Our last March Book Madness guest is my friend, Braden Bell, author of the Middle School Magic series.
My poor family has been down and out this week with the stomach flu this week. (Shoot me now.) But on the bright side, I was able to catch up on a bunch of reading. One of the novels I finished was Braden’s recent release, Luminescence. It was SO SO GOOD! His writing style (and trilogy) reminds me a lot of Rick Riordan, so check out the links below and get them.
I’ll be doing a full review of Luminescence as part of his blog tour next week, but I just had to give him a pre-shout out and say thanks for taking time to share his thoughts on finding that fine balance between being moral and moralistic in our writing.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between books that are heavy-handed and didactic, and books that inspire, or teach somehow—but do so in a non-obtrusive, subtle way.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that great art, including literature, has a moral dimension. But at the same time, powerful books seem to teach in a much more subtle way. They are stories about people. As we read, we might come to see certain truths demonstrated. But in these cases, the teaching was a side effect of a powerful story, not the vice versa.
As I look back on some of my own early writing, I notice a tendency towards didacticism. I suppose that if you feel strongly about something, or believe in a particular moral code or system, it is bound to come into your writing. And I suppose that’s all right. But I’m trying to understand how to avoid this by finding some principals that I hope will help me avoid being didactic, while still having a story that is resonant with meaning and morally informed.
Another way to put this might be to compare a wonderful book to an apple pie. The theme is probably like the cinnamon. It adds a wonderful dimension to the final product. But very few people want to have a pie made mostly out of cinnamon, with an apple or two tossed in.
Over the past year or two, I’ve read some books that had a lot of potential. Written by talented people, these books all had a similar flaw. Instead of telling a story, they seemed more interested in making a point, or sending a message.
One recent read was so promising and compelling when it remained a story about two people. But then, the author seemed unable to refrain from making points about relationships. It seemed that her desire for taking shots at perspectives she disagreed with exceeded her desire to tell a story. At that point, I tuned out. Ironically, I basically agreed with her on the merits. It’s just that I wanted a story—not a sermon. I wondered if perhaps the author got lost as she wrote—did it start out as a story about two different people, but then veered into social commentary?
That’s the danger of didactic writing.
It clouds the writer’s judgment, substituting a nice swell of righteous pride for the heavy lifting of quality writing. And of course, it’s always easier to see this in someone else’s work than your own, which is why I’m thinking about this so much.
A good example of the right way to do this is with J. K. Rowling’s approach in the Harry Potter books. These books feature a consistent theme about prejudice and bigotry. It is woven into the texture of the story. And that’s why it works.
Rowling tells an entertaining and compelling story that works on the most basic of levels: people like it. Story first. Then comes the theme. Woven into the story is the theme.
We see that one of the main characteristics of the villains is a belief that they are better than others. Half-bloods. Muggles. Squibs. House Elves. There is a whole hierarchy of magical creatures that the bad guys look down on. We know this because Rowling shows us again and again and again. But she doesn’t tell us. Harry doesn’t say, “I hate prejudice!” And Hermione doesn’t respond by saying, “Yeah! Me too! Prejudice is bad and bigots are evil.”
There is an old quote that is often attributed to Sam Goldwyn (probably incorrectly). “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
If the author’s primary purpose is to make a point or teach a lesson, then more often than not, the work will veer into the didactic.
The axiom, “Show, don’t tell,” may be more important in the moral aspect of writing than it is elsewhere. If your characters have to do a lot of unpacking of the theme, or if they spend a lot of time pontificating on it, then chances are you are veering in the didactic.
I’ve read some books where the characters seem to be nothing but two-dimensional strawmen, created in order to make points. I mentioned the book I read recently. I keep coming back to it because it was so close to being a really remarkable book. But then the characters hardened into caricature: a misunderstood, spunky heroine (complete with a warm, loving family) and a rigid, self-righteous husband (complete with an equally cold, rigid family).
The heroine didn’t have any real weaknesses. A quirk or two, maybe, but the author’s heart was clearly with her—she clearly agreed with her. The husband had very few redeeming qualities and it seemed obvious the author was irritated with him—and wanted the reader to be.
That seems to me to be cheating. Shouldn’t the author tell the story, make the characters as real as possible, and then let the reader decide how to feel?
Here’s another danger of didactic writing: It can make the reader feel alienated or manipulated.
I almost fell into this trap recently. One of my books included a confrontation between a teacher and a student. It was based to some extent on a real-life situation that had hurt me deeply. As I wrote it, I realized I was taking sides—I wanted the reader to feel what an ungrateful brat this student was being. Because I identified with one character, I immediately wanted to favor that character. When I realized that, I went back and changed the scene, working as hard as I could to be fair—hoping to show that both characters were a little right and a little wrong. But it took a lot of work to be fair to the point that I naturally disagreed with.
To borrow from Rowling again, one of the reasons her characters work is because they are layered and multi-dimensional. Dumbledore is good—but has a past where he wasn’t. That past has made him aware of his weaknesses. Voldemort is bad—but he, too has a richly layered past that made him who he is. He is not a cartoon character.
Most of us are a little bad, hopefully a little more good, and a lot of in-between. In different situations, for different reasons, and around different people, we may act in a wide variety of ways.
Characters ought to have this same depth. Even in fantasy, where villains tend to be larger than life, they can still have texture and depth. They should not become caricatures.
I think one of the most off-putting extremes comes when an author takes a side and uses the book and the characters as a chance to preach something that she or he feels strongly about. The characters become more like puppets in a sermon than characters—and again, the strength of the work suffers for it.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this when you see characters that talk like experts instead of regular people. If someone delivers a lot of information about a particular subject or social issue, chances are the author has stopped writing and started preaching. Most people don’t spout dialogue that sounds like it comes from a psychologist, or a pastor or so on. Sure pastors and psychologists might—but what are they doing in the story? Is it really about them? Do they have a real purpose? Or are they just there to provide important moralizing?
Why does all this matter?
Well, in part because I think we want to be the best writers we can. And indulging in sermonizing automatically inhibits that. If the goal is to make a point, then it takes our attention away from other important things.
Making a point can seduce us into taking shortcuts and using clichés, being lazy in characterization or plot.
Beyond that, being overly didactic can significantly reduce the potential audience for a book. Those who agree with the point we are making might like it. But those who don’t agree are less likely to care for the book. And, because of an obtrusive sermon, they are unlikely to give us much thought.
On the other hand, if we write a wonderful story, informed with moral purpose, with a theme woven in, we might find a more receptive reader. I have read books with thematic elements that I didn’t like or agree with. But because of the skillful writing, I thought about it and didn’t dismiss it out of hand.
Perhaps the best guard against being didactic is to focus on the basic purpose of writing a story: to entertain and excite readers. Our purpose is to give a gift. Not to make a point, or try to convert someone to our point of view. It is especially not to slam those we disagree with. That seems to be harder as our society becomes more fragmented and polarized. But perhaps, because of that reality, it is all the more important to figure out how to write morally-informed fiction without being moralistic.
For you, where is the line between a moral tone and being moralistic? At what point does a book become didactic as opposed to simply having a good theme? Have you read some books that did a great job of having a moral theme without being preachy?
During his middle school years, Braden Bell was the least-stable, lowest-achieving student in the history of the world. He shocked every former teacher by graduating from high school and college, and then going on to earn both a Master’s degree as well as a Ph.D.
A teacher by day and a parent by night, he is around teenagers 24/7. He teaches music and directs plays at a private school, much like Marion Academy in The Middle School Magic series. Whether he fights evil after hours is something he cannot disclose.
Previous March Book Madness Post: Priorities and Choices for Writers
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Thank you so much, Braden, for your thoughts on this. I can think of several books I’ve read which have crossed that fine line from moral depth to preachy. Ironically, several of those books I was forced to read in school.
You have me thinking now about this current series I’m writing, and whether I’ve crossed that line. I guess that’s something I’ll need to ask my beta readers, because as you said, we can sometimes be preachy without even knowing it. I’m a tad bit worried people are going to think I’m anti-government, which I’m not.
Thanks again Braden, for contributing to March Book Madness.
And thank you to all the authors who have shared their thoughts and expertise with us this month. It’s been awesome!!!
If you’ve missed any posts, make sure to catch up. It seems like there is something in there for every stage of writing. I look forward to next year’s March Book Madness.
For now, I have a lot of rewriting to do. :)
If you’ve missed any days…
2014 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:
- Our Connection to Book Covers and the Characters Within, by Danyelle Ferguson
- Four Essential Elements of Good Writing, by Gerald N. Lund
- Welcome to Niche-land! by JoLynne Lyon
- Developing Plot and Characters Together, by Tricia Pease
- ”Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson,” by Sarah Belliston
- Using Repetition To Improve Your Book by A.L. Sowards
- Getting the Most Out of Your Critique Group, by Charity Bradford
- The Moral of the Tale, by Christopher Rosche
- Querying: The Method to the Madness, by Chantele Sedgwick
- Creating Context Clues, by Charissa Stastny
- 6 Places to Find Novel Ideas, by Janice Hardy
- Avoiding Didacticism in Our Writing, by Braden Bell
2013 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:
- Weeding Your Words, by Charissa Stastny
- Know Your Audience–Even the Subtle One, by Cindy Piper
- Beating a Dead Horse, by Julie L Casey
- Why Everyone Should Be a Writer, by Sharon Belknap
- Reading in the Digital Age, by JoLynne Lyon
- The Art of Accepting Criticism, by Mary Bateman-Mercado
- Pinterested in Books, by Sarah Belliston
- The Power of Storytelling, by Christopher Rosche
- Never Pity the Adverb, by Anthony Mercado
- Creating Flawed but Likeable Characters, by A.L. Sowards
- Priorities and Choices for Writers, by Braden Bell
- Premise vs Plot – Which Do You Have? by Janice Hardy
2012 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:
- Tips on Querying, by Lynn Wiese Sneyd
- Plotting vs. Plodding, by Tobi Summers
- 10 Marketing Tips, by JoLynne Lyon
- 8 Editing Tips by Cassie Mae
- Editing, by Jessica Khoury
- Reading for Writers, by Tricia Pease
- For the Love of Reading, by Sharon Belknap