Mainlining the Side Paths
Despite how much I hold up the theoretical streamlined story with no filler as an ideal to be strived for at every creative attempt, I’m not adverse to sidequests in principle. Like breaking from a busy day at a pondside bench, sidequests can be a pleasant distraction or moment for rumination. When used in the right story they can seamlessly tie into the plot but on the other side of the coin they can unravel the audience’s engagement.
Admittedly sidequest isn’t the perfect adage to apply to prose narrative for the obvious videogame connotation. The very name implies optionality. “Subplot” is more apt for a smaller plot adjacent to the main plotline which (ideally) enriches the story without stretching it thin of substance and progression. However whereas the subplot can range from a multitude of topics including romance, friendship, navigating trauma, overcoming adversity, etc., the sidequest has a more tangible property. Gather firewood, hunt an elk, train a herding dog, dungeon crawl for gemstones. Do X get Y. Yet I contend not all sidequests are so simply compartmentalized.
Looking far back onto ancient texts oft reveals a slew of sidequesting content revealed starkly in such stories as the twelve labors of Heracles. Rather than King Eurystheus giving a single task which requires several challenges to be completed along the way, he’s given a dozen seemingly interchangeable tasks that could largely occur independent of one another. In that respect it doesn’t feel too different than an RPG where the hero completes a mission, turns it in at the hub, and then acquires a new mission. There are several more examples in this vein be it Aphrodite’s trials for Psyche or the Journey to the West. The difference between good and bad uses of sidequests comes in the story’s plot and purpose.
With Heracles he’s sent to complete the twelve labors as repentance for his rage where he learns a few lessons about control, somewhat. It can also be read as an attempt to definitively explain the twelve constellations of the zodiac so the lesson can get muddled and not be all too pertinent in many of his adventures. Journey to the West meanwhile is filled with one-off adventures which are diversions from the main goal of acquiring sutras from the Buddha. However, since one of the main points of the story is to show how enlightenment is gained through constantly performing righteous actions it transforms every side path into a chance for the protagonists to do the right thing and prove they’re worthy. It’s a stretch but there’s the attempt to make every sidequest have inherit meaning.
The key lies in the meaning, mainly whether or not there is any. If the sidequest is just there to be there then who cares? Gathering firewood isn’t an attention grabber, but any act can be contextualized with meaning. Take a life-long city dwelling person who’s lived their whole life with modern technology and has had their attention span set to fifteen seconds. Transport them into the woods and make it imperative that they gather firewood. No internet, no distractions. Up for grabs is a chance at a fish out of water comedic scenario but also the challenge of patience and the capacity to inhabit a world outside their comfort zone without being immobilized by anxiety. The whole character arc doesn’t have to be compacted into the single act but it’s a great place to start one even though on the outset they were only required to complete a physical task for needed materials.
This question of meaning is key when the audience decides whether or not to tolerate deviations from the main plot. People pay to see basketball games; they don’t pay to see two teams warm up across each other on the court. Just because it’s a sidequest doesn’t mean there can’t be consequences. Maybe the protagonist loses a swordfight in a tournament then treks back onto the plotline without injury but carrying doubt, resentment, delusions about their self-image, or maybe a sober reminder they’ve a long path of self-improvement to walk. So long as that character’s emotional state significantly impacts their next encounter the audience will see the tournament sidequest as valuable.
I’m also unduly limiting these examples to one digestible takeaway. In that one tournament sidequest you could flesh out that the character likes fighting as a hobby, their preferred method of combat, their strengths, weaknesses, personality, the tournament host people’s culture, have a despondent king in a private booth to show the state is a monarchy and the king hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death, set up a rivalry with the person who beat them, set up a romance with the person who beat them, plant some seeds, etc. Disperse a few of these within the sidequest and give reasons big and small for the audience to find it worth their investment. Once the audience feels the sidequest’s impact fade away moments after it’s done there grows a tough callus.
When it comes to thematic execution I narrow in on what the story is about. Not a point-by-point plotline but the elevator pitch. Farmhand finds magic sword, gains destiny to overthrow evil king. I go back to this stock fantasy plot a lot but it’s emblematic of using a McGuffin to solve everything with a single act. It’s not often a good fit for sidequests because of a tendency for rewards to be physical items or spells to help defeat the antagonist. Not much meaning to be squeezed out. These are especially counterintuitive if there’s a ticking clock element or people suffering every second the main character gets distracted by a shiny thing. In the inverse, a kid is invited to join a gang and must answer by the end of the day. In that story everything that affects the kid’s decision has meaning. If he buys a chocolate bar from a corner store: how little money does he have, can he afford the one he wants, what else was he going to spend that money on, was he envious of the gang member who ate multiple chocolate bars, is he buying from an aspiring man not much older than himself or an arthritic senior who never made enough money to leave the ghetto? Potentially everything that happens from offer to answer, from start to finish, has meaning and the author can zoom in and out on what they want to show.
When you recite your elevator pitch think about the hypothesis your story presents. Think about the scope. On a sliding scale I shoot for at least moderately philosophical and at most moderate in scale. A disgraced and embittered mayor learns his town is about to elect a shyster who’ll rob them blind. Questions here can focus on redemption, social acceptance, forgiveness, trust, and more. For scale it’d have to be a smaller settlement town say in the wild west. Somewhere where the loss would be but a tally on the big ledger and the shyster could easily lie about his identity. The former mayor can question whether or not to aide his neighbors after their treatment of him which gives meaning to each interaction he has with them. If and once he does he can sidequest to regain standing with individual citizens. Maybe he helps fix up the chapel or takes a pro bono cattle herding job. So long as any smoking gun evidence against the shyster is avoided it comes down to whether or not the man can let go of his anger and atone for his mistakes. The prevalence of sidequests in that story is up to the author but it does justify their inclusion.
Despite the name, the author can’t treat sidequests as throwaway parts of the story because then so will the audience. Like any other aspect they must be given ample weight and consideration. They aren’t there to stretch out the page count but to allow the story to breathe between major events or show an aspect of the characters that wouldn’t normally arise in the main plot. If you search for it, draft, and revise, you will find a purpose for sidequests in your story.