Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: Sideloading

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques is a running feature here at the Ape in which I observe, name, and discuss heretofore uncategorized (at least to my knowledge) literary devices. For a list of previous entries, please scroll to the bottom of this post.

Relaying crucial plot information indirectly.

"I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help."
                              -from The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

This one's a little tricky to see in a brief quotation because really it is about the lack of information that precedes it. To this point, we know nothing of the protagonist's location or activity. This passage is ostensibly about her quarrel with her grandmother, but the most important readerly information is embedded in a list.

I can't chart a historical line, but it seems that this kind of exposition is relatively modern. My sense is that it born of two trends in contemporary fiction: the elliptical, elusive opening and the evergreen exhortation to "show" rather than "tell." To serve both of these directives often means that it can take quite a while for a reader to have any sense of the salient narrative details until the novel or short story is well underway (here, we are ten pages in before being told where the protagonist is and what she is doing there).

Side-loading isn't then an intentional technique exactly, but the by-product of other writing decisions. And while it is not the most elegant way of providing necessary exposition, it allows for deferred information to be conveyed with seeming heavy-handed. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if many readers miss needed plot information because of its intentional understatement.


All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Previous entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques:


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  1. In a way, it's like a COA for the author. When she actually starts expanding upon the story of the crucial plot detail she side-loaded, and you're lost about what it has to do with anything, she can say "I already brought this up, remember? Yeah, it was subtle, but that's because I'm a clever writer."

  2. Passages like the one quoted are why I didn't read Obreht after sampling her book on the Kindle. She compresses too much, and the sentence about her being angry is the least angry sentence ever written; plus it's a tell, not a show. The second sentence is also a mess - why drag her mother into it? Why the repeat of about .... about ? I don't mind sideloading if its done skillfully, but this is just kind of lazy and could have used a re-write for elegance.  

  3. Cover Our Ass.