Distractions from the Plot or Character Building?

An odd topic in writing that appears from time to time (I’m told) is the side quest.  These are momentary events that a hero will get involved in, which takes them away from the main plot.  These are different from subplots because they don’t go very far.  It’s a rather strange inclusion because of the short-term attention and typically material rewards for the characters.  Personally, I’m not sure what books these are found in and maybe I’m misreading things.  Sounds more like something out of a video game like above.  Then again, one could say ‘Riddles in the Dark’ from ‘The Hobbit’ would fit into this category since it was a single chapter with a material reward.

Here are a few ideas to help make these events appear less like distractions and more like important factors for either the story or the character.

  1. Essential Item–  It may be that such a diversion from the main plot comes up with an item that is essential to the outcome of the overall story.  If not the story then something that improves the character’s abilities or gear. The event doesn’t go on long enough or deep enough to be a subplot, but its rewards impact the main story.  Without this impact, you’re doing filler and padding pages.  So, have the character do something and gain a magical item or even a clue to something that turns up later.  The point of a scene like this is entirely about the rewards.
  2. Learn a Lesson–  This can happen with characters that are arrogant, selfish, and other ‘negative’ traits.  Some major plots can be undone by a character who doesn’t change these issues.  It gets really rough when the plot doesn’t give any openings for this change to take place.  A side quest spanning a chapter or a scene might be what is needed to clear this up.  For example, a selfish hero is forced to protect a child from a pack of werewolves while on his way to his main objective.  This might be a little strained and cliche, but it can get the job done.
  3. Foreshadowing–  This works if done early in a book and series.  A scene that appears to be relatively minor and benign turns out to be major later.  The introduction of a future hero or villain would fall under this category.  It can be something as simple as a bar fight in a tavern or a pickpocket chase.  Somewhere in the scene is a key to the future that will make a reader go back and go ‘Ah-ha!’  Every now and then getting that reaction is more fun than anything else.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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23 Responses to Distractions from the Plot or Character Building?

  1. Kate Sparkes says:

    I always worry about keeping scenes in book one that won’t be truly significant until book two, or even three. I think I’ve managed to add enough immediate importance to them that they don’t seem pointless, but I guess that’s up to the reader to decide.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Man, I love that list! You’ve really given me something to think about. Some of my scenes seem too “episodic.” I wonder if they’re a distraction from the main quest. Now that I think about it (and having watched that video which was hilarious), one scene in my novel in particular is a huge distraction. My characters don’t really learn anything nor do they pick up a key item. It’s gonna have to go.

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    • I had an issue in my third book like that. It was a huge scene that was easily replaced by a few lines of dialogue and narration. It hurt to see it go, but it served no real purpose. This is why I outline and then edit my outlines before writing. I make sure there’s a ‘goal’ for each chapter/section, so they all have purpose.

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  3. I should probably write more fight scenes. I could use a little Ah-ha!

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  4. C. Miller says:

    I loved this post. I like the idea of a selfish (or otherwise negative in some way) character being forced to do something for another person (lesson learned or not). Cliche or not, I think it’s realistic in a sense. I mean, you’re always tested like that in real life, which means it’s easy to relate to.

    And I’ll admit, I’m a BIG fan of putting in things that aren’t so relevant at one point, but are extremely relevant later. There is kind of a line you have to walk with that though, and it can be a difficult one.

    Also, I have to ask…
    Do you get distracted by side quests in video games? I always have to do them.

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    • I agree about the cliche and realism part. There are several events that happen a lot in stories, but they also happen a lot in the real world. So it could be a ‘cliche’ only because there are few other ways to resolve a problem. I’m thinking how people say Happily Ever After is cliche, but it’s a real possibility.

      Foreshadowing is a big tool and I use it a lot to get future events rolling. The difficulty is that a small group of readers don’t always realize it’s important for later.

      I get distracted by side quests in a game during my first play. Though I’m gotten better at letting things slide if they get frustrating. The final weapons in FFX comes to mind because I hated a bunch of those challenges. The 100 Lightning Bolt dodge was ridiculous to me.

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      • C. Miller says:

        Then you have to get into the whole, ‘one person’s (or character’s) happy ending would be different from the next’. And any situation will have it’s deviations despite whatever similarities, so . . . is anything ever REALLY cliche? I could get into a really big thing about all that, but I’ll spare you. Might turn it into a post at some point.

        I use a lot of foreshadowing as well, and there’s always the concern that it won’t be picked up on (or will be picked up too much). And then it gets into the issue on how believable it is when those things DON’T get picked up on. But maybe I’m straying into something completely different and you should totally disregard everything I’m saying . . .

        Those freaking ultimate weapons in FF X. >.<
        Omg. Yes, the lightning bolts. That will make you go insane.
        I'm getting frustrated just thinking about it, haha.

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      • I wrote a post or a comment somewhere about how a cliche for one person might not be a cliche for another. After all, we all have different exposure levels to them.

        I fully agree with you about foreshadowing not being picked up on. It gets frustrating, but nothing we can do. People see what they see.

        Eventually I gave up on the weapons and ran along with the plot. My favorite is still FF9 with the story and characters. I don’t remember the ultimate weapons being as much of a pain as other games. I so miss having the time to play a long RPG.

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      • C. Miller says:

        This is true about exposure levels. And really I think a lot of it can be down to opinion on what classifies as it and what doesn’t.

        People definitely see what they see. That’s kind of the beauty of it.
        I think I’m in a weird mood today. I probably shouldn’t be interacting, haha. I keep wanting to get all philosophical and I’m way too tired for it.

        I don’t mind running along with the plot as long as I can get back to the side quests. That’s why I rarely beat those sorts of games – have to get EVERYTHING. Get right to the final boss battle and piddle around for endless hours.
        As much as I love FF, I’ll admit that I didn’t play 8 or 9 (I watched them both played, if I remember correctly). 7 will probably forever be my all-time favorite game.

        I feel ya there. I miss having the time for it too.
        But those games suck me in and don’t let me go.

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      • Philosophy and fatigue seem to go hand in hand some days.

        I really liked 7. 8 angered me because of Selphie and the Junction system. Not to mention a glitch created an unkillable Behemoth. I suggest playing 9 or at least listening to the soundtrack. Beautiful music.

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      • C. Miller says:

        That they do . . .

        I’m trying to remember if 8 or 9 has the character with the tail. I get the two mixed up, which I’m ashamed to say given that the series is my favorite.
        Was that Behemoth mandatory or just a random one?

        I think the music in those games is spectacular. Apart from 13-2, which has the metal(esque) music during battle. I think I drove my husband insane with that. I just tuned it out.
        And I’m normally a fan of screaming in music, if that says anything about how horrible it was. :/

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      • Zidane is from 9 along with Vivi the Black Mage. 8 had Squall with the Gunblade. I think the Behemoth was mandatory at the front door of the last dungeon. If it was a random encounter then it was one that the game wasn’t letting me leave.

        I haven’t played any of the FF games since FFX . . . sadly, I played FFX-2 as well and regret the action to this day.

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      • C. Miller says:

        So you seriously couldn’t finish it because of that Behemoth?

        I’ll admit that I played X-2, and I’ll sadly admit that . . . I enjoyed it.
        NOW, in my defense, I was in high school at the time, which might have had something to do with my enjoyment of it.
        I’m set on the fact that it was basically made for females (DRESS SPHERES? Come ON), but . . . what they did to Yuna in that game was just . . . a TRAVESTY. It still makes me sad thinking about it.

        Don’t hate me for enjoying that game. I won’t deny that it’s crap, but I had fun playing it at the time. But they shouldn’t have made it. Just like they shouldn’t have made 13-2 despite the awesome idea about catching monsters. They should’ve just let it be.

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      • I hadn’t saved before the fight and it left a sour taste in my mouth. I had been having issues with parts of the game to begin with and the Behemoth was the last straw. Used up all of my most powerful spells and it didn’t die.

        The dress spheres were so strange and it made me wonder how you got any decent character diversity. I liked how you could mix and match in FFX.

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      • C. Miller says:

        I know what you mean. I was playing XII again last year and hadn’t saved in a (long) while (which I’m usually very good at doing), died, and haven’t touched it again since. I’d pick it back up now if I had the time. Probably.

        I usually save way too often. Like in Skyrim, I saved every few minutes after not-saving and losing time. Then I got mad at that game and haven’t touched it since. Even though they changed what made me mad about it, I still haven’t played. It was almost traumatic for me. Skyrim destroyed my life for a little while there. Not the likes of what FF 11 did to me many years ago. >.<

        The dress spheres WERE strange. And yeah, I'll agree that the sphere grid from X is one of my all-time favorite leveling systems (also I just had a lot of fun with it). But there was something about the materia in XII that I loved. They definitely don't make games like that anymore, and that's a shame.

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      • The Behemoth incident taught me to save often, but it’s hard in some games. If you need to save from a certain spot then it makes it much harder to keep the habit going.

        I haven’t played XII, so I only know of the FF7 materia.

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      • C. Miller says:

        VII is AMAZING.

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  5. Pingback: Fractals: The Purpose of the Pattern | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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