty hunter that her father hired. Okay, sure, but she’ll have a daring escape, right? No. Instead we have a long sequence of Fura being escorted back home, which is exactly as riveting as it sounds. Then the book swerves hard into Yellow Wall-Paper territory as her father imprisons her and starts giving her drugs to both alter her memory and prevent her from physically aging, thus exploiting a legal loophole to keep her from officially reaching the age of majority.
Wow. Not only is this unpleasant turn incredibly jarring given the story’s previous atmosphere of high adventure, but it’s not clear if the author realizes just how distressing it is. The doctor actually administering the drugs is described like some kind of eldritch horror,* but it seems like Fura’s father is supposed to remain sympathetic. When he suffers a random heart attack, the first-person narration muses about how cruel Fura is for not going to him, when at this point the only reason she should do that is to make double sure he’s dead. Maybe dance on his corpse a little.
After that, Fura escapes and restarts her plans to find Bosa and rescue Adrana, as if the brief kidnapping and drugging montage never happened. The narration tells us about how this experience hardened Fura and made her ruthless, but that’s not actually true. None of Fura’s decisions in escaping are particularly ruthless, and the only lasting consequence is that she has to replace her hand with an artificial one to remove a tracking implant.*
That’s a neat moment, but it’s not worth taking us away from the main plot for so long. Plus, it could have easily happened as part of Fura’s hunt for Bosa. Not only does this tangent feel like backtracking, as we return to a planet we’ve already seen, but it’s a radical departure in tone and atmosphere. The book’s opening chapters teach you to expect space adventure and daring do, not a disempowering loss of bodily autonomy.
House of Earth and Blood, the first book of the Crescent City series, has a plot that can politely be described as meandering. It’s nominally a mystery story, though what mystery the heroes are trying to solve changes by chapter. There’s also a whole host of political shenanigans and backstory side quests to consider. In all of that, it was tough to pick just one tangent to highlight, but I think I’ve found the one.
Midway through the story, a big tank of water with a river monster inside is installed at the arcane library where protagonist Bryce works. It’s a bit random but doesn’t seem very important for most of the story. Little did I know this was Chekhov’s water tank containing Chekhov’s river monster.
Near the end, Micha, the big bad, ambushes Bryce in the library. Micha is an archangel, so this is a problem for Bryce. Not to worry though: she uses one of the library’s enchantments to protect herself with an impenetrable force field. Whew! Unfortunately for Bryce, Micha is a wily one. He grabs Bryce’s semi-sapient pet chimera and holds the animal over the tank, which makes perfect sense. Clearly he’s going to demand Bryce lower the force field or the chimera gets it, right?
Wrong. Instead, Micha just drops the chimera in without making any demands. Fortunately for him, Bryce isn’t one for tactics. She lowers the shield and runs to save her pet despite the evil archangel standing right there. Don’t worry, this works because she uses a different enchantment to lock Micha in the bathroom. Yes, apparently this library’s bathroom is strong enough to contain an archangel. Why didn’t Bryce do that before so she could escape? I have no idea.
Next, Bryce dives into the tank and has a protracted fight with the lake monster. This officially marks the weirdest tangent I have ever seen. In the middle of the big boss fight, the story pauses so that Bryce can have a completely different boss fight. Once Bryce has defeated the lake monster and retrieved her pet, Micha breaks out of the bathroom, and the fight resumes as if it were never interrupted.
So why did this happen? It seems like the water tank fight is only there to satisfy the foreshadowing from the tank being installed, but the tank is only installed so Bryce can have a fight in it later… Oh dear, we’ve discovered a literary ouroboros. It exists only so that it may continue to exist, forever devouring itself in an endless cycle of setup and resolution, as the rest of the story moves on by.
Not every tangent is as dramatic as the ones we’ve looked at today, but they all share the same basic qualities: a plot detour that can be easily removed without affecting the rest of the story. In short, they waste the reader’s time. Since none of us want to do that, it behooves us to recognize tangents whenever possible and either make them part of the larger story or cut them out entirely.
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