Sideswipes – are they really necessary?

When I read a book, I expect the content will be relevant – meaning that the author won’t digress down some rabbit-y hole and use their character to inject a bias/belief/ or political hot potato just to make some personal point that I invariably don’t give a rat’s patootie about.

Case in point – I was reading a book last week that kept me entertained and fully engrossed right up to the point where a character went off the reservation and espoused their dislike of a political party. For the love of all that’s holy, this was an inspirational book! The author was so impassioned, that “her character” blathered on for an entire paragraph. This is fingernails on the chalkboard stuff, and it stood out like a wet booger because there was absolutely no reference or context to politics at all within that scene. It was like the author just HAD to get it in – I hate this political party.

Well, who gives a flying frying pan about your politics? It isn’t in keeping with the scene, or the entire book, for that matter.

Welcome to “the sideswipe.”

The sideswipe is an author’s personal belief that they inject into their story.

It might be a shortie sentence, or a couple paragraphs, and it has nothing to do with the plot, or even the character development. It’s simply there as an aside. Asides, in and of themselves, are no big deal because they’re normally benign – and rightfully so. But when they are provocative and injected completely out of context, then comes the risk of pissing off your reader. It’s that blurp that makes the reader say, “Really? Srsly? Aw, now why’d you have to go and put that in?”

Here’s an example of a sideswipe:

Let’s say the story is about a woman who travels to India and sees the ravages of overpopulation in the starving, dirty faces of children who openly beg in the street. Her thoughts of birth control and abortion rights are perfectly logical in keeping with her character development and the scene. But where she veers off the reservation is the three paragraph diatribe about what a tool George Bush is for being anti-choice. And say, wasn’t that Ronnie Reagan a bit of an asshat, too?

It’s overkill, irrelevant, divisive, and completely unnecessary. Not only does it drag the scene off course, but it will irritate those who lurve old Bushy and are anti-choice. Does it enhance the dramatic impact of the scene? Heck no. Most importantly: Can the story survive quite nicely without it? Heck yah.

The Great Turnoff Factor

My feeling is, if you’re going to piss off a reader, let it be because they didn’t like your writing, hated the plot, or the characters, or they disagreed with the premise. A sideswipe is an irritant and puts the reader in the position of distrusting you because they don’t agree with your personal viewpoint. Is your sideswipe that important that you’re willing to run the risk?

And this is what this particular author did to me. I really liked her book, but for her continued sidewipes that added absolutely NOTHING to the book, she pissed me off. I’ve decided to pass on buying any of her other books.

I know passions – especially political or social – can blind many people to where they feel it prudent to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on certain issues. The questions to ask are:

Does anyone care?
Does it enhance the story?
Is it relevant?
Whom will you offend?
Do you care if you offend? [and you bloody well should care]
What is your true purpose for adding the sideswipe?

When in doubt – don’t

So, should writers feel free to say anything they want during the course of telling their story? Well, sure! But keep in mind that it still has to get through the editor’s filter. I had an author who did some clever anti-Vietnam war adverts. Where he ran into trouble with me is when he veered off course about his own feelings regarding the war and the government. I made him take it out because it wasn’t relevant to the book.

A smart author keeps the prosthelytizing out of the books – unless the story demands it.

Many of us are all for being provocative. But it has to be believable and seamless. Let’s go back to my earlier example of the character who sees starving kids in India. That diatribe about Bushy would have been fine if she was, say, a congresswoman, or a senator who had done battle with Bushy regarding pro-choice. In that context, it’s relevant and there would be no reason to remove it.

If a reader doesn’t like it – tough beans. It. Makes. Sense.

So write what you want, and don’t be afraid to have characters who have strong opinions. But make sure it’s in keeping with your plot and your character. Otherwise it sticks out like a sore thumb.

And really? No one cares about your personal views. Readers want to be entertained.You want to write opinion, then write that kind of book. Or save it for a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. But I recommend keeping it out of your writing.

9 Responses to Sideswipes – are they really necessary?

  1. MelissaA says:

    Great post! I’ve never seen the term “sideswipe” used for this concept, but it’s perfect. I don’t want to be preached to, *particularly* if it’s out of context for the book/character. It’s possible, though, to annoy people if you write about something they don’t like, even if it’s not a sideswipe.

    I have a friend who writes speculative fiction. She generally does well on the contest circuit, but she got low scores one time because a judge thought she was getting an environmental sermon. There was *one sentence* about pollution — and not only did it fit where it was, but it was also critical to the plot.

    Love your blog! I’m one of your editor appointments at the upcoming PNWA conference, and I’m looking forward to meeting you.

  2. Ah yes, reader bias. Can’t live with it, can’t avoid it. To see it in a judge is particularly crappy because one would expect their analytical skills are better-honed than the average bear. But that’s the whole boggle with personal perception, eh?

    As for the term “sideswipe” you wouldn’t have heard of it because I made it up. Heh.

    Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to meeting you at PNWA.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    I do think it’s hard to keep one’s personal views out of one’s writing. I often have gay characters. That’s going to offend some readers…and attract others.

    But I do agree about stopping the story to rant. Heck, you should avoid stopping the story to do *anything*. I just read a book where the author stopped the story to show some random cool aspect of his world. Yes, the worldbuilding was excellent, but don’t stop the story to show it off.

  4. Ninja, I see a difference between writing in one’s comfort zone to injecting personal bias. You’re creating a foundation not injecting a sideswipe.

  5. sherylnantus says:

    totally with you on this one – I’ve passed on books that start out with a good idea and then disintergrate into nothing more than sideswiping for this cause or that cause.

    the sad thing is that sometimes there’s a good story there – but hidden under either the rampaging PRO something or ANTI something.


  6. tbrosz says:

    And yet, Robert Heinlein is one of my favorite authors.

  7. NinjaFingers says:

    Heinlein doesn’t sideswipe, though. He integrates his politics into the story.

  8. tbrosz says:

    Hmmm. You might be right about Heinlein.

    Now Ayn Rand? She sideswipes like an M-1 Abrams tank driving down a San Francisco sidewalk.

  9. CatWake says:

    A valuable little red checklist; thanks, Lynn! 🙂

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