The West Wing and the Power of Digressive Narratives

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I’m bleary-eyed as I write this. Late last night, I finished several weeks of binge-watching “The West Wing,” all 156 episodes of the nostalgic political series, which ran on television for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatizing the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff. 

The show has become a kind of televised comfort food for many Americans as the country is swamped by partisan bickering.

The plots are captivating, the dialogue, like its characters, is whip-smart. But while I watched the show for enjoyment, I also viewed it through the prism of a writer interested in story structure. What I found especially fascinating was a particular approach to storytelling that I think can be useful to writers of fiction and nonfiction: digressive narrative.

This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re sudden detours from the story at hand. 

Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. 

 “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is a two-parter about an assassination attempt on President Bartlett and its aftermath. Using quick cuts, Sorkin toggles between the shooting by white supremacists that wounds the President and Josh Lyman, his deputy chief of staff, and a separate storyline: the creation of an upstart campaign staff that launched the obscure New England governor into the highest office in the land. (You can watch parts one and two on You Tube; Sorkin’s scripts for parts one and two are also available.) 

Novelists and nonfiction narrative writers also use digressions.

J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In the Rye,” is replete with these departures from the main plot, mirroring the manic personality of its rebellious teen hero, Holden Caulfield.

Digressions seem to stray from the main topic, but their purpose is to heighten the reader’s understanding. A famous one is Holden’s fixation with a pair of nuns he meets at a restaurant. He helps them with their suitcases, feels badly that they are eating just toast and coffee, and gives them a ten dollar donation.

 “That’s what I liked about those nuns,” he reflects. “You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It makes me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway.”

The nuns reappear in his consciousness as he worries about their poverty. At the novel’s end, he looks for the nuns, wondering if he might run into them collecting donations. Like many digressions, Salinger’s focus is on minor characters. In this case, their only purpose is to tell the reader more about Holden and his concern with morality that is a major theme. 

Nonfiction writers also turn to digressions. In “The John McPhee Reader,” editor William Howarth describes how the narrative nonfiction master’s “diving into the loops and stalls of digression, circling the main subject for a while” that “works his characters into a suspenseful plot.”

Many writers, like Sorkin, use digression as flashbacks. Others like McPhee take literary off ramps from their main story for informative digressions on everything from geology to roadkill. But sudden interruptions have other uses as well.

 “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America,” is Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about two warring enterprises—building and murder—during the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

To tell the twin stories, Larson relies on repeated digressions, alternating the story of how the Exposition came to be with a more chilling tale of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer at loose in the city. Each story is powerful in their own right, but switching between them makes for a relentless read. It’s hard to lose interest when you have two suspenseful narratives that you can braid into a single story, which is why digressions can be such a useful narrative strategy.

I didn’t know the term at the time, but as a reporter for the Providence Journal Bulletin in 1981, I employed a digressive narrative to heighten suspense and give background information.

In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children” opens on Jackie Rushton, a young woman about to give birth in a local hospital. An encounter with a nurse convinces her that the birth has gone terribly wrong. “I’ve lost the baby,” she tells herself. “The baby is gone.” The story then switches to the past as I use a digression to take Jackie and her husband Rob through courtship, marriage and parenthood and a new pregnancy. The section ends at a baby shower when Jackie’s water breaks. After the digression dispenses with the requisite back story, the main narrative picks up from the opening scene and without interruption follows Jackie and Rob through a perilous night when they don’t know if their baby will live or not. 

Not everyone is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in February at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on them, but used judiciously and with skill digressions, can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth studying. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”  or “The Catcher in the Rye” and then experiment with your own stories. Have fun!

This post appeared originally in Nieman Storyboard.

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