How to Send a Message in Your Story... Without Preaching

How to Send a Message in Your Story… Without Preaching

My guess is, if you’re a writer, you have something to say to people. There’s a message in your story.

Maybe you want to tell them that life is beautiful, even in the darkest of circumstances. Or that war is pointless. Perhaps you think avocados are nasty and want more people to join you in your opinion so that you will feel less less of an outcast when discussing popular salad combinations.

So you write your story. You create a stark dystopian world where avocado-haters are brutally persecuted. A plucky young heroine does battle against the twisted, avocado-centric society, alternately quoting Scripture, Ghandi, and Bob Dylan in a righteous denouncement of the icky green fruit. It’s beautiful.

The Problems of Writing Stories With a Message

Unfortunately, your beta readers tend to think differently. In their critiques, the words “preachy” and “heavy-handed” are a consistent theme. One rather blunt individual compares the reading experience to “getting an extended noogie with a fistful of organic cilantro.”

You are crushed. And a little offended. Are they seriously asking you to water down the theme of your story for the sake of readability? Obviously they’re just closed-minded Pharisees who can’t stand to be challenged in their beliefs. Hurmph.

As writers and artists, we want to change the way people think. The problem is, people don’t want to change the way they think. And the sad thing is, even if they do agree with the idea you’re sharing, they’re probably going to be annoyed if it keeps popping up in front of them. “Yeah, yeah. Avocados are ugly and gross. Back to the story, please.”

How do you get around this? How do you give people a message in your story without reducing the story to an unpalatable, sermonish rant?

Theme vs. Message in Your Story

I once heard a college professor say that the theme, the central idea you’re trying to convey, should be hidden. Buried in the folds of your story.

That might not make instant sense. If you’re trying to get a message across, why would you hide it?

Because people—most people—like treasure hunts. We like it when we uncover something that might not be visible to just anyone—it makes us feel smart. On the flip side, when that thing constantly smacks us in the face like a maniacal jack-in-the-box, we feel insulted, and more than just a little peeved at the writer who thinks that we are so unintelligent and attention-deficit that we must constantly be reminded of what he’s trying to tell us.

How Tolkien Got His Message Across–and How You Can Too

You can’t completely bury the truth, though. Just most of it. Let enough show that someone could stumble across it. And not everyone will—just the true treasure seekers. Those with ears to hear, so to speak. Jesus did this in his parables; so did Homer, Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, and many of the greatest storytellers in history.

The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite examples of this. There are many themes and motifs running through this beautiful piece of story, and one of the biggest is, quite simply, a theme of hope.

But Tolkien doesn’t rub hope in your face until you wish it would go away and never come back. His characters don’t skip around singing “The Sun’ll Come Out Toooomorrow” and chiding their friends for being so long-faced. Instead, he gives us Sam Gamgee.

Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Who doesn’t love Sam? He reminds us that no matter how the darkness grows, no matter how bad things get, there will always be scattered pockets of light, of simple, hobbit-like goodness.

And that’s what I’m talking about. Give your readers little pieces of hidden truth, poking out through the grass for the keen-eyed. It will make a better point, and it will make a better story.

As far as the avocado thing goes, I’m not really sure what to tell you. I believe in your crusade, though, so stand strong.

Tell me your opinion: Do you have a message you want to share in your story?

How to Send a Message in Your Story Without Preaching

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About Braden Russell | @Story_Monger

Braden Russell is an aspiring author and music instructor who writes weird speculative fiction from his wilderness home in Oklahoma. You can find him blogging about writerly things at his website The Storymonger.

Comments

  1. I do have a message I want to share in my story. And I agree it should be hidden, buried in the folds of my story.
    But that’s not easy! For the MC to be gradually convinced, the message has to surface time and again, I would have thought. Does that come over as preaching?
    The Narnia books, for instance, do it brilliantly. But recognizing someone else does it right doesn’t amount to a patent recipe for doing it onesself. I’m not there yet.

    • Very true! In short stories, the theme might be hidden in just one line of dialogue or exposition, but generally in novels you have to do a little more than that to get the point across.
      And no, I don’t think that counts as preaching. It would, if you were constantly bringing up the message in a manner that made it obvious to the reader that they were being preached to. But as long as you keep it consistently camouflaged, and it doesn’t effect the reader’s immersion in the story, it shouldn’t be a problem.
      It takes a lot of practice, and I wouldn’t say that I’m “there” yet either. 😉 What’s the message of your story?

      • A lad, brought up as a pagan, meets an exiled bishop who introduces him to the Christian faith in a vivid, attractive way. The lad struggles and has to make a choice with far-reaching consequences.

        • Focus on the actions and the love, not the belief of it. You could possibly base an entire theme on James 1:27.

          The trick to making the mention of the theme sound natural and not preachy has much to do with making it part of the story itself. A character who goes to the diner for breakfast isn’t going to get the Christian gospel message from the character sitting beside him…that would come across as obnoxious. But if he goes to a church, he (and the readers) are expecting to hear something church-ish, and it becomes more natural.

          The same principle goes for just about any other piece of information, really. It’s showing vs. telling. If the reader needs to know that the main character is afraid of lemons and it’s a central part of the theme, it’s more natural and fun to see them encountering lemons and being afraid, than to just be told over and over “I’m afraid of lemons, so…”

          • Good points, Matt! The trick is to make the theme fit the story, not the story fit the theme.

          • James 1:27 … I knew I needed to base my writing on that book and you just gave me a highlighter.

            Also I fully agree with all the above. Thank you!

          • Susi Franco says:

            I just ordered a complete collection of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories; I am curious about his story-telling methods, feel there may be something inspirational there, esp since he was put in such esteemed & rare company. The concept of hiding your message is intriguing but I’m struggling plenty with just telling the story and keeping all the elements cohesive…like Viktor says, I don’t think I’m there yet. Hoping further study and practice will assist me. *huge sigh*

  2. Aften Brook Szymanski says:

    Awesome Post. Also I adore the beta who compared being over informed to getting a cilantro noogie.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Braden!

  4. Great advice – thanks for sharing! The nugget I’ll take away from this post is “the theme, the central idea you’re trying to convey, should be hidden. Buried in the folds of your story.” … oh, and thanks for preaching the vile evils of avocados – I was beginning to think that I was the only one! 😉

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      Yes. Our numbers are growing. They can’t keep us silent forever.

    • I thought everyone knew that avocados were evil. They’ve tried to poison me more than once with it’s vile potency. I will join your ranks and help serve to banish them from the face of the earth. They will soon know the meaning of the word ‘extinct’.

  5. This is a really interesting post! And definitely, message stories are some of the most difficult to write, because it’s hard to make a point without making it loudly. Part of it comes down to that most crucial rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. If your characters are making your point directly, you’re telling the reader what you want them to think.

    But the other frequent issue is painting too extreme a dichotomy. If everyone who likes avocados also drowns kittens, then readers are not going to buy into the message, because you’re clearly exaggerating. Certainly, someone who enjoys a little guacamole now and then isn’t going to be persuaded. So it needs to be gradual. The avocado-lovers need to be human, even though they’re wrong, and readers need to be guided by the story to the point where they can clearly see that avocados are the devil’s fruit.

    • Exactly! The old adage still holds strong.

      And that’s an excellent point. Not only do the avocado lovers need to be human and relatable, but our avocado-hating heroes need to have their little flaws as well. Perhaps one of them has an affinity for wearing lederhosen and belches loudly in public.

  6. Jeriann Fisher says:

    Thank you for the post. My screenplay mentor & I have this discussion frequently. He has a running message in his stories — same theme – & I think it’s too preachy. I’ve tried to get him toting it down.

    • You’re welcome!
      I find that in screenplays, it’s even more important to “dial down” the message–a line of dialogue that might come across well in a novel could very well be insufferably preachy in a movie.
      The visual aspect of film gives us greater opportunities for hiding messages in our story, too, although much of that is the director’s interpretation of what the screenwriter was trying to say.

      • Kitti606 says:

        Rango (DreamWorks), Alice in Wonderland (2010, Disney), and UP (Disney) might be useful to study. I loved the themes in all of these movies, and caught them right away. (Finding the theme quickly doesn’t necessarily take away the enjoyment, by the way, but can be used to build excitement).

        (Actually, it’s not uncommon for multiple themes to appear in a story, or for different people to interpret the stories they read or hear in different ways. So you may want to also keep this in mind and at least keep your story open to one or two additional interpretations.)

        (Minor spoilers ahead)

        For instance, the theme in Rango was shown to us, crystal-clear (so to speak) in all of its images of glass and water. You see, Rango is the chameleon who can’t blend in. The harder he tries, the worse his troubles become. By his very nature you would assume the opposite to be true, but by some twist of fate, this outsider simply cannot– no matter how hard he tries– tap into what should be his “second nature” in order to fit in with the people of the old west town he finds himself in. Only when he accepts his true nature and stops trying to be someone he isn’t does he finally triumph in his struggles.

        Some people see Alice in Wonderland as being a story of “finding oneself” but I don’t see this myself, or else that is not the complete theme. Throughout the movie, Alice keeps telling herself that the adventures she has been caught in are only a dream. Often she asserts that if this is so, that puts her in charge of her dream. When she is confronted by opposition, she is only able to win those confrontations when she gives herself permission to utilize the freedom she truly owns and to claim leadership over her own life. She has lived too long following the wishes of other people in order to appease them, people who assume they know more about what is best for her than she does. (Although her tendency to resist accepted formulas shows up often, as in the scene where she denounces a particular style of underwear, likening it to the absurdity of openly wearing a codfish as an accessory. Clearly she has a mind of her own.) Despite what other characters may have insisted, Alice is, and always was, Alice. What she lacked was the permission (which only she could give to herself) to act freely, accepting the responsibilities, consequences, and glory of her decisions.

        To me, UP is a beautiful illustration of the cost of clinging to your burdens. The balloons are fragile; freedom is illusory as long as you continue to cling to your pain, and eventually the illusion will fail you. Some people see in this movie a theme of learning how to age gracefully. Others see the message “the journey is more important than the destination.”

        By the way, I’d like to add that while authors often have one idea of theme and imagery they like to incorporate in their stories, it can sometimes become an annoyance to them when some readers (or more usually, literature teachers), attempt to attach their own idea of a theme to their story, teaching it almost as “fact” and often even getting it completely wrong. So be aware that this also may happen while writing your story.

        Personally, I have sort of mixed feelings with this last point. While I have ideas that I wish to convey, I often worry about inadvertently “sending the wrong message.” Is there any advice on how to deal with this, or how to ensure you have sent the “correct” or desired message?

        • Kitti606 says:

          (Sorry for the lengthy reply. In my defense, it’s not as long as it looks, being cushioned in the narrowed “reply” margins. >.>; )

  7. Always. I’m just starting the outline and character development of a YA novel. I’m going to tackle the abortion issue. But I want to do it from the boy’s POV and show him what he has lost. It’s tricky ground, especially in YA. But I know I need to withold the preaching and let the reader come to her own conclusions. It’s tough to do, especially with all my CBA writer friends telling me to hold nothing back. But teens aren’t stupid. They’ll shut me down on page one if it sounds like a lecture on the sanctity of life. Another great post, KM. Thanks.

  8. I don’t think you realize how much I needed this post! My story is kind of a message story, my main message being that faith and reason do not have to be at odds with each other, but they rather depend upon one another and are inseparable. I have been wondering how to NOT sound preachy or overbearing with the topic. I have found that by incorporating the message itself into the character arcs, I may have a more subtle but also more effective way of telling the story (one protag has to learn faith, the other ‘reason’ or moral truth, and they both have to work together in order to stop the war between their nations). Still, though, it is hard to bury it just right, and I think also that a second pair of eyes will help spot places where it is sticking up too much or making the reader trip over it. Making the characters human and relatable helps, I think, for sure–it involves the reader emotionally in their personal stories, and doesn’t just leave them floundering about in a wonderful, black-and-white, doubtless world where all the answers are popping out of the ground and smacking them on the head. Real life isn’t like that, and fiction shouldn’t be like that, either. It wouldn’t be much of a lesson if it was just handed to them on a silver platter, right? =) Thanks for the post!

    • You’re welcome! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. And I like your story’s message. You’re right–hiding it in the personal internal struggle of a character is a great way to get across theme. And they should definitely have to fight for it. 😉

  9. I HATE message/agenda/preaching fiction. Hate it. Have wall-banged Christian books for doing it, in fact, and sworn never to buy anything by those authors again. Two books in particular left such a bad taste in my mouth with all the preaching and literal sermon scenes that they’ve contributed heavily to me souring on Christian fiction. I no longer write it, and I haven’t read one in close to two years. And it used to be all I read. I got sick of all the preaching.

    I’m all about theme and subtlety. Theme is something beautiful, and always a challenge to weave in and do it the right way. Message/agenda/preaching isn’t just the easy way out, it’s lazy.

  10. This is good to know. Hide your message in the folds. Got it!!

  11. Thanks for this excellent post. Christian fiction has been one obvious place where I’m frequently turned off by a message that’s stronger than the actual story (which certainly must defeat the author’s intent). As a person of faith, I don’t need to be repeatedly confronted by how salvation is the solution to everything! It’s a good reminder that subtlety speaks in whispers and reaches readers who would be deafened by shouting.

    • Heheh, yeah… the subtext of my post was kind of *coughChristianFictioncoughcough*. Subtlety, always subtlety. Especially if you’re writing faith-based fiction.

  12. Wait, Braden, are you saying avocados are yucky?

    I might have to join the group persecuting the avocado haters.

    (And, yes, I meant that facetiously, for the one random person who will take me seriously. Great post!)

  13. As a kid, I was always, and I do mean always, being told the “actions speak louder than words”. Doesn’t this philosophy apply to this too? It’s like the rest of any story — show, don’t tell. Through out our lives we’re given opportunities to learn from messages, but it’s the ones that are shown, not told, that hit home with us.

  14. A. G. Tumino says:

    You can’t be anymore right! Tolkien taught me how to weave theme through my writing instead of bluntly asking rhetorical questions to “hint” at the message. I think this conveys the old writer’s saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Unfortunately, some people don’t understand that the most powerful lessons aren’t told through words, but through events, the character’s choices, and the consequences of them. That’s why I love good books!

    Great post by the way.

    • Thank you! Yes, Tolkien is a wonderful example to follow. But I guess I already said that. 😉
      Consequences! Consequences are a great way to give a message. As long as you don’t follow it up with the characters saying, “Wow, Ben, you’re really in a pickle now, because you did [fill in the blank here].” Readers are usually smart enough to figure out what the character did wrong… or right.

  15. This is probably the thing I’m wrestling with the most in the story I’m working on. Along with telling a fun story, I want to convey a message that is pretty simple and, I’d hope, not that controversial: regardless of intentions, the adversarial mindset and attitudes that are so common today are harmful to us all. It’s something I want to show more than tell. But, on the one hand, I’m concerned about having even the showing be too on the nose. Yet on the other there are some ideas related to the theme/message that I really want the characters to discuss (without being preachy).

    • It’s definitely a tough spot to be in! Beta readers are wonderful in this situation. I have several lovely, uber cynical writer friends who are gold for spotting preachiness in my stories.
      Introducing theme through dialogue is difficult, but it can be done. I recommend watching really good movies for this–Braveheart is one of my favorite examples of theme-revealed-through-dialogue-without-getting-preachy.

  16. Katie–
    Fiction is drama. And drama–in an actual play, or in a novel in its completeness = the theme. The theme isn’t so much hidden as acted out. The beauty of fiction–one of them–is that it is concrete (actual places, actual characters, etc), but that these concrete characters and events act out the abstract message, which is the theme.

  17. Great post, Braden. Kudos.
    AND STOP DISSING AVOCADOS. Guacamole is a beautiful thing.

  18. I personally think that sometimes… it’s not so much a “message” you’re trying to hide in your story, so much as a question to show your readers that even you haven’t figured out yet, or you know a hint that points to the answer. Jeffrey Overstreet talks about this sort of thing quite a bit (he’s one of my favorite authors, and I recommend his books to everyone).
    This was a good post. That’s interesting. I suppose Samwise may have been a sort of embodied symbol of the theme, hope, in the Lord of the Rings. That’s an interesting idea.
    There’s many different ways to hide the theme of your story.

    In my current story… I don’t really know how to put the “message” into words, but it’s kind of like a math problem I’m working out, to see the result of it. The story itself is about someone trying to find their identity, the place where they belong, and come across both lies and truth and mystery along the way. There are a few nods to Little Red Riding Hood in it too.

    • That’s a wonderful point–kind of saying something I couldn’t really put into words at the time. Jeffry Overstreet…. I’ve heard of him, but never read any of his stories. I’ll have to check him out.
      I think many times the “message” you can’t put into words is going to be most effective in changing the way people think, or at least getting them to take a closer look at their own beliefs and opinions. Your story sounds great! I’m a sucker for fairy-tale references. What genre is it?

      • Probably fantasy… though it doesn’t feel like most of the fantasy books that have been coming out lately. Or maybe it does and I just can’t see it yet.
        I love the old classics, you see, and want to give a hint of what fantasy/fairy tales used to be, before Harry Potter and others made them popular in the YA genre. It’s a challenge of a sort because in my current book it is set partially in the 1800s (and partially in a fantasy world), and it’s hard to keep things historically accurate (especially in the way people communicated back then contrasted to today), although reading Charles Dickens’ old books helps a lot.

  19. L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

    Awesome! Firstly, because preaching annoys me to death; secondly, I’d love treasure hunting!

    I prefer stories with a message but only when it’s not repeated a hundred times. It is the best to let the readers discover it themselves, but it can be difficult to write so.

    (I’ve just taken a look at your site, the fighting post amongst others is fabolous. Writers should take the advice)

    And, joining the group: Long Live Avocado-Free World! xD

  20. Excellent points! The avocado analogy also seriously cracked me up. I absolutely hate it when authors are so absorbed in their message, that they have no care to plot a story properly or write their characters realistically. Those kind of writers make me wonder why they don’t just write straight forward essays or articles (if not whole books) on their beliefs if they have no imagination to make an interesting story that doesn’t hit you over the head with it.

  21. My wife makes this chocolate pudding that you would just love, as long as I didn’t tell you that the primary ingredient after chocolate is avocado. Not all avocados are bad. So if your mentor advises you to eat more avocados but you can’t stand to see them staring back at you from your salad, look up the recipe online for chocolate avocado pudding and give it a try. You’ll be glad you did.

    Hmm. Sounds preachy. Oh well. Avocados for the win!

    • I’m not sure what to think about this adultery of chocolate and avocado. Rather than preaching at you, I may just pray for your soul.
      Just kidding. I’m glad somebody out there is making the best of a bad fruit! 😉

      • Kitti606 says:

        You people fighting over avocados are allowing yourselves to be distracted from the true threat of the world.

        Radishes.

  22. Such great advice. One good example is in the book The Help. The author didn’t have to tell us, “These people are mean!” “This is so unfair!” “You should worry about these folks!” She showed the reader, and the reader understood the message.

  23. So, so true! What a great reminder. That’s one of the biggest struggles I’ve had as a writer – seeing a message I want to get across so clearly, yet hiding it JUST enough. It’s something that takes time and wisdom and a whole lotta reading of the greats, like Tolkien, for inspiration 🙂 Thanks for the great post!

  24. Hi! .^./

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve always loved stories, but when the message is being shoved down my throat it really bugs me. I’m currently developing a comic and I was afraid of becoming what I loath, but your article has showed me how to avoid that! Thanks a bunch 🙂

  25. Fabulous post, Braden! I’ve toyed with this in my own mind at times and come to a lot of the same conclusions. You said it well. The theme in my WIP is, essentially, truth vs. lies. I’ve tried some different ways for communicating it, and finally came to the realization that I don’t need to constantly be putting it into the narrative, when my main character’s deepest desire is to be found trustworthy and to not be kept in the dark. I’m hoping my readers will understand through his personal struggle, and not through him preaching.

    And as for the avocados, I support your aforementioned heroine. They’re not tasty.

  26. Thanks for mentioning Sam! 🙂 That is indeed one of the greatest lessons from LOTR, that and the true nature of sacrificial love, which Sam excels in demonstrating also, as does Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

  27. I think it was St. Augustine who said “Preach the Gospel – if necessary, use words.”

    Bam. 🙂

    I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing and attempting to get a point across. Great article! “Show, Don’t Tell” needs to be painted on my wall somewhere… it really boils down to that. A story can be amazing and have all the right ingredients, but if it’s force-fed to me instead of letting me ‘see’ it for myself it doesn’t go down well at all!

  28. Susan O'Neill says:

    Thank you for this article. I am very involved with the HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland Oregon and am writing a short story to explain the location. My problem has been that Lovecraftians seem to believe that to be a Lovecraftian one has to be an atheist. Aaaaargh! I have a message that forms the core of the story and I have a much better idea on how to “hide” it now. Just because the horrible alien creature has been worshipped as a “god” doesn’t mean that it is. And people of strong faith can overcome anything with God’s help according to His will.

  29. Great posts and responses everyone. At the risk of being cast into the flames, I’m going to be upfront right away, AVOCADOS for PRESIDENT – Greatest Fruit Ever!
    Now, to business: I’ve been digging through online thesauruses and dictionaries for a word that describes the type of “preachiness” in Christian novels that turns so many people off and I can’t find it. Not referring to words like preachy, self-righteous, didactic or phrases like holier-than-thou. I know the word exists but, I just cannot remember it and, no – it’s not because I love avocados so much that my memory is fading. Somebody, please help me.

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  1. […] • How to Send a Message in Your Story Without Preaching […]

  2. […] be surprised. Expand on that, make it bigger. Don’t try to make it show; you could end up preaching. Just write and slowly reveal it so it shines through beautifully. Sit in front of that computer […]

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