Yes, dear reader, I’ve been editing again. And editing has gotten me thinking.
Sometimes a book has too many b, c, d, etc. stories. If you have too many side stories and tangents, it’s easy for a reader to get lost. But sometimes there are too few. Some stories are pretty relentless in following a particular line, or heading for a particular event or ‘moral’. If you have too few, it’s easy for a reader to get bored or irritated with the story. Bored and/or irritated readers put down books and don’t pick them up again unless they have to, not a fate I’d choose for my work.
People aren’t usually ‘one note wonders’
They aren’t. Real people and believable characters have things going on in their lives, even secondary characters and the person in the drive-through window. Characters and actual people have interests and challenges. That’s part of what makes them real, believable, and engaging. We as writers benefit from this.
Depressed people often give up on pleasurable activities. You can show your characters falling into depression as he/she/whatever gives up pleasures and interactions in the story and focuses on depression. The same thing happens with your obsessive characters.
People can’t be everywhere and see everything. But sometimes your reader needs to know things that the hero or villain doesn’t (or can’t). The knowledge helps the reader feel like an insider. Sometimes it’s best delivered in a side story, something a secondary character sees, hears, or does that might not seem important now, but is vital later.
Side stories can both help and hinder. They provide opportunities for characterization and reader knowledge. They add length and depth to stories. They also add complexity, which can make them harder to read and manage.
How much is too much? How much is not enough?
The answers depend on your story, your writing style and your intended audience. The simple answers are that you want the right amount for your readers; enough side story to make the book interesting and achieve your goals in a manner that’s appropriate for your audience without confusing your audience, your story, or your own editing efforts.
As the writer/creator, it’s easier for you to keep track of all the side bits (the ones you did or didn’t write). You know the stories you write; your readers only know what you tell them. So, it helps to listen to a little feedback and advice from someone else who’s read it. It also helps to give your story a rest between writing and editing (link) and to read and edit from the perspective of a reader not an author.
Focus your wanderings
The purpose of side stories and tangents within a work of fiction (or non-fiction) is to support the major story you’re telling. You might also be supporting a larger series or world building, but the purpose of the side stories and tangents within the text you’re writing is first and foremost to support the story you’re telling in the moment. If they’re not, it’s time for a good hard think about them: how to change them to support the story you’re telling or whether it’s better to cut them (I know, it hurts). Remember, the bits you cut off from this story can be saved and reused elsewhere. They might even be the basis for a new story all by themselves!
Good luck with your stories dear reader, all your stories. I’ll be working on mine and I’ll see you next post.