An interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about the way authors add depth to their stories. Well-written stories focus on the characters and the main plot, but sometimes, that can leave a story feeling a bit ‘thin.’ So, authors sometimes add ‘side trips’ and digressions to their stories. It’s a bit risky to do this, since a digression can distract the reader and even drag a book down. But when it’s done well, a digression can add character depth, interesting information, and even sub-plots to a story.
FictionFan used Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop as an example of a novel with some appealing digressions, and she’s right. Dickens did that in other novels, too. For instance, the main plot of Bleak House concerns a generations-long dispute over a will, and its impact on the main characters. There’s a murder, a police investigation, and more as the whole situation is resolved. In fact, many people claim that this novel has an example of a proto-detective. But there are also several digressions, such as the character of Caddy Jellyby. She’s a close friend to Ada Clare and Esther Summerson, who are main characters in the novel. Caddy and her family are not central to the plot, but the digression into their lives gives the reader a sense of time and place. It’s also argued that Dickens used Caddy’s family to comment on ‘do-gooders’ with misplaced priorities.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks she was killed by her unpleasant lodger James Bentley; in fact, he’s already been convicted, and is slated to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks that Bentley may be innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty was a bit too curious for her own safety, and found out something that someone wanted desperately to keep hidden. In the meantime, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also in Broadhinny. She is paying a visit to up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward, who is adapting one of her novels for the stage. Suffice it to say that the adaptation process does not go smoothly. Mrs. Oliver takes an interest in Poirot’s case, and gets involved. But her visit to Upward isn’t really central to the novel. And the adaptation is somewhat of a (very funny) digression. There are discussions of who would play some of the roles, what changes would be needed, and so on. This part of the story isn’t completely removed from the main plot, but it is a bit of a digression.
Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski introduces Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett. In the novel, he and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to the small town of Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’re planning to stay at the Bella Vista Hotel; and, although Henry is there for a work-related purpose, they’re looking forward to some ‘down time.’ Then one of the other guests is murdered, and Henry works with the local police to find out who the killer is. There are a few digressions as we get to know something about the hotel guests and the hotel. Through their stories, we learn a bit about the history of that part of the Alps (it changed hands between Austria and Italy). The novel takes place not long after the end of World War II, so there’s also a little digression into that history. Among other things, Moyes uses these ‘side trips’ in part for character development, and to offer some background on the area.
The main plot of Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play concerns the death of a wealthy woman whose will specifies that her entire fortune should go to her son, who went missing during World War II. The will stipulates that, if he can’t be found by a certain date, then her fortune passes to three charities. A stranger appears at the funeral, claiming to be the missing son (and now heir). But before any investigation of his assertion can be carried out, he’s found dead in his car. Now, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe have to find out who the man really was, and who would have wanted him dead. There’s an interesting digression in this novel as Sergeant Edgar Wield ends up coming out as gay. He’s quite surprised by Dalziel’s reaction, and it makes for some interesting character development. This digression also gives readers a look at the dynamics of a police station.
And then there’s Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy, a fictional re-telling of the case of Albert Black, who was executed in New Zealand in 1955 for murder. The novel follows Black as he migrates from his native Ireland to New Zealand to make his fortune. It tells of his trying to settle in, of his experiences as an immigrant, and of the events that led up to the murder for which he was hanged. That’s the main focus of the story, but Kidman does include some interesting digressions. One of them is the story of Black’s family and their experiences in Ireland. At a few points during the story, Kidman returns to that family, and we follow their lives. It’s a digression in the sense that it’s not really part of the main plot. At the same time, it gives us insight into the sort of person Albert Black was.
That character development is just one purpose that digressions can serve. They can also add sociocultural detail, provide a solid backdrop to a story, and allow for author commentary. They’ve got to be done carefully, so as to keep the focus on the main plot. But when they are, they can add richness to it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gino Vannelli’s Little Bit of Judas.