Acceptable Reasons to Veer Off An Ongoing Storyline / Unfocused Writing Vs. Distracted Characters

Preliminary Mini Rant

In a previous blog post about “bad” writing, I’d briefly discussed characters that do not act in service to a story’s plot. Movies especially have a tendency to do this so much that it kills, not adds to, the entertainment value, in my eyes. I can’t help but unleash my inner editor in those moments and complain about the deviation of a storyline to unnecessarily accommodate an urge of the protagonist or antagonist – the let’s-pause-the-plot-to-have-sex scenes; the let’s-do-something-just-for-the-heck-of-it scenes; and the let’s-make-complete-fools-out-of-ourselves-for-comic-relief scenes.

As someone with an education in (and deeprooted passion for) *quality* creative writing, I don’t have a taste for plot events that happen “just ‘cause”. In literature, and film since it is adapted from a written screenplay after all, there should be a reason for everything; not every tiny detail, but rather every action and event that readers are offered at face value.

We are force-fed an entertainment culture that often compromises substance for style rather than encouraging a balance, if anything. We must not let that culture influence us when it comes to our literatures, unless we are willing to settle for a mediocre, forgettable product to show for all our efforts and expenditure of valuable time.

The Post

There are a number of valid reasons that a writer might purposely choose to veer off a storyline at hand. When a purposeful distraction occurs and readers reflect on it at a later time, they know why the distraction was put where it was it belongs there like a puzzle piece that snaps into its place. However, when readers encounter an action or event that merely distracts them and they later reflect back, they realize that the scene was of no particular importance and was simply what I’ll call a dillydallying or indulgence of the writer, something that should not have made it through a series of drafts and onto the published novel.

As a reader, I do one of two things when I come across instances of a writer’s uncalled-for indulgence; I either skip the scene/section to arrive again at the plot or I put the book down and don’t look forward to picking it back up again, delaying the activity until I need something, anything, to do. Don’t let that be your reader, or else you’ll have a book that is borrowed from a library and then returned halfread, not bought at the bookstore for saving, savoring, and rereading again.

Finally, let’s address four acceptable reasons to deviate from an ongoing storyline to accommodate your characters’ momentary indiscretions/urges. The first one is to lighten a heavy, tense atmosphere. Your novel is dark, tense, and emotional; you need to lighten up the mood before you drop a plot bomb on a character, because you think that such a scene would add to the depiction of tragic loss in the following scene or chapter. If that sounds something like you, feel free to add a moment in which the character receives something that (s)he desires or has had his/her eye on for a while. The point is to portray that the protagonist is happy and stable before readers realize that the happiness was an illusion and it just isn’t in the cards for the character.

A simple example is if the protagonist’s family is going to die in the next chapter, they have a happy/normal family dinner that strengthens their bond in the previous chapter. The family dinner may seem pointless and boring (think of all the pointless breakfast/dinner table scenes in Breaking Bad), but in actuality, it symbolizes the calm and establishes the norm before the storm, no pun intended. Think about what your characters’ actions symbolize in the grand scheme of things.

The next acceptable cause is to differ from the norm. You’ve shown the reader what the protagonist’s/antagonist’s norm and routine are, but things are about to change big time, so you introduce something different to the narrative – something that throws the reader off a bit. I’ll address the third reason right now as well, because the example that follows is plausible for both – it’s to emphasize a moment when a character makes a mistake that’s going to cost them at a later point.

Maybe you’ve depicted a character as your average Joehe eats, he sleeps, he works, he rinses and repeatsbut you intend to flip his life upside down in a chapter’s time. What do you do? You might choose to lead the character astray; have him change up his routine just one night and go to a club in the city. Boom! He finds a partner and makes a few foolish decisions (drinking, drugs, sex, risky gambling, whatever), and then the consequences of that night come back to haunt him/her and maybe shape the rest of that character’s story. Heck, the partner could turn out to be the antagonist, or perhaps the character’s indiscretions add new meaning or insight (in)to the scenes that you’ve already written in the following chapters. In such cases, representing characters giving in to urges is logical and made sense of by the consequences and events that follow.

The last reason is to distract characters from their journey. This one happens when a character is on track and focused, but a) a strong temptation to either give up or take a break from the tiring journey takes hold of them, and/or b) another character/object/situation serves as a distraction for the character, used to slow him/her down. Say your protagonist is going to a city where (s)he must do something heroic, and suddenly his/her old friend, and also a very dead one, meets him/her right before his/her entry into that city; they catch up and waste some time hunting together so they can talk some more, but the protagonist soon figures out that the old friend is an illusion and a trap set by an antagonist to distract him/her from the journey. The old friend storyline would serve as an acceptable veering off from the storyline that had been going on before he/she showed up.

Did you notice a pattern in the reasons above? They indicated distraction with a purpose. Some (inter)actions and events may be of no particular significance in the first draft of your writing, but you may not necessarily have to delete that content. You can choose to keep the most pointless of scenes by simply adding value to themthus also doing so to another scene, section, or the work as a wholein your next draft. This is not encouragement to validate your unfocused writing; it is an urging to make the best out of what you have, whether that means deleting useless scenes or adding consequence to them and increasing their worth.

Keep an open mind and look at all the possibilities as you edit your drafts. It is important to be able to recognize the faults in your work, but the way that you approach editing those faults for the next draft will ultimately define your fiction.

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