Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to Make a Point Without Being Preachy (with examples)

Some of you may be coming in today because of my guest post at Rachelle's blog (if you haven't seen it, here's a link).  In any case, welcome. 

I promised over at Rachelle's blog that would I share a few more thoughts about how to make a point without being preachy in your fiction.  I'll use the same points I shared over there and expand on them with some examples and a couple of notes on how I tried to do this in my own book.

1) If it doesn’t advance character or plot, ditch it.

It’s easy to have your hero make an impassioned speech like, “All intelligent people agree with me all the time because I am a big smarty. And I want to tell you that there are giant alligators in the sewers because people do not get rid of their unwanted pets correctly.” But what if I, the reader, do not agree with you or your hero? You are preaching to me. And insulting me by saying I am dumb. Now, if there is some character reason for this (our hero talks about alligators in the sewer so often that he annoys everyone around him) or plot (our hero is going to be sent on a mission into the sewers of New York City) then so be it. But If you can delete the speech without damaging the plot and without major damage to the character development, you need to toss it.

This was a painful process for me in Imaginary Jesus. When I turned the book in to my (beloved) publisher, my editors told me the book needed to be 33% shorter. Cutting my book by a third was painful. I used these questions when slicing away my sweet, wonderful words: Does it advance the character? Does it advance the plot? (And, because the book is satire I added the questions: Is it funny? Is it true?) I lost some hilarious moments in the book, but they weren’t key to the plot. I lost some good, interesting speeches. But they weren’t really key to the book. It hurt, but it made the book better.

2) Have worthy opponents.

Too many preachy novels have this scene:

Hero: If we flush pet alligators down the toilet they will grow enormous in the sewer.

Eight year old boy who is a liar and somewhat stupid: Nuh-uh.

Hero: Actually, yes.

Eight year old boy: You have defeated me in a battle of wits!

This would be much better:

Professor Moriarty: There is insufficient biomass in the sewers for a full grown alligator. An alligator requires thirty pounds of meat a day. It simply cannot survive in the sewers, you ignorant, preachy hero.

Hero: Gasp! I do not have a sufficient comeback. But I am certain there are, indeed, alligators in the sewer.

Professor: If so, they are tiny, starved, dead ones.

You should provide better objections than your reader. Anytime your reader feels that you aren’t giving the other side of an argument they immediately think you are either preachy or manipulative.

In Imaginary Jesus, I cheated a little bit on this by making the main character (me) a bit of an idiot. The poor guy (me) loses arguments to dead Apostles, talking donkeys, atheists and even himself. Sometimes I didn’t agree with the winning arguments, but the story hopefully showed that in the end without the help of a big speech about it.

3) Don’t say what you mean.

Take the centuries-long debate, “are human beings basically good or evil?” You don’t have to tell us your position on this. Simply have an impoverished child walk into her friend’s house and suddenly realize that no one is home. On the table is a wallet. No one is around to see. What does the child do? Don’t tell us what you think about people, show us what people do in the story you are creating. Your worldview has already dictated what you believe that child will do in that situation. Stop lecturing us and get back to the story.

4) If you must make a speech, let the skeptic make it.

Imaginary Jesus explores the question of “who is Jesus, really?” But the main character doesn’t get many chances to make clear-headed speeches about this, he’s in crisis and trying to figure it out. In fact, the clearest presentation of the traditional Christian view of Jesus comes from an atheist in the book (and he doesn’t believe it).

5) Say one thing and do another.

Make it absolutely clear that there is no possible way that alligators are in the sewers of NYC. Workers have never seen them down there. The professor points out there’s not enough biomass. They have sent in exploratory robots and there’s no evidence of them. The narrator, the professor and everyone but the hero sees this. The reader agrees. But when the hero and the professor get down there they find one tiny reptilian scale. And the professor remarks that there are far, far more rats in the sewer system than he had been led to believe. And just as our hero picks up a tiny collar that says “Godzilla” on it, they hear a rumbling growl from behind them.

Probably the clearest example of this in my book comes from the identity of Jesus. There are a lot of fake Jesuses in the book, but the main character keeps acting like they’re real, even when he says he doesn’t believe in them. This advances the plot (where is the real Jesus?) and reveals character (he says the right thing but clearly believes the wrong thing).

That’s all I’ve got for today, but feel free to leave your questions and comments and I’ll answer them in the comments. Thanks for dropping by and have a great day!