Trusting Readers To Figure It Out

Once again a novelist, a person I respect, said in essence that intentionally incorporating a theme in fiction makes the story preachy. This position, while widely held by Christian authors, is far from the truth. Anyone who can remember back to high school or college literature classes knows this. The classics we studied in those days, and that many students still study, are far from preachy, yet one of the points of analysis teachers emphasized was what the author was saying in the story — his theme.

In truth, theme does not equal preachy. It never has. However, a poorly crafted theme might indeed come across as preachy. The way to eliminate a poorly crafted theme, of course, is not to eliminate theme, yet that’s what many writers seem to advocate.

Some, of course, suggest that the theme will naturally form itself because the author has deeply held beliefs. By that reasoning, then, there is no need to carefully craft our characters since the author himself is a person, and there is no need to craft the plot since the author himself lives life.

Perhaps most inconsistent in this movement to downplay theme is the idea that it is right, even necessary, to carefully craft each sentence so that the prose sparkles, but not necessary to craft the ultimate meaning behind each sentence that gives the story significance.

In the opposite camp from those advocating theme-less fiction, however, are those who believe in their theme more than they believe in their reader’s ability to understand the theme. These writers, in fact, do turn their theme into an essay or a sermon, largely because they want to be sure the readers “get it.”

Photograph by Andrew Dunn

I remember struggling with this in my writing. Shortly after one of the Lord of the Rings movies released, a group of self-proclaimed pagans gathered in England for the celebration of a pagan rite, and they referenced J. R. R. Tolkien as their hero and Middle Earth as their hope. Since I write epic fantasy, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have my writing so thoroughly misunderstood and misused as these people were doing to Tolkien’s work. Wouldn’t it be better to spell things out and to eliminate any doubt about what the author means?

Actually not. Fiction isn’t about the author. It’s about the characters. As soon as the author intrudes, he pulls down the curtain, and the reader is no longer lost in the pretend of the play. Instead, he might well feel as if he’s been manipulated into listening to the equivalent of a commercial, when he thought he was getting an ad-free story. Consequently, the author, rather than making his point and having his reader think deeply, has lost the reader who may also vehemently reject the point out of hand.

In short, a writer committed to saying something important in her fiction must do so with intention, weaving the meaning into the fabric of the story. What happens to the characters and how they grow or change ought to tell the reader far more than what the author states plainly. Symbols sprinkled throughout can reinforce the main point, and will add artistic flare that make the story far deeper. But just as a magician doesn’t reveal how he performed his tricks at the end of his show, an author shouldn’t tip his hand at any time and explain what the story was all about.

Will some readers misunderstand? Possibly so, but even if this is the case, they will think a great deal more about the theme than if the author intercedes to tell them what they should think. After all, no author can force a reader to believe as she believes. It’s really up to the author to paint the picture with words, then trust the reader to get it.

To come full circle, no reader will get a theme that’s not there, so an author first needs to give attention to what precisely he wants to say through the vehicle of story. He needs to weave it well into the story, then trust the reader to make sense of what he has read.



Filed under Theme

8 responses to “Trusting Readers To Figure It Out

  1. I think you’ve struck the balance I’ve always attempted to strike, whether overt Christian stories or not. I mean, Reality’s Dawn is full of theme. But I’ve had people tell me it isn’t preachy.

    But there is another area that will make someone perceive a story as being preachy. A controversial topic or one that a particular person is sensitive to. For some, just mentioning anything about Christianity will be “preachy” no matter how benign.

    But the most clear example was a flash fiction I wrote sometime back. One of the themes of the story was about the unborn, and I had the captain of the ship decide not to proceed with their plan to save a planet’s population because doing so would kill the unborn of a race they encountered. I got back from a magazine’s editors that they felt they’d been hit over the head with anti-choice propaganda. I didn’t think I was being that out there with it. Just in this future, abortion had been eliminated because it was seen as immoral, much like we view slavery today. So that would be the decision the character made at that point. Totally natural to the story and world I’d built, but it came across as preachy to the editors, I suppose because one of them didn’t agree with the conclusion.

    Now if it had been a social commentary on the evils of slavery, no one would have batted an eye.

  2. “Show, don’t tell” is not just about action beats. Nice article.

  3. Very good points, Becky! I’ve been thinking on this subject quite a bit lately, so a nicely-timed article. 🙂

    I think I struggle with this very issue. I tend to not focus on theme at all, until I’ve gotten my characters nailed down and a sense of the story already fogging my head a bit. I really don’t want to try and “say” anything. I want to let the characters tell the reader what they want their story to say.

    But then, lately, I’m wondering if that’s the right way to go about it. I’m wondering if I’m missing and opportunity to really speak.

    Anyway, I’m mulling (we’ll have to chat this up more in depth at our next meeting). 😀

  4. Rick, I agree with you that some topics inevitably give readers the feeling that they’re either getting preached at or indoctrinated. I think the latter comes when a story handles the theme well but is something the reader doesn’t believe. I’ve felt that from time to time with different episodes of the various Star Trek versions. More than once they had stories that were pointedly pro homosexuality, and I realized anew that they were saying what they believed about the world, probably in every episode. But when I agreed, I didn’t really notice.

    You said Reality’s Dawn is full of theme. But I’ve had people tell me it isn’t preachy. That is the goal, I think. Having the theme there gives people something to think about; presenting it in a way that isn’t preachy lets them do so without them putting up their defenses.


  5. Anne, thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it.

    A nice extension of the number one piece of writer advice.


  6. Rach, you said I want to let the characters tell the reader what they want their story to say.

    I think you’re on the exact right track, but don’t forget, you tell the character what his hopes and dreams are, what his needs and weaknesses are, who his friends are, what his goal is, and on and on. That’s how you weave the theme into the story, I believe. It’s about putting a character with needs common to man, ones Average Person can relate to, and then testing him, tempting him, refining him through what he goes through in his efforts to accomplish his goals.

    And yes, we can talk about this more later. 😀


  7. Thank you for this! I’ve been struggling with one of the facts you mention — that we must spell every last thing out, in words preferably of one syllable, so our audience instantly “gets it.” Not for me, not so much. I strive, when I can, to make the reader curious, perhaps even to make him/her think a bit, mull a bit, consider this wide, variable world God created. And while fiction should entertain, it shouldn’t be baby oatmeal. Who remembers the last easy, trite, predictable book they read? Well, I remember the one I wallbanged, but that’s off topic.

    I had a novel rejected because the people were speaking what I attempted to portray as 10th century English. Might it make the reader wonder about earlier forms of speech patterns? I hoped so. Might it be a bit foreign to our, “So I’m like…” speech? I hope so. But to water it down so the reader won’t have anything to challenge him/her? Not for me. Let ’em stretch a bit. I think Christian fic readers are smart enough.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  8. Thanks for your input, Deb. I’m glad the article helped you think about these issues. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, I don’t think — to commit to saying something meaningful at the same time as committing to allowing the readers to figure things out sans our spelling it out.

    Blessings on your work.


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