Sideswipes – are they really necessary?

July 13, 2010

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.

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