Should Stories Be Soapboxes?

Should Stories Offer Messages?

Should Stories Be Soapboxes?Should stories offer messages? Common wisdom insists fiction is meant to entertain, not preach.

The novel isn’t a soapbox for religious, political, social, or philosophical views. If you try to use it as such, you’re likely to sacrifice your stories and alienate your readers.

And yet, ironically enough, many of the world’s greatest and most beloved pieces of literature are stories with blatant moral messages. John Truby, in his brilliant book The Anatomy of Story, comments on this seeming contradiction:

According to Hollywood lore, it was Samuel Goldwyn who said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” He was right about not sending a message in an obvious, preachy way. But stories with powerful themes, expressed properly, are not only more highly regarded but more popular as well.

Why Your Story’s Message May Be It’s Most Important Feature

We read to be entertained, but many of us also read to learn, to grow, and to stretch our horizons. We enjoy stories that challenge us and inspire us. This kind of depth is found only in stories that are profoundly honest, and stories can never be honest if their authors aren’t willing to lay themselves open on the page, to pour out their deepest convictions and most passionate beliefs about the human experience.

As an author, your most powerful gift is your unique and integral view of the world. When you strip fiction down to its essentials, the author’s viewpoint is all there is. You may mask it artfully in the colorful garb of diverse characters and impartial dialogue, but if you’re not willing to share with your readers your own passionate worldview, you’re not giving them anything more than fluff.

How to Share Your Story’s Message Without Preaching

So does this mean you should drag out a soapbox and start haranguing your readers into converting to your own viewpoints?

Absolutely not.

Nothing turns readers off more quickly than a condescending author who preaches at them. Incorporating a message into your stories does not mean spelling out beliefs and arguments. Instead, it’s a matter of choosing strong themes in which you fervently believe, crafting multi-dimensional characters who struggle with the gray areas of life along with the rest of us, and asking the hard questions.

Someone once said that being a novelist isn’t about offering answers; it’s about asking questions.

In his book A Writer’s Space, Dr. Eric Maisel poses some questions of his own, ones every writer should be asking:

Writing is interpretation. You are obliged to offer yours. If you want to say nothing, offend no one, tell a happy little tale, and otherwise act the innocent, that choice is available to you. Just remember that even then you are saying something and that we are watching…. You can play it safe or you can speak your mind. Why venture into the public space of readers and audiences if your goal is to keep your real thoughts private? If you are bothering to write, say what you mean…. Make a list of the issues you are willing to shed some blood over. Read your list over. Are you writing about any of these? If not, why not?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you.
    I’m writing about abortion.
    I have to lay myself out there and be vulnerable.
    It’s tough to do that.
    I’d rather be the happy little writer with the perfect little story, but this matter is too important to let go.
    I HAVE to write this story.
    Lord willing.

  2. When you *have* to write a story, then it’s a story worth telling.

  3. Great post, K.M. I hate when authors preach their messages to me. It’s when the author’s viewpoint takes me by surprise, subtly adding in clues and hints that I like it. When the messages are whispered, instead of shouted, then it touches me, instead of making me throw the book down.

    Foster kids and orphans are one thing I can’t seem to stop writing about. I’ll tell myself, this story is NOT going to be about an orphan or a foster kid, but nope, they sneak in 😉

    When I write, I don’t tell myself, this book is going to be about forgiveness, or how much God loves us, or overcoming grief. Instead I just write, and often the themes naturally creep into the story without my realizing it.

  4. The key to powerful themes is not forcing them but allowing them when they creep in. Those messages we just can’t seem to *stop* telling, those are usually the ones we were meant to tell.

  5. excellent post! In my current book there’s a “message” that I’ve been back and forth about leaving in or taking out… I decided to leave it in because it’s true to the character, so we’ll see how it goes.
    I think you’re so right on in saying we have to be brave enough to be honest, but preaching turns off everybody every time.
    Thanks for this~ :o)

  6. A good test for whether or not a message is preachy is whether or not it’s true to the character. The minute we try to force a message against a character’s grain, that’s the minute we’ve gone too far.

  7. “Happy little tales” are boring little tales. The author job isn’t to please everyone, because that’s just impossible anyway. Someone won’t like our stories, no matter what we do or what we say.

    Our job is to tell a story and to know when we are crossing the line of getting too preachy. As you said, if it’s true to the character, that’s the best test.

  8. A good test for whether or not a message is preachy is whether or not it’s true to the character. The minute we try to force a message against a character’s grain, that’s the minute we’ve gone too far….
    It’s interesting you should say that, because I recently saw an author’s facebook status where he said a character had begun preaching. If preaching is part of a character and used sparingly, let it happen!

  9. @Lorna: What you say reminds me of the Studs Terkel quote: “Just about every book contains something that someone objects to.”

    @Galadriel: Now, I’ll grant you that the way we present a character’s message, even when it’s in character, is still important. Just because a character is a preacher doesn’t me he should preach every time he opens his mouth.

  10. I’ve read plenty of novels in which the author uses it as a platform for their own philosophy, Christian or not. What really bugs me is when the story comes to a screeching halt so they can blather. Just tell me the story. I’m not dense; I can pick up your point all by myself.

  11. When you let the message take over the story, you’re going to lose readers – even if they agree with your message. The message must flow naturally from the needs of your story’s character and plot.

  12. Great post….definitely a different between getting up on a soap box, and letting the story itself drive the theme/message of our hearts. I think, whether we wnat them to or not, almost every story has some sort of message.

    Thanks for your kind words about my title. I really appreciated them!

  13. I think you’re right about every story having an inherent message. It’s just up to us how far we want to take advantage of it.

  14. Love this post. Very thought provoking. I don’t like having to read a speech, but I do like learning. Such a fine line, but if done well–dynamite.

  15. It’s one of those things in which you either fall flat on your face or blow your readers out of the water. In my opinion, it’s worth risking the former for the latter.

  16. Aaron Craig says

    Or Like what C.S. Lewis once said “If I want to say a message, I say a message. If I want to tell a story, I tell a story. If my stories have Christian messages that is just because I am a Christian and my viewpoint naturally comes out in the story. If I was still athiest, the same stories would be athiestic. And if I were Buddhist they would be Buddhist.”

  17. Yes, indeed. Few people ever said it better than Lewis.

  18. If the story is told with passion rather than preaching it works well and wonderfully. (hmm, I seem to have gone all poetic)

    Great post – as usual

  19. A friend sent me a link to this post, and I’m grateful to discover your whole blog.

    From the overall tone of the blog, I sense that you primarily address fiction writers, but everything you say is applicable with only slight twists for memoir. Thank you so much for this rich resource.

  20. @Lynda: I agree. Passion is the key. If you can share your passion with someone, you’ll never have any need to preach at them.

    @Sharon: As a novelist, I feel most qualified to address fiction concerns. But memoirs are very similar to novels in many respects. Glad you’re finding the site helpful!

  21. I tend to be a passionate, opinionated individual–anyone who’s seen my Facebook statuses over any given month knows that. I know this carries into my writing, though I try to tone it down when I know it gets out of hand.

    I read a lot of authors that don’t share my particular worldview (Kathy Reichs comes to mind) but I still enjoy their writing and while I try to take the political and overall worldview with a grain of salt, I also try to see where they’re coming from–which helps me form better arguments in the future!

  22. One of the reasons I love stories is that they give me the opportunity to see into the minds and worlds of people who are very different from me. If people are honest and sincere in their views, I’m likely to respect their work even if I can’t agree with it.

  23. I love that quote ” If you want to send a message, try Western Union..” Sums it up for me. I think stories should be entertaining, somewhere to escape for real life. If an author preaches a little too much, I’ll never finish the book. Enjoyed your post!

  24. Great post! My MS deals with some religious issues, and I agree, I’m not there to preach, in fact, I really couldn’t if I wanted to, I’m not sure what I believe. My characters do though, and that’s what counts ;o)

  25. @Talei: Good point. If we create fictional worlds that are more work than the real one, folks aren’t going to stick around.

    @Erica: People admire those with strong convictions and opinions – and they’ll admire characters with the same, so long as they’re not obnoxious about it.

  26. As always, your blog posts are thought-provoking and well-written. BTW, I just posted a blogger award for you in my latest blog post; congrats!

  27. Why, thank you!

  28. I have recently read a book, where the author suddenly sounded as if they were banging a drum. I started skimming over the pages, and lost track of the story I had been enjoying. I think issues can be written into a story, but they have to be crafted very carefully.

    Good luck with you new venture by the way. I received my email and took the vote. 🙂

  29. If the book is more about the issue than the character, I’m gone too. Thematic issues have to stem from deep character needs, or readers just won’t care.

  30. For me, the story comes first, and if a message happens to sneak its way in there…so be it.

  31. Story *has* to come first, or the message will be worthless. But there’s nothing wrong with thinking about how a message could further empower our stories.

  32. The will and talent to write is a gift. Given by God, and its obvious reason is to spread a meaningful message. Leaving a mark, or as Steve Jobs put it; dent in the world should be our goal. The results are for nature to decide. But we have given a job, better do it correctly.

    P.S All this wisdom is earned from your blog. Just my way of saying the typical : thank you for another awesome post 😉

  33. M.L. Bull says

    Hmmm . . . was this post because of me? Lol. ? I’m not gonna lie, my stories may seem a little preachy, especially during church scenes; but I’m only writing about reality. Actually, my purpose isn’t to influence readers to see my viewpoint, but rather to inspire those who are looking for help. Give a sense of hope that yes, you can make a difference and don’t have to stay trapped in bad life situations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as you’re being true to the characters and the plot–and making the most of subtext–it’s all good.

  34. The first priority of a fiction writer should be to tell a good story. Fiction is entertainment, first and foremost. People will reach for non-fiction if they want direct “messages” to consider. However, as human beings, we can’t help but write stories that address our personal values. We put “a piece of ourselves” into what we write.

    Because our worldview influences how we write fiction, we can address what matters to us and still make telling a good story our top priority. The mistake I see most often by those offering a message in their fiction is to prioritize the message over the story. That’s where a good book becomes a sermon and alienates a reader. I don’t want to be “ambushed” into sitting in for a sermon, religious or otherwise.

    Tell a good story, and the message will speak for itself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would disagree with that slightly. I believe stories are inherently “messages.” That’s what they are first and foremost. Entertainment is just the packaging–and, granted, it’s exceptionally important packaging, since few people are interested in reading straight-up messages. But stories that are pure entertainment (if there is such a thing) with no concern for the underpinning foundations of their messages are fluff, at best.

  35. Can a story not have a message. Good vs evil. Love gained or lost. And a myriad other themes continue to show in the novels I read. Even when it is dragon munching on a hobbit, there is a theme which boils down to a message. IMO.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Every story has a message. Every action and word has a meaning. Sometimes those messages are intention, sometimes not.

  36. Thank you for all your advice! It is very helpful while I’m writing my book and greatly appreciated.

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