Sidetracking, or Rabbitholing

I’m sure you have friendly (okay, scratch that: lively) arguments with your friends and family. Maybe it ends in reconciliation, maybe it ends in ruined friendships and wrecked outings. Whether it does or not is not the point: try to recall a point in time in which you had an argument or debate with a friend or family member. (what this has to do with anything pertaining to writing is something I’ll explain in a moment.)

In the argument you’re thinking of, were you ever accused of committing the logical fallacy of “red herring”? Maybe instead they said something along the lines of “That doesn’t have anything to do with the argument.” or “You’re just going off on a tangent!”, even “You’re just rabbitholing!”

There’s a million ways to say it, but those terms all meant pretty much the same thing: you introduced something to the argument that wasn’t relevant or didn’t do anything to prove your point. Not strictly a “logical fallacy”, but the internet troll on Twitter will definitely call you out with it if he spots you.

Maybe you were using a bunch of obscure facts and using them to construct a counter-argument, in which case you probably replied with something along the lines of “hang on, I’m getting there”. But if you weren’t, you were being rightly accused (although you probably tried to cover it up in some way).

Regardless, going off on tangents and rabbit holes is something we human beings do quite often, even in the realm of fictional writing. Whether you’re mentioning some things that you’re going to come back to later or even something that is not quite related (it would be a stretch to say totally unrelated), rabbitholing is rabbitholing. (I am aware that the term can also mean an endless, useless internet search, but henceforth it has the meaning I have given it. I have spoken.)

I guess the question could be aptly put: are tangents to be avoided or pursued, or simply left alone? Well, there are three kinds of tangents that occur in literature, and I will touch on all of them briefly, giving some pros and cons to illustrate why and why not which tangents should be allowed and which ones need to be handled carefully, along with ones that should be avoided.

The first kind of rabbit hole are the most immediate ones, often communicated through parentheses (similar to what I’m doing right now). It involves giving one or two details that you didn’t give before, so you give them in the moment. This can be a logical train of thought, as your readers may have the same problem. All the same, I’d go back over and reread it to see if the train is actually interrupted by the tangent.

Our second kind of rabbit hole is a tangent of subplots. This is probably the most viable, as one of the coolest things in storytelling is having two unrelated stories cross paths at one point or another. If you start a subplot that at first seems like a rabbit hole (even if the stories never concur) you can eventually tie it off as a parallel or double story or make the two collide. This requires extra planning, so be sharp.

The third kind of tangent is one of the plot. This is the least viable, as a story that introduces a ton of loose threads and then does a minimum with said threads can really annoy the reader. If the plot seems irrelevant, then the reader will lose all interest and go find a book that does (or, worse yet, turn on the news and be distracted from your writing forever).

The plot doesn’t have to be irrelevant for the reader to leave: it just has to seem that way. If you go off on a tangent with a whole plot, you’ve risked the life of your story. I’ve seen a few people pull off a good story by going off a tangent with the entire story and then rescuing the story at the end with an incredibly crafted twist ending (see the movie The Village for an example).

So, you just want be answer straight out: are tangents and rabbit holes okay in fictional writing. The short answer is yes: even in subplots, if seemingly trivial matters are capitalized on and made to matter, introducing seemingly useless ideas into the story can actually be quite helpful for you.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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