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SIDEBARS (also known Side Roads, or as, wait, what just happened?)
If your reader trusts you – and you usually start out with the benefit of the doubt – you can do a lot of things.
You have to be telling a good story, but you can take occasional trips down the side roads and explore the scenery there for a while.
The goal of a side road or sidebar is to tell the reader more about a character or a motive.
Doing this is a bit of a risk, but great writing isn’t safe.
Does your subplot or sidebar slow the pace of the story? Do we lose the reader’s interest?
It’s risky. In An Angel On Her Shoulder, we did it a lot and readers loved it if they hung in there. If they didn’t like it, we did it early enough for them to know this story wasn’t for them and they could leave.
Not every story is for every reader!
We jumped around in Angel, but most readers can keep all the story lines straight, and most like subplots and sidebars.
- We have the main story about Doug and his family, dealing with a possible possession of their daughter.
- We have the story of Doug (Dougie) and Jimmy from Doug’s youth.
- We have few other sideline stories that are really Doug’s memories, but they are nonetheless still stories inside the main story. There’s a short story about Mrs. Billen, and now this letter to Carl.
Whether they are a flashback or just an interesting scene, they are happening. So under the big umbrella of Doug’s present day journey, we have lots of little stories happening – and each has their own obstacles. (For example, Doug went to a church, but he had to overcome the obstacle of not having an appointment. That’s a tiny rock to throw at a character already up a tree, but it was fun to watch him interact with the receptionist.)
I think readers can pay attention to all those things and follow them effectively.
Sometimes you go too far.
Here we have 1000 or so words that might not fit extremely effectively at this point in the story. Read it and see for yourself.
I had prepared for the death of my mother for years.
I was an adult when Mom died, and afterward there were many things that reminded me of her that I could have never predicted. They came out of nowhere. My wife and I went to the Florida state fair and they had a taffy pulling machine. Mom always loved salt water taffy, and whenever we were at a fair in Indiana when I was a kid, she would always get some. My first, immediate thought when I saw the taffy machine was, I should get a box and send it to mom. My second thought was, I can’t because she’s gone. I can never send her any gift, ever again.
Be strong for your daughter. Losing her mother at the young age of 12 will be something that may cause unexpected sadness at strange times.
Your daughter will be surprised by things like that and how they affect her, so let her know that she will have these thoughts because she really cared for her mom. I believe the amount of pain we feel at a loved one’s passing is a testament to how much we loved them.
I can tell you this: when my mother died, she had been sick for quite a while—years, in fact—and we all knew she didn’t have a lot of time left. Mallory and I visited, I got to see Mom one last time, and a few weeks later she was gone.
I knew it was coming and I expected it. I didn’t cry when I visited her in the hospital, not when I got the news in the middle of the night, nor at the visitation.
But when I was at her funeral mass, in the church I grew up in, where I sat, Sunday after Sunday, next to her when I was a child . . . Now, in front of the altar was her coffin, cold and alone. When they started playing her favorite church song, the one she loved to sing at Mass, I cried like a baby.
I sobbed uncontrollably and unashamedly.
I wept in front of my family, my friends, and my God.
My young wife, sitting next to me, was unsure of what to do except hand me tissue after tissue and hold my hand.
I was overwhelmed. My mother was gone.
I could not stop the tears, and I didn’t want to.
I loved my mother and the world is not a better place without her in it, and on that day at that moment is when it hit me, even though I thought I was prepared and I knew it was coming and I thought I was handling it well.
I believe I honored my mother that day, and I will tell you, I doubt anybody who saw me crying thought any less of me for it.
Even though I had moved away from home many years before, and I rarely visited or even called to chat, there was something nice about knowing I could. Now, even that was gone.
I would never again be able to buy Mom her salt water taffy at the fair. I couldn’t spontaneously call her up at Christmas just to playfully ask the names of the Three Kings. I couldn’t pop in for a quick weekend visit on my way to some fun, other place.
I couldn’t do any of those things, ever again.
So when I say to expect the unexpected from your emotions, that is what I mean. Ultimately, you will all be fine because you have a strong family and a great loving network. The emotions you or your daughter feel during this time are valid, so don’t feel bad about having them—any of them.
At the first Christmas after my mom had died, we had our traditional family gathering. Before we all opened our presents, my brother offered a toast to those who we loved but who are no longer with us. It let everybody address the elephant in the room, have that emotion, and then move on to enjoy the rest of the day. It was a smart move, and it helped a lot.
Just like people feel guilty about the joy of having a new baby when another close relative’s parent is dying of cancer, grief and joy are both allowed in the same room.
So just do what you have to do. Expect the unexpected from your emotions, and if I can help in any way, let me know.
Our hearts are with all of you in this difficult time.
Try to enjoy Thanksgiving, my friend!
With trembling hands, I folded the yellowed photocopy of the letter and placed it back in my desk drawer. I turned off the light and sat in the darkness, leaning back in my chair as the growing winds from the tropical storm howled outside.
Few people would make a copy of a handwritten letter they were sending to a friend, but when I finished this one I realized I’d written it to Carl as much as I’d written it to myself. The letter was like a solemn vow of some sort. Reading it was a kind of prayer.
Someone who had put so much effort into shaping me as a person, who went to every swim meet and soccer game, who taught me about so many things . . . it seemed a waste that my mother’s influence would never pass to her granddaughter. Mom drilled me incessantly with multiplication flash cards so I would learn my “times tables,” volunteered at our school and at the YMCA, taught me—through her actions—about our role in the real world and not just book stuff like the nuns at school. What a huge benefit to my daughter, to have had that resource, but they would never meet.
And yet, they had a commonality.
I saw it in the delivery room when Sophie was born. The first time I gazed upon my newborn daughter, I remember thinking that she had the combination of a wrinkly old man’s face and my mother’s, a round face with dimples and bright eyes. It only lasted for a moment. When I looked again, it was gone, but it was there.
My wife didn’t care much for that description—wrinkly old man—but all babies are kind of wrinkly and odd-looking when they’re first born. Babies look a lot more presentable after the nurses clean them up, weigh them and wrap them in the soft white hospital blankets, and put the little hat on them.
A newborn baby gets a routine doctor’s exam and gets discharged, but that’s not how it went for us. On the day of our planned release, to go home with our addition to the family, our examining doctor felt there was something not quite right as he pressed the stethoscope to my daughter’s chest. He said he heard something that bothered him. That bothered me.
Tests confirmed his uncanny suspicion. They found a rare and potentially fatal heart condition, one that no doctor could ever have heard through a stethoscope—and yet this doctor did just that. And off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit we all went.
We watched, with the empty feeling of helplessness eating away at our insides, as our daughter, just 24 hours old, clung to life. And we and the parents of the other babies in the NICU wept and prayed. In the midst of all that, I felt a something I had not felt before. At a time when I should have been scared, I grew to feel strangely calm.
My dad, a physician, said it was a miracle. He said that there must have been an angel on the examining doctor’s shoulder that day, whispering in his ear. If we had taken my daughter home, she might have died with no warning, like so many others with the condition.
We were lucky. There was an angel on the doctor’s shoulder that day. Or one on my daughter’s.
I was unprepared for the emotions I would suddenly have from out of nowhere after the death of my mother, so I understood when people said they could no longer drive by a certain intersection where their kid had crashed a car and almost died. It changes you, like the NICU changed us.
The street light outside my window illuminated the falling rain. The drops came down almost horizontally in the whipping winds of the storm.
For a long time, a word or phrase that someone would innocently say to me, or something they’d do in passing, would instantly plunge me back into that cold, dark church in Indiana where I would again find myself staring at a shining coffin in the dim glow of candles. The box that now held my mother for eternity.
I’m not sure I told my mom enough that I loved her. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m sure I didn’t. I showed it at her funeral, and I could write about it in a letter to my friend, but I doubt I did enough to show her while she was alive. Women are different that way. I see that now, watching my wife with our daughter. A mother always wants another kiss or hug. She can’t hear “I love you” enough from her child. I won’t make the same mistake with my daughter that I made with my mom. I tell Sophie that I love her all the time.
It would fall to me, then, to teach her the good things about my mother. Sure, there were many things to be learned from Mallory’s side of the family. They are good and decent folks. Sophie loves them and we visit their farm all the time. She helps throw old bread to the cows and holds the basket when they collect chicken eggs from the coop. At three years old she was catching her own catfish with Mallory’s father in the pond.
Sophie will build her own fond memories of childhood, and she will build her strengths and weaknesses as she does. I’m not sure how you could teach your daughter about her other grandmother anyway, especially when she can’t see it for herself. I’m not sure I would even know how to teach her, or whether I could if I did know how. And that seems like kind of a waste.
I guess that’s why I hang onto the copy of that letter. To help show her one day.
But that’s not the only reason I keep it.
I put this sidebar in to explain Doug’s feelings about his mother, who he refers to occasionally in the story. She’s important to him (and therefore the story) but she’s not really in the story except when he thinks about her.
You would think that would be the case with anybody’s deceased mother, and you won’t necessarily know why this is important when you read it. That underscores the importance of beta readers. They are looking at the entire story as a whole unit, and IF YOU ASK they can tell you “I’m not sure you needed that scene” or “I’m not sure you needed that chapter.” Or sections of chapter.
(Don’t poison the well. Write your questions down and ask them after the beta readers have read the whole story.)
Is The Sidebar Effective?
Maybe, maybe not. You decide. I think it’s emotionally sound, and adds a nice layer to Doug’s emotional state, but it might not be important enough to make it through the final edit.
Most writers don’t tell their stories in anything other than a straight line. Mine tend to wander around a bit – and that usually makes them more fun.
It can also be an unnecessary distraction. In that case, listen to your betas and cut!
Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.
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2 thoughts on “Great Stories Have Great Subplots and Great Sidebars”
I think I must mainly read books that have these sidebars, as you call them, Dan. I loved Angel and didn’t find it hard to follow or feel there were superfluous bits to the story. I like the additional insights, they help the reader understand the character and the personality and traits of the character are vital to an understanding of their role in the story.
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Yeah. Some genres support it; others don’t. I think Angel did because the main had a lot of introspection.