On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares her writing advice for why you should keep your story focused on the main conflict, and why side adventures will make your audience stop caring about your story.
Written by JJ Barnes
The plot of your story will (usually) follow a Protagonist as they become active in pursuit of a goal, then follow them on their journey to getting it. The Antagonist is equally motivated to try and stop them. A side adventure occurs when you send your character in pursuit of a different goal temporarily. In this post I’ll be talking about why side adventures can distract from your story and make your audience stop caring.
I’ve written before about the pantsing vs plotting style of writing a story. This is when you either free-wheel it and discover the story as you go (pantsing) or you plan your characters and story in advance (plotting). However, this advice applies to both styles of writing.
Whether you’ve planned it in advance or edited into place after, your story should follow a structure. By giving it the rise and fall of a traditional three act structure, your audience feels the control you have over your story, and you keep your story moving.
A simple guide to a three act structure is this:
Act One: Put your character up the tree – this means the Protagonist becomes active and goes into pursuit of their goal. In Aladdin, it’s Aladdin become active in pursuit of his goal to win the heart of Princess Jasmine. He is sent up the tree by taking the first steps of action to achieve his goal.
Act Two: Throw stones at them – this means you make the story a challenge for your Protagonist. Make it hard, make them work for their goal. This is Aladdin facing competition and suspicion from Jafar, lying to Jasmine and having to conceal the truth. Throw obstacles in your characters way that they must fight through.
Act Three: Bring them back down the tree – this means everything has come to a head. Your character knows everything they need to know, and must face that final challenge. Aladdin knows that Jafar is powerful and has taken Princess Jasmine. He knows he must make a choice between being a Prince for Jasmine or freeing the Genie. All the stones from Act Two have been collected and now you resolve your conflict.
Drifting Off Plot
When you write side adventures, you’re taking your Protagonist away from your main story.
The plot of your story (character in pursuit of goal, other character blocking them) is set aside for something else. Your Protagonist goes after something else for a short period. Perhaps they take a holiday and have lots of active conflict on that holiday, but it’s not related to your plot. Maybe they fight an unrelated bad guy, somebody equally terrible to the main villain, but nothing to do with the main story.
By writing side adventures, you’re doing two things:
- Telling your audience your main conflict isn’t particularly important.
- Leaving your audience confused.
Why Your Plot Should Be Important
You want your audience to be invested in your story. It has to matter. If the story doesn’t matter, why are they bothering to stick with it?
The stakes of your story should be so high that your Protagonist is focused on them. They want their goal, they’re motivated through out to get it. As long as your Protagonist is always in pursuit of their goal, the story will keep moving forwards. If the story is moving forwards it will be entertaining and your audience will understand why it matters.
When your Protagonist stops caring about the main plot to have their side adventures, it means the main plot isn’t that important. If the plot isn’t that important, what is your audience showing up for? If the audience doesn’t know why they’re showing up… why will they keep showing up?
Avoiding Confusion Caused By Side Adventures
Your audience has come to you for a story. You’re, essentially, an entertainer. Entertain them. Don’t confuse them.
When you start your story, your inciting incident tells your audience what they’ve shown up for. This is the moment your Protagonist goes in pursuit of their goal. Whether it’s signing up for a dating site, setting out to fight an alien invader, or deciding to kill an abusive partner. It doesn’t matter that that moment is, but that moment starts your story.
If your story stops being what you’re audience signed up for, they won’t understand what story they’re reading. You told them what they’re there for, they’re there to watch your Protagonist dealing with the choice made in the Inciting Incident. Side adventures essentially require a new Inciting Incident to send them off doing something else.
Give your audience what they want. They want the story they signed up for.
What If I Like Side Adventures?
If the plot and story of your side adventure is really good, there’s no reason you can’t use it. Just not NOW. Use it somewhere else.
Turn it into the entire plot of a new book, an episode of a TV show, a short story. There’s no limit to how many stories you can write. Use the same characters, new characters, it doesn’t matter. If that side adventure is a story you definitely want to tell then tell it. But let the plot of THIS story be the point of this story.
Keeping your audience caring about this story, these characters, is essential. It means they’ll finish this story, then trust you enough to come back for more.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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