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!


  1. Great tips in this post (I came to you via Rachelle and tried to leave a comment there, but blogspot ate it. So you get it instead... )

    Novels need something to lift a simple story into universal territory, but as you say there are all these pitfalls - especially when people ask 'what's your novel about'? The way I tackle it is to say, your novel has two 'abouts'. There's About with a capital A - your themes, concerns. And 'about' with a lower-case a, which is who the characters are and what they are doing.

  2. Anonymous6:40 AM


    Send this list to McLaren and tell him to re-write some of his work. Not only would it be 33% shorter, he might actually get to what his opinion or answer should be. ;-)


  3. You make some fantastic points here, Matt, though I don't know if I can believe them. You come off a little preachy. Maybe if you'd let a skeptic say these things for you...

  4. Anonymous10:54 AM

    Great points, and your humor drew me to keep reading. Thanks for sharing your refreshing knowledge. I'll be back to see you.

  5. Dropping by from Rachelle. You've given me good points to consider as I work on my own story which has spiritual overtones. I've been worried about the whole "sounding preachy" thing and your post helps me to get a handle on it. I'm still working it out. What is the theme of your book Imaginary Jesus. What message were you trying to convey?

  6. @dirtywhitecandy That's a good distinction. I had a writing instructor who said there's nothing wrong with spending a lot of time working on your theme and what your story "means" but to do it on a different day than you write the story so you don't end up putting essay notes in the fiction. I like the way you say it here.

    @drumboytwo56 Well, McClaren mostly writes essays. So he's allowed to be preachy. But you're right, he doesn't always make his point clearly. It's like he needs the opposite essay. :)

    @Nate Wilson Ha ha. Nice one. I'll see what I can do next time. Look forward to seeing you around!

    @June G Imaginary Jesus explores a couple of things... how can we know if we're in relationship with the real Jesus? Where is God when we experience pain? How can we be in relationship with someone who is (physically) absent? There are lots of questions in the book, and an attempt at some answers, or at least resolutions. How about you? What's your story about?

  7. Great stuff, Matt. And a heck of a comment by Nate Wilson.

    I particularly appreciated what you wrote about creating worthy opponents. You referenced the Brothers Karamazov in another bullet, but I find it remarkable what Dostoevsky has done with these 4 characters. I believe the reader can find himself in each of the brothers to some degree, certainly appreciating various ideas and qualities of each individual. Dostoevsky has masterfully crafted each one to represent a piece of himself or his surrounding world, thus making each character a genuine and believable hero, rather than one obvious hero among 3 straw-men arguments.

    I once recommended this book to a skeptic friend of mine looking for good literature about God. I was hoping he would stumble upon Alyosha's mystic conversion process, or Dmitri's insatiable and impossible need for forgiveness, but instead, he concluded that the book was helpful because he found himself in Dostoevsky's own voice and real hero, Ivan the disbelieving intellectual. Oops. Needless to say I've stopped recommending the book. Just kidding, of course, but I do so appreciate the ambiguous nature of Dostoevsky's hero. Although I do not think Dostoevsky's personal belief system is limited to one character (singularly Ivan,) I do find pieces of him and all of us in each brother. That is the genius of his work - it is so much like life. Dostoevsky captured the thoughts of his time, a feat not easy to undertake. Rarely does one central hero sum it all up in an accessible 4 point sermon; rather, we struggle along in a world where everything's messy, often mistaking Ivan for Alyosha and vice versa. We can't easily distinguish different heroes in life, so why should we in literature? Worthy opponents are often more than opponents - that's when the application gets tricky and the reading gets good.

    I'm curious what you might say to help me along in my writing. I just don't know where to begin. Did you being Imaginary Jesus with the idea of Imaginary Jesus? With the characters or imaginary Jesuses? With your personal story? With the plot line? I feel like I have all of these characters in my mind, proverbially "all dressed up with no place to go." How can I bring some motion to my story? Or should I start there and add characters later? Any beginning tips?

    Also, I did not see a bullet point devoted to avoiding Ewoks as a mechanism for Deus ex machina. Wanted to provide you with the opportunity to do so now if you like.

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  11. I wish a lot of the writers I have read would take your advice!
    But, I would like to make it clear - There ARE alligators in the sewers of NY. Big ones. Just an FYI.

  12. pongboy6:09 PM

    Christy's right! I've been to NYC. There ARE gators & rats in the sewers!!! Rats as big as gators and gators as big as rats!!! :O

    And thanks for this mini writing workshop. :)

  13. What a wise, thought-provoking, and insightful post. Thanks for sharing.