by Nancy Butts
I’m about to commit the very sin this article is designed to warn against: being preachy, or didactic, in your work. But I feel so strongly about the dangers of this that I’m willing to risk being accused of preachiness myself when I stand up at my pulpit and tell you that nothing can harm your story more than trying too hard to convey a message—or worse yet, a moral (a word that has the same effect on editors as fingernails on a blackboard).
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the reason any writer sits down to undertake the herculean task of writing a novel is because there is something that he or she is driven to say: some truth that is burning inside her to be expressed. And there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is these powerful emotional themes, running like veins through the flesh of a story, that get the heart of a book beating.
But that’s precisely the problem. When you have a message that you are itching to share with young readers, there is an ever-present danger of didacticism, or preachiness. This is the kiss of death. Nothing turns off a child or teen faster than lecturing them about what to think or do, even if that lecture comes from a character in your story, not directly from you.
And I’m not the only person in the world of children’s literature who feels this way. In the November 2012 edition of Children’s Writer, four powerhouse editors made a strong case against trying to deliver a message in your fiction.
Wendy McClure, senior editor at Albert Whitman, said, “Don’t deliver a message through dialogue, or treat your character as a public service announcement.”
Alvina Lin, executive editor at Little Brown, echoed this. “If I’m reading a book that I feel is trying too hard to ‘say something,’ it can be a bit of a turnoff— and I imagine this may turn child and teen readers off, too. I’ve often said that I’m a sucker for important books— but the general rule is to not be didactic.”
“One vital tool I like to impart to writers is that it’s important to avoid didacticism,” said Andrea Pinkney, vice president and executive editor at Scholastic—and an award-winning writer herself. “Young people, like adults, don’t want to be preached to. Kids want to be entertained and delighted when they read; they want to laugh, they want to be taken on a flight. Our job as authors is to engage the reader immediately. When we enable a reader to truly feel what a character is going through, we make the reading experience worthwhile.”
Finally, Arthur Levine, the Scholastic editor who brought Harry Potter to the US, agreed. “I don’t feel that a writer should focus on trying consciously to empower kids per se. Empowerment happens as a side effect of reading; therefore, what a writer needs to do is write a darn good book.”
And just in case you think things are different if you are writing specifically for the Christian book market, think again. In the July 2006 issue of Children’s Writer, Karen Campbell of Zonderkidz, the children’s arm of major Christian publisher Zondervan, gave this advice. “Stop concentrating on the message so much,” she said. “Concentrate on character development.”
Nancy Vorhis, senior editor of the Christian play publisher Eldridge, put it even more bluntly in the same issue. “Let your church’s pastor give the sermon. As a playwright, you must show your message.”
So if editors and readers consider it a sin to preach in fiction, then how does an author express the truths churning inside her? First of all, think in terms of theme. Erase the words message, moral, lesson, and teach from your inner dictionary. That’s the first step.
Then remember that with theme, it’s all about showing, not telling. Don’t put long speeches in your characters’ mouths with the message you want to convey. Instead, trust your readers. Let them figure out the theme for themselves from the actions your characters take, and the consequences they face. This is what Andrea Pinkney was referring to when she said that our task as writers is to make readers feel what the characters are going through. If your theme is “love conquers all,” those three words might never appear in your book at all. Rather, you want to make readers feel the power of that love in their very core as you take them on the roller coaster ride of your book.
Think of the classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. In that book, Max’s central story problem is anger: he’s got a temper, and he gets in trouble with his mother because of it. She sends him to his room, where he “escapes” by going to a fantasy jungle with wild beasts. He thinks this this is going to be great—but then he is frightened by the roaring and the wild action of the beasts. Sendak never says, “And so Max realized why getting angry was wrong, and went home and apologized to his mother.” Instead, Sendak simply shows Max fleeing back to his bedroom, where he is overjoyed to see that his mother has left a bowl of steaming soup for him. Without saying anything more, this is how Sendak shows that Max has overcome his anger. It’s all subtle: done more with suggestion than direct words. But it’s a superb model of how to reveal theme in a story, and it’s why the book is a classic.
Sendak did precisely what editors Pinkney and Arthur Levine encourage all writers to do: he told a damn good story. When you do that, your theme will become apparent almost organically, all on its own.
And with the miraculous alchemy that often happens when you’re writing, I believe that the most powerful themes are the ones we don’t even realize we intend when we sit down to write. These themes work themselves out almost unconsciously; not planned by us, but rather stemming from the experiences of our characters as they celebrate the triumphs and survive the catastrophes of the plot.
Picture book author Esther Hershenhorn summed it all up beautifully when she said, “When telling stories, there’s no need ever to preach or persuade. The story’s heart and universal truths are there to be gleaned.”
Update 24 June, 2013: I guess this is one of those topics I’m passionate about, because I just published a post on this over at my Spontaneous Combustion blog. It’s entitled “Entertain, enchant, and enthrall: the three E’s of Fiction.”
[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]