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.