Giving the Delete Key a Workout

Have you ever read one of those books that feel like they’re giving lectures instead of telling stories? I’m sure you have. Aren’t those frustrating? And sometimes, even worse, it can happen in books that are otherwise really good. Suddenly, the author starts preaching to us about something, and just like that we’re now reading the equivalent of a nonfiction book.

Some books realize they’re doing this and fix it. Others, sometimes, sadly, do not. Recently, I was wondering why that happens? Why do we run into these lectures (appropriately referred to as “author filibusters”)?

It’s not for me to claim that I can answer those questions for all authors, or even for most. For me, though, I can identify why I sometimes find myself inching closer to preaching, and away from telling a story. The biggest issue for me is that I compromise the story at little points leading up to the lecture.

First, I allow myself to include a line of description or dialog that suggests the theme I’m trying to get across. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with suggestion, but when I’m not careful sometimes I’ll let myself do something else. After suggesting the theme, I’ll include a line of dialog or my character will think something that blatantly communicates my theme.  Now, notice I’m not preaching yet. I’m just including a little tiny section–just a line or two–that tells my theme instead of suggesting it.

And before I know what’s happening my characters are having a conversation that benefits nothing in the story but the theme. I push the theme, having my characters discuss and argue against any objections that I can think of to the theme. Usually, I catch myself before I go too far. My delete key gets a workout, and I go on telling the story. But how did I get there? I got there by compromising the story in little ways.

I wonder if that’s how some other writers end up preaching. They compromise once, then twice, then suddenly they’ve written thirty-thousand words on the evils of X. Perhaps, when we compromise our goal of a good story, that’s when we are in danger of lecturing our readers.

As I’ve written more I’ve started to notice those moments of compromise–where my goal of telling a good story is replaced by my goal of convincing my readers that I’m right on some issue or another. Those moments are dangerous. I risk writing the type of story I seriously dislike. Or in other words, I risk becoming my own enemy.

But whatever the case may be, hopefully we can all avoid preaching and lecturing in our books. We can get those elsewhere.

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2 thoughts on “Giving the Delete Key a Workout

  1. Interesting post. I’ve read stories like that; where it was very obvious of the author’s intent. Then, I’ve read other stories where the didactics of the story were there, but subtle enough that it didn’t bother me. In other words, the author had me so engaged in the story that I didn’t care that he was preaching. The line of this difference is very fine, and it takes a masterful writer to know this, and how to write in such a way as to distinguish the difference.

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    1. I totally agree. There is a fine line between the two, and it is difficult to tell. Even worse, sometimes we like what the author is trying to say and so we turn a blind eye to the bad storytelling going on.

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