Monday, April 19, 2010


Never Lecture a Reader
A Half Dozen Hints for Teaching without Preaching
Everyone loves a good story--but no one likes a moral lecture disguised as a story. Here's how to make sure you create the former instead of the latter.

As plot and characters take center stage in each story, the writer’s worldview paints the backdrop. Your religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs always seep through, whether you realize it or not.
If you don’t really care what seeps through—if you’re writing purely to entertain—you need read the following only for reference. But if you consciously want to get a point across, you may be at risk of sacrificing entertainment for preaching. Since no one enjoys being preached at, you also risk driving readers away.
You can get your point across and still be entertaining—if you:
1. Let your story stay a story. Even nonfiction—including formal sermons and lectures—works best when relevant anecdotes are included. Readers are interested, foremost, in what happens to the people in your story. The moment you pause to detail the long-term effects of Ecstasy or explain why Jennifer shouldn’t have done that, page-turning gives way to yawning.
2. When you need to describe the “hows”—as in how a machine works or what effect a drug has on a character—make the details part of the story, related to happenings that directly affect the plot. A machinist trains a newcomer how to use equipment; a pilot struggles to fly through a storm; two characters discuss their worries about a third. Stay focused on the action, and you’ll be able to slip in relevant information without sounding like an encyclopedia.
3. The “whys” almost never need be vocalized. Always let a story situation speak for itself. If your character is fired for lying on a resume, or is juggling two romantic partners neither of whom knows about the other, you don’t have to say, “Lying is a bad idea,” or “This wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t done that.” If the story is any good, readers will get the point on their own; they won’t need your finger wagging in their faces.
4. Don’t try to disguise lectures as dialogue; you won’t fool anybody. Anything that smacks of a mother saying to her child, “Now, you see how bad it was to lie?” rates a quick delete.
Even with straight facts or background information, be careful how you go about “teaching.” Never use the “as you know” approach: “As you know, Dave, we’ve both been on this project for three months, and the company’s biggest-ever potential contract hinges on it, and a lot of people will be laid off if we don’t get that contract….” This conversation is obviously for the reader’s benefit; no one really believes that Dave’s coworker would review the known facts in such detail. Any character being brought up to date should be as green as the reader.
5. Never conclude by effectively turning to the reader and saying “the moral of this story is….” Never mind that Aesop’s fables and 1980s TV cartoons did that and got away with it. Written stories require a more subtle approach, one that assumes reader intelligence. Confine the focus of “debriefing” conclusions—characters reviewing what has happened—to tying up loose ends and speculating on the (characters’) future. And never drag out an ending; make it as brief as possible. Think about what readers want to know, not about what you want to say.
6. In fact, never address any comment or observation directly to the reader. That approach was relegated to the “condescending” pile three generations ago.
Keep characters and plot in the foreground, theme in the background. There’s one other “background” element in stories—setting.


  1. Very difficult, Katherine, isn't it, for we are all conditioned in so many ways, and while we do not plan to lecture, we are busy passing on our ideology, unwittingly, to our readers. Much to think about.
    Kind regards, Carole.

  2. Good stuff! Thanks for sharing this:)

  3. "Think about what readers want to know, not about what you want to say." That's a great reminder. (It ranks right up there with the quote about leaving out the bits readers would normally skip over.) Even when we don't consciously have a message for our readers, our own views colour our words and seep into the stories.

    By the time we get to the revision stage there are so many things to look for and eliminate that it's a wonder there are any words left! ;)

    Good post. Thanks, Katherine and Joylene.

  4. Thank you, Carole, Karen and Carol for your comments and your continual support. And thanks Katherine for such outstanding posts.

  5. So true. I love learning stories, but I don't want to feel like I'm being preached to, unless I'm at church, but even then the illustrations usually make the majority of the point.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. Carol, I love the part about "wonder there are any words left." Seems we all start our editing with word counts twice what they should be and us despairing of ever being to get rid of THAT much!

  7. Hi Cher'ley. It wasn't long ago that I watched a big Hollywood production that left me feeling that way, preached at. I'm still wondering why no one else picked up on it. Maybe it's my guilt conscious! lol

  8. Right on, Cher'ley. Starting with Jesus in the New Testament, all great preachers have been great storytellers!


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