It’s pre-dawn Monday morning as I write this. Dark outside for at least another 1/2 hour. I’ve done my morning workout, skimmed the news, and looked over my plans for the week. It’s my intention to get this posted today.
Oops. Doggus interruptus. My pup needed to go for a walk. So we did. Back now. But it’s past dawn. I’ve also been “interrupted” by making my breakfast, making tea for myself and coffee for my son before he heads off to work.
I’m a planner. I do like spontaneous things, but generally *within* something I’ve planned. What that means is I plan a trip to the Florida west coast, set it for a specific day like this Thursday, with a couple specific stops and a definite “we can’t afford to stay overnight” end point – but no timetable otherwise. So if my spouse and I sidetrack to something interesting along the way, it’s a good thing.
It’s similar when I’m writing. I always start by writing a summary of what I’d like the story to have, including the broadest points along the way – using a structure like a story map or the hero’s journey, or romancing the beat. But the minutiae – the dialogue, the setting for that exact scene, the character’s mood, along the way – is allowed to be spontaneous. It can surprise me – and often does – to become something fuller. So the writing of a story might take me off on a couple subplot sidetracks, but I generally finish up where I intended.
One of the biggest subplot surprises that actually took me two books to resolve fully was Cassidy’s ex-husband in Turning Point and Turn for Home. Writing along in the first draft back in 2001 (can you believe it’s been 20 years?), I did not have the ex-husband Mitch appear on the page until nearly 3/4 of the way. But when he did, I realized I had a big characterization check to make on Cassidy. Had I been writing her along the way to support this notion that her ex was a controlling emotional abuser? In other words, did Cassidy read as a survivor of spousal abuse?
Once I was done with the first draft, I did some research, then I went back to the beginning and checked Cassidy’s behaviors against what I’d learned. I found I had created some very realistic and nuanced moments, but putting Mitch on the page sooner, interacting with Cassidy, would really cement it. So I added new material: a scene tag to chapter 1, a meeting in a public park to discuss Ryan, a couple phone calls. Finally, Mitch was solidly a force in Cassidy’s history and her present, which deepened her characterization and, by extension, that of her lover Brenna. It also gave me a major plot for my second novel.
If I hadn’t been open to letting some of my story elements sidetrack or wander into new and interesting moments, I’d have probably tossed the whole arc and had flatter characters as a result. I also would not have been able to explore living wills or hospital policies regarding non-family visitation (back then this was a huge impediment for LGBTQ people and a major motivation for much of the equality movement).
My questions today:
For writers: what sidetracks have your characters and stories taken you on recently? Did it reinvigorate your interest in the story or frustrate you?
For readers: what part of a story you’ve recently read feels like a sidetrack plot the author followed? Did it make you find the story more interesting or less?