Lately, I’ve been editing my own work, trying to put together a collection of short stories I’ve worked on for three years. Revision, for me, involves a lot of cutting. I value clarity to a fault in my early drafts; later I aim to lose the excessive unnecessary explanation and let the reader fill in blanks. My ultimate goal is a tight, powerful story—one that’s ideally a bit mysterious, too.

But at the same time: How I love a good digression. In a conversation, in a thoughtful essay, in the podcasts I listen to as I drive into the city.

What do I mean by “digression” in story-telling? Not a total non sequitur. Not a complete change of subject. Instead, I’m referring to a detour, a temporary departure, from the central subject at hand.

When an author goes off-path within a narrative, it can come as a welcome surprise. We lose our footing. Where is the writer taking us? How will this wandering serve the larger story? How will she bring us back to the original thread? These questions can add an appealing strangeness, suspense, and originality to a narrative.

Yet aren’t digression and compression at odds?

Not necessarily. In my reading I’ve realized that talented writers know how to take a story off-road without adding excessive baggage to the prose. If you, like me, enjoy a bit of spontaneous side-tripping when you tell a story, here are some thoughts on keeping digressions from weighing down your narrative.

  1. Minimize connective tissue. You can digress without announcing or explaining. If you want to discuss a scientific study that illuminates a character’s behavior, just do it—trust readers to make the connection. If you know it’s relevant, they will, too.
  2. Use digressions to tackle questions from another angle. Questions lie at the heart of any story. These questions do not need to be directly answered so much as explored. A digression can be a way of looking at a narrative’s question in a less explicit way. For example, if a character is trying to understand why he repeatedly makes the same mistake in his personal life, a digression might focus on the journal entry of a historical figure who pondered the same dilemma.
  3. Consider research-based digressions. Factual digressions that incorporate science, history, art, or medical knowledge can serve as a valuable grounding force.
  4. Rethink “obvious” flashbacks. If your story features a flashback—perhaps a character reflects on something from childhood after a triggering incident—consider making it a more digressive flashback: something thought-provoking and unusual. (Much as real-life memories can be.) Encountering a parent screaming at a young child in public might trigger not a memory about a character’s own temperamental parents, but perhaps a painting the character remembers seeing in a museum. Or a song. Or the smell of a beach house. Something that might leave a reader curious—and eager to turn pages to find out how the digressive flashback connects.
  5. Streamline language to allow room for wandering. Compression and digression can (and arguably should) feed each other, according to renowned Italian author Italo Calvino. As he explains in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, his fascinating series of lectures on writing: “Being thrifty with time is a good thing, since the more time we save, the more we’ll be able to lose. Quickness of style and thought means above all nimbleness, mobility, and ease—all qualities that go with writing that is prone to digression, to leaping from one topic to another, to losing the thread a hundred times and finding it again after a hundred twists and turns.”

A few contemporary stories/novels/memoirs that feature distinctive digressions:

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk
“Ghosts and Empties,” “Flower Hunters,” and other stories by Lauren Groff
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Interested in learning more about digressions and other revision techniques? Sign up for Christina’s Weeklong Fiction Intensive schedule during our A-Term (7/30/18 – 8/3/18).