Don't Preach – Putting Themes into Your Story

4345518893_5a5702ef5e_zDo you ever just open a novel, or watch a movie, only to feel like that instead of being captivated by plot and character, you feel like you’re listening to a sermon or philosophical speech?

It happens to me a lot. Don’t get me wrong, sermons are great. Speeches are great. But they’re not books. They’re not stories.

So what are they doing in my book?

Here’s one undeniable thing that most readers will tell you: We don’t like being preached to. We don’t like it when authors pull out big neon signs that flash “SUPER IMPORTANT THEME/LIFE LESSON DON’T MISS IT!!”. We don’t like having things shoved down our throats.

Now, having a book built around one, central theme is great. Reading a book that gives you new ways of looking at the world, or insights, or challenges your worldview, is great. These are some of the best stories out there. These are the books with depth, the ones that make you think, inspire you, change you. This post is not about how you shouldn’t add messages or themes into books.

This post is about how to avoid scaring off readers with them.

This is a trap that I think a lot of Christian novelists fall into. And honestly, it’s a little hard to avoid. Sometimes we have a message and we want to make sure it gets across. Often, our eagerness is our downfall. (And it’s not just problem in Christian fiction. I’ve seen it countless times in secular things, as well.)

Now, not all stories even require a ‘theme’ or a ‘message’ at all. In fact, I find that most stories (at least the ones I write) will have themes that sort of work themselves in, without much along the lines of prior planning. All writers have a worldview of some kind, and usually that worldview will have a way of working itself in.

However, if there is a specific message the drives your story, then you run the risk of falling into this trap. Fortunately, as with most writerly and artistic things, with proper forethought and planning, you can avoid it.

Whether it comes across as awkward or forced, or powerful and moving, it all comes down to one thing:

How it is presented.

Now, as with most things with writing, there is really no right way of doing it. There is no way of doing it wrong, exactly. We know when its wrong, and we know when its done right, but there is no real unbreakable laws in writing.

Avoid the infamous ‘Preachy’ scenes. We’ve all read these. This is when characters sit down and have a long discussion about whatever it is that the author wants the reader to learn. The dialogue is usually forced and unreal as the writer takes their characters and has them list a number of bullet point arguments either for or against the theme. They are full of informative dialogue, and sometimes aren’t even relevant to the plot. Which brings me to my next point…

Make sure it is actually relevant. Every element in a novel should be there for a reason. Every scene, every character, every sentence. Everything should work towards two things: plot development or character development. If it doesn’t do these things, it either needs to be cut or reworked into the story.

Don’t oversell it. Make sure that you don’t over do it. Don’t try to stick it in places or scenes it shouldn’t be. Don’t try to force it – if you do, your readers will notice.

Remember your audience. Writers should always have at least a general idea of what kind of audience they’re writing for. Are you writing for children? Teenagers? College kids? Purple dragons? These things will can influence how your message should be presented. For example, children are less likely to get subtlety, or heavy symbolism. But books written for YA audiences or adults, these things are often subtler and harder to pick up on.

Watch out for your mentor-type characters. Mentor characters are a very popular character archetype, and they can be great characters. But as with most tropes, they run the risk of being cliched. Sometimes, the only purpose they serve is to give the main character long, dramatic speeches, which said main character will only listen to after the mentor’s inevitable death. (Okay, maybe not.)

Remember your story. Some types of stories lend themselves better to having messages or themes. You’re really the only person that can figure this part out – after all, who knows your story better than you do? What kind of story are you writing? Would it lend itself well to having some sort of theme worked in? Or is it the kind of story where the whole book is centered around one, central theme? Only you can answer these questions!

All in all, it comes down to careful forethought about relevance and execution. These stories can either be huge successes or flops, but I’m always up for a good challenge.

What about you? Do you agree? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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