Tangents are not a type of citrus fruit

When I was in high-school I was introduced to tangents. In spite of the fact that tangent sounds vaguely like a small, tart citrus, in school it was used to mean a bit of mathematical wizardry involving one of those sweet graphic calculators. While I have no recollection on how to deal with tangents, I still feel strongly about how edible they sound. Of course, none of this has to do with the sort of tangent I’m thinking of right now. Mostly. 

The more I hear and read about proper plot construction, the more I keep hearing about this plot arc thing. It makes me thing of something  roundish or possibly completely round. This is not, usually, how I think about story telling. I tend to think about a story in terms of straight lines. Action A happens, so that B can happen, which causes C, and so-on. But, since it’s supposed to be an arc, I guess those things happen around a circle, which is illogical, but fine, I suppose.

Today, while my wife was putting together her blog post/newspaper article, she asked me to look it over. It was good. Usually is. This one was no exception, it was a solid piece. Then came the part that nobody likes to face. The bit where she asked, what do you think? So, I told her. Then she asked, Is it funny? That’s the sort of thing that makes my blood run cold.  Because my first thought was no, not really, but why the hell should it be. It’s good by itself. Anyone who’s ever given advice to a writer knows that just saying yes, it’s good, in spite of the fact that it is good, but not quite what the author thinks it is is easy, but stupid. In all cases, it will result in hours of questions like “really?” And “You think so?” With a smattering of “it’s good huh?” And “you think it’s funny?” Even though my wife most obligingly tells me my work is both good and funny, I decided to be honest. I said, “it’s a good and entertaining read, but I wouldn’t describe it as funny.”

“How do I make it funny?” Was her response. How could it not be? It’s the same thing I’d ask.

Naturally, I have absolutely no good response. If I had, I’d be a hell of a lot more successful writer than I am. That said, there is a feature in humorous writing, once pointed out, is obvious. Some humor takes lead up, planning and perfect execution, other humor simply requires profoundly artful understatement, and then there’s the tangent. Not the small tart citrus variety or the mathematical wizardry sort either, though if we’re sticking to the plot arc description, the mathematical tangent is a pretty good way to visualize this one. 

I asked my wife to think about the funniest book she’d read in a long time, which is a fun thing to visualize because watching my wife read something hilarious or just really funny is entertainment itself. I mean, except the parts where she’s laughing hard enough to challenge a blueberry for color. We came up with Terry Pratchett. One of the tricks he employs in his humor is the tangent. It works basically like this. You start your story and sporadically deviate with a vignette that theatrically embellish some tangentially related detail. I’d give an excellent example just now, but I think it would be better to just think about a funny story and go back to that. Look for the tangent. 

To be clear, I have no illusion that pulling off this little trick this makes you a funny writer, it’s a hell of a lot more work than that. but it is a trick that works. Anyhow, that’s what I wanted to share. I think it’s good advice, I mean, if you’re looking for it.


3 thoughts on “Tangents are not a type of citrus fruit

  1. scribblings246 says:

    I think many people don’t appreciate just how difficult writing humor can be. I know I certainly didn’t, until I tried it. I have a rather dry sense of humor, and while I can usually pull off a joke or funny story when telling it verbally, getting it right on the page is a real challenge for me. From comments I’ve read over the years, I’m not the only writer who feels this way.
    Comedic timing is important in telling a joke, and translating that perfect pause to the page is tricky.
    My ‘tangent’ in this comment is how cool I think it is that y’all can ask for and give each other honest critiques of each other’s writing. Because you’re absolutely correct when you observe that when we ask someone, especially another writer, what they think of a piece, we’re looking for a little more than, “Oh, it’s good,” or “It’s fine, I like it.” OK, great, but why did you like it? Or what could be better?
    However, I’m also not the only writer to observe that asking a friend or significant other for this sort open, honest opinion of our work can at times lead to reactions that range from mild awkwardness to bruised egos and feelings. We’re human, and we sometimes misinterpret genuinely helpful and supportive commentary as personal criticism. It’s wonderful you can give each other that kind of support. So, back pats to both of you, I think what I’m really trying to say is what a pleasure it is getting to know you both and getting to share in your growth as writers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I put everything in my plot, including tangents. Sometimes the tangent becomes the new arc.

    Liked by 1 person

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