Writing Excuses 9.24: Side Quests
Key points: There are two closely related kinds of side quests, those in a book taken by the main characters, tangential to the main goal, and those outside the book, often standalone stories. Side quests in books need a story purpose. The character should learn something, it should prepare the reader for later events. They often do develop the character, experience points. But make your side quest important to the book with something at stake. Make sure side quests evoke character, plot, or setting and there is progression. Side stories are growing in popularity. Try to avoid requiring people to read them to understand the main stories. These are promotional tools, treats for the reader.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 24.
[Brandon] Is Writing Excuses, Side Quests.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I need to go grind XP off here in the other room for a little bit.
[Brandon] Saying writing excuses side quests right together is really a tongue twister. I’ll just tell you guys that.
[Dan] Writing excuses side quests… Wow. Yeah, it is.
[Mary] Writing excuses side quests. Yeah, it’s the double S.
[Brandon] So, Mary. What do you mean by side quests when you suggested this podcast?
[Mary] Side quests come in two forms, and they’re closely related, I think. Which is there are side quests that your hero or heroine will go on during the main… During the book. It’s something that takes them away from the main quest point that they’re heading towards. Then there are side quests that happen outside the book. These are stories that stand alone on their own, and that you might write for promotional reasons or because it covers something that you can’t cover in the main story.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s talk about the first one first, and then after the book of the week, we’ll jump into the second one. So, quests that characters go on that are tangential to the main storyline. Why do you put these in your books?
[Howard] Because they don’t have enough XP to beat the boss yet.
[Howard] I… Okay, so we’re joking. But the reason to put the side quest in there is that the character… It has to have a story purpose, I would argue. I don’t like wasting words on putting something cool in the book that doesn’t tie in. I want the character to learn something, I want the reader to learn something, I want this to in some way prepare us for what’s happening later in the book.
[Mary] Yeah. I mean, you’re absolutely right, even though it is funny, that you don’t have enough XP to… You can, I mean, you can see this actually in the Wizard of Oz, that Dorothy has a number of side quests that she has to go on, although her ultimate quest is to get home. But she has to go on some that look like they have nothing to do with achieving the overall goal. Like going to defeat the witch. It looks like it’s going to be a side quest in some ways because it doesn’t actually initially look like it’s directly related. But it’s absolutely vital.
[Dan] In the Hollow City, I had a big side quest that went through several different versions to get it right. The main character has schizophrenia, has just escaped from asylum and is on the run, meds are wearing off and he’s losing his touch with reality. So plausibly, realistically, I needed him to get more medication. So my two solutions were, well, he could just take some when he leaves and then I don’t have to worry about it, or I could use this as an opportunity to really highlight how dangerous it is to be out without his medication. So the little side quest of him, and I think it’s just one chapter, of him trying to get new meds, which ends up trying to buy drugs off the street, basically, turned into a way of showing how he tries to interact with people when he can’t properly perceive reality and things like this. It became very important to his character, because I made it so.
[Mary] I think a lot of time side quests are something that are related to illuminating something about the character that will either give them the strength that they’re going to need in the overall quest or just… Or fulfilling part of that character arc.
[Howard] I think the reason the “I need to grind experience points” joke is funny is that a lot of video games, role-playing modules, MMORPGs have lifted the whole concept of side quests from really well written fiction where the side quest helps the character along, and have used it as an excuse to build more playtime. So our game experience of side quests is “Oh, geez. I gotta go collect wolf pelts for what’s-his-name before I can…” And that’s what you want to avoid in your book.
[Brandon] So how do you avoid it?
[Mary] I… By making it absolutely important to the book and having something at stake to whether or not they succeed or fail like… I read a book in which there was a side quest where they were traveling from point A to point B and accidentally stumbled into some poisonous plants, and then fortunately happened to have an antidote on them, so just fixed that right there, and it had… It impacted nothing in the overall story. It didn’t change their character relationships to each other. They were in exactly the same, and this is I think the key for what causes it to fail, they were in exactly the same position at the end of that side quest as they were at the beginning of it.
[Brandon] Excellent. That’s a really great point. I would say… We’ve danced around this idea, and it’s been mentioned, that you want everything in your books to either evoke character, plot, or setting, preferably all three. So you… If we look at the plot aspect of it, maybe the side quest is not your main plot, but if you have introduced other problems and you are still able to give a sense of progression… Remember how I talk about plot as a sense of progression. Some of my favorite stories are basically travelogues where you get to a certain place and you can’t progress anymore, so you have an adventure there. Then you get to progress more. But they’re gaining something. The reader… The characters are learning something or they’re getting a shortcut or something like this. You’ve got to remember, you can’t let your reader feel you are not progressing because of a side quest.
[Mary] Although, I think that you can have a successful side quest that causes a major setback.
[Brandon] Yes. You can. You can.
[Mary] Although that is again, progressing the plot, but…
[Dan] Well, that’s a case I think where… You can see it especially in quest stories or in travel stories like The Hobbit. The Hobbit uses side quests as try-fail cycles. We are trying to get here, but first we get attacked by goblins. When we finally escape from them, having lost resources, then we get attacked by spiders. When we finally escape them, having lost more resources… So their situation gets more dire. We get to see them try and fail over and over before they finally get to the big boss at the end.
[Mary] But what becomes frustrating for readers are when you go off and you visit say Tom Bombadil and then you come back and nothing has changed.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah.
[Brandon] Let’s just go ahead and move on to a book of the week.
[Dan] Okay. Our book of the week…
[Brandon] Without starting a discussion of Tom.
[Dan] Without getting into that. Our book of the week this week is The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy and a ton of interior illustrations by Todd Harris. He did the cover and interior stuff. Is a middle grade novel that is essentially a fairytale retelling, but it’s four fairytales all mashed together. We’re getting the classic princess stories from the point of view of the princes. They refer to themselves as the Princes Charming. It’s Cinderella’s Prince Charming, and Snow White’s Prince Charming and two others I… Rapunzel and… I don’t know. But anyway, the point is that they end up working together, because nobody cares about the princes. The stories are all about the princesses and what they do, that’s what the bards sing about, and the princes are just kind of out on their own and they have to make their own way. They’re wonderful stories. I read them to my kids, and they absolutely adored this book. The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom.
[Brandon] Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, and download The Prince’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom for free.
[Brandon] Okay. So let’s talk about the second half of this idea. The idea that sometimes we write side stories about our main characters. This is, I feel, growing even more popular… It’s always been popular, but even more popular in the digital era where you can release a digital original short tied into the main storyline.
[Dan] I did a ton of these…
[Howard] I was doing it for…
[Dan] You go ahead and then I’ll talk about mine.
[Howard] I was doing this…
[Brandon] You were a hipster.
[Howard] I was doing this bass-ackwards, okay. The principal product, Schlock Mercenary, is given away for free, electronically. The bonus stories only appear in the print collections. I tried to make the bonus stories as interesting as possible, giving you more insight into the character, make them fun, have awesome moments in them without requiring you to have read them in order to follow the story online.
[Mary] That last bit, without requiring you to have read them… Like, a lot of the things that you’ll do that will stand alone are going to give you character insight, but if you have to read them in order to understand the next novel, there is a problem.
[Brandon] I would say definitely avoid that. That would be the number one thing. Nobody likes feeling like they missed out on something important. If it undermines your story, that’s even worse. These should be fun things for the ultra fans to go out and find, or a place for new readers to discover your project. If you can make your side story cool enough and stand on its own, someone might run across that, try it out, and decide to pick up the main books.
[Dan] That’s a little bit of what we did with the Partials series for which we’ve created so many side quests. A lot of them aren’t even stories so much as just random in-world documents. A court case, a coroner’s report, a news transcript. These were things that the publisher said, “Why don’t you create a whole bunch of extra material that we can use for promotion?” My editor and I decided to make them all in-world things. We actually extended that to the book trailer. Book trailers are so goofy. They’re really a weird thing. But they’re incredibly popular in the YA genre. So we tried to think of a way to make it interesting. We ended up with these basically recovered videos that are kind of prequels to the books, that explain little bits of the story of how the world ended before the series begins. Those book trailers have been incredibly popular because they are so different. They’re not just breathy voiceover, panning across still images. They’re cool little filmed things about here’s this company or here’s this advertisement or here’s whatever. They help explain the world. They give more depth to the world. People find them really cool. They’d been that great promotional tool.
[Brandon] Awesome. Now, Mary, you’ve done this.
[Mary] I do them as treats for my readers. So I’ve been doing a Christmas story for my main characters. It’s basically their first Christmas eve, their first Christmas day. It is… The way I use it is… My characters are so often in peril, that it’s actually kind of nice for my readers to get to see them having a nice time. That’s not something that’s going to be particularly compelling in a novel, but I’ve been joking about and I’m kind of almost… I think I will probably write the Jane and Vincent’s Perfectly Ordinary Day in which they just go to the library and come home.
[Mary] But it is… It’s for readers who enjoy the things and want to be in the world a little bit longer. Now I’ve also done one thing that was… Oh, kind of a writing… It was a writing exercise, where I’ve inadvertently discovered that it is a good marketing tool for my novels. Which is, I… Several… Last year, I think it was, we had Shanna Germain on to talk about writing love scenes. https://writingexcuses.com/2012/09/16/writing-excuses-7-38-writing-love-scenes/
[Brandon] One of our best podcasts of the year, I would say.
[Mary] I think so as well.
[Brandon] Not because of us, but because she was a fantastic guest.
[Mary] Not because… Fantastic guest. So I took her class on erotica. Part of the homework was to write erotica. So I wrote it with Jane and Vincent, my main characters. These are not scenes that would ever appear in my books, because Regency Romance and we fade to black really fast. These don’t fade to black. I have picked up readers from those.
[Brandon] You posted those whole things? Entire things?
[Mary] I posted those whole things. Behind passwords, because I didn’t want people to hit them without knowing. I warn explicit… Oh, so explicit content. But I’ve picked up readers from that. It surprises me, and they seem to have no problem with the fact that…
[Brandon] One piece of it ended up in one of the books?
[Mary] One of the pieces… And this is another thing, is that sometimes the side quests can wind up in the books. But one of the pieces I wrote was their first kiss, and when we did the UK edition, I went ahead and put that into the novel.
[Brandon] Now I will say with my books, particularly the Stormlight Archive, I just put all the side quests in. [Inaudible]
[Brandon] I built into the series this idea of the interludes which are novellas and short stories in-world that are included. That’s because I get 400,000 words to play with.
[Mary] I did that actually in Stagecraft. I have three side quests that are not my main characters, that are secondary characters.
[Brandon] Scalzi did this with Redshirts, with the codas at the end. It’s something fun you can do, playing with the form. I thought it really made Redshirts come together as a book quote unquote because it… I’m not even sure what to call Redshirts but… With the Way of Kings, it allows me to play in different parts of the world and also then come back to the main characters. But I also have been doing this and saying I need to be releasing some of these on their own. I need to be doing extra side quests because it allows me to explore the world, it allows me to take some of the side characters and do fun things with them. So I’ve begun plotting some of these to do myself. I didn’t do one of these for Steelheart that was released by itself. It was called Mitosis. It’s the bridge story between book 1 and book 2. I think because this is very popular in YA. Dan had this experience before I did. It seems like a lot of the teen publishers are liking these extra content things. So if you sell a teen series, you may find that they put it into the contract. Mine was in the contract. Was yours as well, Dan?
[Dan] Mine actually ended up being a separate contract, which was awesome because they paid a bunch for it. But we did a Partials novella called Isolation that was a prequel which was kind of based on a side character who ended up being so compelling after we did that novella that we made her a much bigger character in the rest of the series because we liked her so much.
[Mary] She’s awesome.
[Howard] I liked her.
[Dan] She’s way more awesome in Ruins.
[Mary] I can’t wait.
[Dan] Finish the series.
[Brandon] Now, Howard, you get really stressed by these bonus stories. So let’s add in the caveat that you don’t have to do this. Tell us a little bit about why this is so stressful for you to do these bonus stories.
[Howard] Honestly, the reason it stressful is because for 12 years all I really needed to do… Not 12 years, 10 years. All I really needed to do was make the comic, and I only needed to have one story in my head at a time. When I started making the bonus stories, I was trying to write two different stories at once as a discovery writer. And, the bonus stories, and this is the part that you’re going to find just patently offensive, the bonus stories are designed to fill out a signature. The page count of a perfectly down Schlock Mercenary book is a multiple of 16. Once we have laid out the book, we will find either oh, we’ve only got two pages left, but we want to do a bonus story so the bonus story’s going to be 17 pages long. Or we’ve got six pages left, and, well, I’m not going to do a 22 page bonus story. Can I tell a good story in six pages? That is… That’s just anathema to the average storyteller. You want to come up with an idea for a story, not an idea for the space in which a story might fit.
[Mary] See, this… My puppeteer brain is going, “Yes, and?”
[Howard] I understand that there are folks for whom this is very natural. That’s part of the stress. The other part of the stress is that sometimes I would write a bonus story and I just wouldn’t like it. I would look at it and look at it and realize okay, if I’m not liking it, there’s no way the audience is going to like it. I’m not going to make them pay extra for something I don’t like. I’m not going to do the extra work and charge them money for something that none of us enjoy. So there’s… Like… For lack of a better term, performance anxiety. A great example of how the current comic work will influence the bonus story that’s being written… There was a moment in Body Politic where Schlock gets in a fight with a gardener and Tagon asks him, “Well, what happened?” And Schlock said, “I just really don’t like shovels.” It was presented as a punchline and everybody laughed and that was fine. When I wrote that, I had no idea why he didn’t like shovels. Not four weeks later, I was starting on the bonus story and shovels featured very prominently in a way that would be traumatic. The reader does not need to have read the bit about the shovels to know why Schlock doesn’t like shovels, but it’s a treat that they love. Pulling that off every time? Boy, that’s hard.
[Dan] Yes it is.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and get our writing prompt. Dan?
[Dan] Okay. The writing prompt actually has nothing to do with side quests. But I want you to create a story in which you have an incredibly powerful character and a sidekick, and then flip them. Find some plausible reason for the incredibly powerful character to be the other person’s sidekick.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.