Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Preaching Instead of Writing

Sit back as I fumigate my
wisdom upon you!
I'm sure you've read at least one book in the past where the writer clearly had some message, moral, political statement, or religious idea that they were promoting.  One which overwhelmed the story and became the point of the book, their pet idea that was too strongly, too stridently, or too often repeated and pushed until it no longer truly was a story being told, but a tract disguised as fiction.

When I start to read such a book I become annoyed with it and want to stop.  If its a message I disagree with, it just makes me angry and want to stop reading.  If its a message I agree with, it makes me bored and want to stop reading.  Neither one is particularly good for the book or its author.

This is partly why I don't want to be a "Christian writer" even though I am a writer, and I'm Christian.  Too often these books end up being little more than an evangelical tract, a message in story form.  The best I hope to offer is a good book, well written, and it will inevitably end up being influenced by my Christianity, but not as a main, central theme.

As Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM fame) told a screenwriter “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  These days it might be phrased "if you want to send a message, text it."  There is a temptation for some, perhaps many, to use their writing to make a statement, and that is something that has to be fought with both arms and both legs to push it away.

The truth is, we all have something to say, and further that our ideas, worldviews, passions, and interests will influence and be expressed in our writing to one degree or another.  And of course there's nothing wrong with being thought provoking or presenting ideas in fiction.  What some consider preachy others might think of as simply interesting; some consider the Narnia books to be repulsively Christian while others simply find it a wonderful read.

But clearly some get carried away.  I recall a discussion on this topic where one writer proudly announced that their urban fantasy had elementals rising up to punish mankind for global warming.  I haven't read the book but with that little blurb I can imagine the pedantry and heavy handed writing that was involved.

It need not be, of course.  High Noon was allegedly written as a complaint against McCarthyism and the Hollywood "blacklist" but was so well done and subtle that its virtually invisible unless you've been told ahead of time (and still isn't real clear even then).  The original The Day The Earth Stood Still was a cold war and nuclear weapons warning, but was so well handled and interesting that you didn't mind watching.  The remake was about global warming again, but was much less effective.

The trick is that if you have some statement to make, make it as gently, subtly, and entertainingly as possible.  What you want is more Dr Strangelove and less JFK; a book or screenplay that reaches people but is primarily about telling the story rather than one that hammers people over the head with a thin veneer of story to disguise it.

Charles Dickens excelled at this kind of writing.  For example, the message of tempering your business ambition with humanity and love for your neighbor in A Christmas Carol is clear and unmistakable, but told with such skill, drama, and excitement that it is almost universally beloved as a classic.

Dickens succeeded because while he had a strong message, he didn't pontificate, he wove the message into the story, making it an integral part of the tale that had an inevitable, proper, and reasonable conclusion.  The ghosts didn't lecture Ebenezer Scrooge, they showed him parts of his life and asked questions, questions which Scrooge had reasonable but wrong answers to.  In the end, the weight of the truth bore down Scrooge and he was a changed man.

Had each ghost given a 3-chapter Ayn Rand speech on ethics and behavior, then the book would have been miserable to read and failed in its goals entirely.  There are tricks you can use to weave a message into a book, but you're usually better off avoiding trying to write a message book at all, until you get a good handle on writing to begin with.

Even if you are a great writer, usually you're better avoiding a message for several reasons.  First, its difficult to avoid sounding preachy - some even find A Christmas Carol too pedantic.  Second, you're likely to annoy and push away a notable percentage of possible readers by having a message in your book.  Third, if you are intending to write message, its easy to lose track of writing a story; writing a great story should be your first and even second priority when writing.  And finally, a book with a message is like the man who marries the spirit of the age: in a few years it might become old and dated.

A hot topic!  ...In 1975
That book on global cooling you wrote in the 70s was hot then but now it seems bizarre... until the general message shifts again, I suppose.  Writing about political corruption or greed or oppression is pretty much universal, but writing about how horribly the Patriot Act creates tyranny by the federal government is too specific, and these days feels very dated and specific. So your book has a better than even chance of feeling old and left behind if its too dated and targeted in its message.

If you do write a book with a message, better that the message develops on its own through the process of trying to write a story rather than starting out with one to begin with.  For example, the message of my upcoming book Life Unworthy, to the extent there is one, is the nature of evil and where it comes from in us all.  I didn't set out to write this, the concept developed about halfway through the book as it was a theme that kept coming up as I struggled with how the Nazis could have shown up and become so prominent in Germany.

Writing a good story well told with compelling characters and narrative is your goal.  If, through that, you develop a theme or message that is told in the process, well that's fine.  That way the story of the book you are writing is an organic natural part of the tale being told.

If you do start with a message, make sure you tell it by telling your story rather than by telling your reader.  Instead of insisting that big government is corrosive to freedom or that big corporations are evil soul destroying monsters, show it through the way the story develops.  Don't have someone stand up and "testify" before congress or have an extended argument.  Demonstrate the point you are making through the actions of the characters and the inevitable consequences.

If you can't do this, then maybe you should try writing something else.  Or maybe your message is just wrong, that's always a possibility, isn't it?  More than one writer has set out to prove one thing and through their investigation and research has realized another.

In any case, your best story you can tell isn't the one that convinces everyone you're right, but that demonstrates you're a good storyteller.  What they learn from it or take away from it will be heavily influenced far more by the latter than the former.