“No digressions allowed!” is one of many pieces of writing advice I’ve read from the horizontal climbers, which is no doubt good advice if you want to write thrillers to formula. However, many books I admire are full of digressions and asides. In fact, such digressions sometimes make those books stand above the crowd. It’s one of those things that made me realize the best teachers are often books themselves.
The thing is, if you’re reading a “how to write” book written by someone who makes more money selling advice than their fiction, you’ll end up making the same mistakes they do. Yes, I get the irony of my own advice, since I have yet to sell a damned thing—but my advice isn’t to listen to me, it’s to listen to the good writing that sings inside you as you read. Anyway…
If you’re anxious about your story meandering, I’d say don’t worry about it until the whole story is written. I mean, during my last writing binge, I didn’t get why my character had to rant about orange jumpsuits at first, but it turned out to be crucial (even though it’s exactly as ridiculous as it sounds).
Often such digressions turn out plot-relevant. Take Luigi Vampa’s tale from The Count of Monte Cristo. It seemed a massive digression, and only came into play later. At the time I thought who cares, it’s an interesting story. I know I’m not alone, as can attest the fact that people still read it—all 1500+ pages—centuries later. Dickens also filled his pages with digressions, that often had no plot relevance whatsoever, but it told interesting stories about his characters. So we’re still good on Vonnegut’s #4 rule: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”
Of course Kurt Vonnegut broke that rule all the time. Just look at the whole passage about the Harmoniums from The Sirens of Titan—it was bloody magical. How about Terry Pratchett, who owned every one of his asides in his footnotes. Or Douglas Adams: the Hitchhiker’s Guide segments rarely had any plot relevance at all, and yet those are the bits people love the most. Maybe we should add an addendum to Vonnegut’s rule: digressions are totally allowed for the Rule of Funny or Rule of Cool.
Though it helps to make sure your shit is actually funny or awesome enough to make nerds drool. This is subjective of course, but most writers need other people to weigh in on whether or not they pulled it off. Until then, write the damned thing instead of fretting over it. I’ve learned the hard way that pulling back because you think your ideas are too stupid or weird leads to being boring.
An interesting voice is really the only difference between whether or not you can pull a bunch of digressions off. A sense of humor also helps—the ability to spin a tall tale—because the reader is waiting for you to subvert their expectations. They want to be entertained. If you can pull that off, they won’t care whether or not every sentence is plot relevant. They’ll be too busy enjoying themselves to notice. If you can bullshit so well people want you to keep going, then bullshit. Anyone who claims that’s never allowed is full of it.by