For certain kinds of readers and writers, the best part of any book (often literary, though not always) is not a moment of supreme tension or complex gathering of plot strands. It’s an astute observation or unexpected description—some digressive phrase or passage that the writer seemed to pluck out of thin air. Yet when we sit down to write, we’re often overwhelmed with the practical necessities of motivation and plot and momentum and, as a result, find ourselves barreling down a straight line. The problem, we realize, is that we don’t know how to step off that line.
A writer who excels at digression is Matthew Frank. His latest book is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. While its subject is exactly what it seems—the mysterious giant squid—the book is a black hole, sucking into its center as many side stories and details as it can hold. You can read an excerpt here at The Nervous Breakdown.
How the Story Works
The trick to writing digressively is knowing when and how to digress. Your goal is to swerve from the main narrative without losing the reader, and to do this, you must prepare the reader for the swerves. One way to do this is to pry open a simple sentence and insert a small digression. Frank does exactly that. The excerpt from Preparing the Ghost focuses on the squid’s photographer as he rode a ship with the carcass of the squid aboard. The scene begins “at the 1874 port of St. John’s, Newfoundland” as “the fishing boat entered The Narrows, the only entrance to the harbor.” Here is how Frank begins to digress:
The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel…
The sentence is simple in construction and subject. Without the digression, it reads this way: “The fog began to shroud the vessel.” To digress, all that Frank has done is add a description of the fog. He could have said it was thick or white, but he instead told us “that the early sailors believed [it] to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood.” On one hand, that tangential fact is simple, just a phrase. But it’s also a huge leap in time and logic. A passage that began in a specific time (1874) has now broadened its frame to include earlier sailors and even Old Testament times.
That digression made, Frank continues it after the sentence’s initial statement (the fog began to shroud the vessel) is finished. Here is the entire sentence:
The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea.
Frank has now expanded the geographic frame of the passage, from the port at St. John’s, Newfoundland to the forests that stretch far inland. Now that he’s expanded the frame, watch how he continues to digress. (Remember, he’s writing about a particular ship in 1874.) Here is the entire passage:
The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea. The early sailors believed that this fog housed ghosts of fishermen and fish, mermaids that they’d either have to love or decapitate, that the only way to eradicate this terrible fog would be to set a great fire to the forests. At the sea-bed beneath them, the skeletons of two-hundred ships lay unidentified in the soupy mass grave, lifeboats and their corpses embalmed in the deep freeze. The Labrador Current threw at them more and more ice.
Because he has created that initial space in a sentence about fog, Frank is able to make much larger digressions about ghosts, mermaids, and shipwrecks—the sort of details that give his writing energy and that we remember even after we’ve turned the page.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s digress using the passage from Matthew Frank’s Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer as a model:
- Choose any sentence that you’ve written to start a paragraph. Or, write a sentence that begins a new paragraph about a particular place and time. Ideally, the sentence will be focused on mechanics: who, when, where. Simplicity is best, even something as rudimentary as “The dog began to bark.”
- Find a place to pry the sentence open. A great place to start is after nouns, where we already tend to add descriptive phrases. Instead of a simple adjective, though, add a phrase that expands the dimensions of the sentence (space or time). Try using transition words like that or which or an en dash. So, “The dog barked” can become “The dog that the neighbor brought home five years ago as a little barking puppy began to bark.” Or, it could become “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark.” Is it rough? Sure, but it has expanded the sentence’s sense of time.
- Continue the digression at the end of the sentence. If, after prying the sentence open, the beginning and end are still clear, it’s easy to simply keep the digression going by replacing the period with a comma. So, “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark” can become this: “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark, first at squirrels and then somebody taking out the garbage and then the rustling of leaves in Thailand and in France and finally at the Voyager space probe puttering along somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy.” Now, we’ve expanded the sentence’s sense of geography.
- Keep digressing. Once you’ve set new boundaries for time and geography, there’s no reason to return to the limits of the original first sentence. Explore the space you’ve created for yourself. Frank picks up on the early sailors that he added and expands on some of their other beliefs. Then, he picks up on the geography of these beliefs (mermaids) and stays underwater, showing us shipwrecks. This kind of literary play is what makes writing fun and not simply the search for the next plot point.
If you read the entire excerpt from Preparing the Ghost, you’ll understand that I’ve simplified Frank’s work a bit. He begins to digress before the sentence about the fog and Noah’s flood. You may even get lost in some of his digressions. He’s a writer who pushes the usual boundaries of narrative—which means he’s a good writer to read because he’ll push your sense of what narrative is capable of. When reading someone like that, though, it’s useful to tease out a single passage for study. Otherwise, it’s like trying to puzzle out the structure of an entire symphony in one listening.
Good luck with your reading, and have fun with your writing!