Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Moral Of the Story Is...

"Write to Entertain... If you want to preach, get a soapbox."
~Stephen King.

"All lasting books are (message books). Period."
~Ian Beckwith

I've heard the first one before, haven't you? It's one of those cardinal rules of story-craft, an especially troublesome one for those of us who write faith based fiction. How to write in such a way that acknowleges the presence of God in the story, without seeming to deliver a message? We've all known novels that read like 300-page Bible tracts, and even Christians don't like them.

So what to do? Shall we write stories that begin and end like millions of others out there? Boy meets girl, loses her, gets her back again. The butler killed the maid, and he did it with the pipe wrench. Shall we write our stories all the same, except that we parent our characters, insist that they pray once per plot point, watch their language, and keep their clothes on?

Not that I'm itching to write a bodice-ripper, but somehow that whole idea leaves me cold. The fact is, I don't like stories that merely entertain.

To our rescue comes Ian Beckwith. You know him, don't you? He's the handsome college professor in Sharon's latest novel, Lying on Sunday. To prove his point, he suggests that people who read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird only for its entertainment value are like people who eat carrot cake for its vitamin A. (Don't you love it that he equates the book's message to the sweetness in the cake?)

Turns out, Stephen King actually agrees with him. Here's what he really said:

Write to entertain. Does this mean you can't write "serious fiction"? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.*

So there's the thing that distinguishes Mockingbird from a 300 page Bible tract: The serious stuff serves the story, not the other way around.

Now I wonder: what are some of your favorite "message books?" Did the message serve the story? Did the story change you or inspire you in some way? As always, we love to read what you have to say.

*You can read the rest of Stephen King's advice here.


Marybeth Whalen said...

Quaker Summer packed a powerful message-- and left me grappling with how much I serve within my local church and on the community level. It was the most important book I read in 2007 because it made me think more than any nonfiction book I read. It worked because the message was inherent to the story.

Nichole Osborn said...

My fave book is "To kill a mockingbird". I read it in high school and now am having both sons read it. There's so much moral content, but it's in no way "preachy".

Patti Hill said...

Every book has a message because every book is written by a writer with a world view. Even if they claim it's just for entertainment, that writer's world view is going to permeate the storyline. Think of Stephen Crane the existensialist. You can see his belief that we live in an absurd and meaningless world in his best-know short story, "The Open Boat."

Having gotten that off my chest, I have to agree with Nichole. To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful and live-altering work of fiction. I can only dream of writing a book of that importance. More recently, books like Peace Like a River by Leif Enger have encouraged me to look for God in fresh ways.

Please, please join the discussion. I have a dwindling TBR pile.

Latayne C. Scott said...

We all know what a great book feels like, when it gives a powerful message couched in wonderful writing.

But trying to craft such a book -- now, there's a tightrope act. Makes me appreciate why Harper Lee didn't want to follow her first act.

Latayne C Scott

Bonnie Grove said...

I'm going to shock all my wonderful American friends: Up here in Canada, if you walk into a mainstream bookstore you will not find a section called "Christian". Where are the Christian novels? On the shelves with all the other novels. Why? Because every book has a spiritual perspective, and every book has a moral (Even The Nanny Diaries had a point!)

I adore reading for entertainment. I like to have fun and be enthralled when I read - and when a writer does that and wraps her/his message within the pages, I'm happy as a clam.

Great post, Katy!

Marybeth: Well said! Message implicit is key!

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I love the motto of 19th century writers, like Dickens and Austen: they wrote to "teach and entertain." Stephen King's quote is dead-on. Fluffy novels are boring, as are preachy novels. We want something that is entertaining, but also something that we can sink our teeth into. A recent one that I really liked for this was Mary Demuth's novel Daisy Chain.

Anonymous said...

Katy: Ian Beckwith would be honored (I am for sure). I've had readers tell me they'd marry him in a minute -- married readers! I may have to write his story next.

This is such a great topic, with such a wide spectrum. From the purely-meant-to-entertain titles we've all read (which are like cotton candy to me -- not one of my favorite treats) to the moralizing-Bible tract-type-novels that are equally unpalatable.

Bonnie is so right: finding the balance is the trick. But making sure the message serves the story and not the other way around is the key. Thank you for the reminder, Katy, so beautifully stated.

Bonnie, how I WISH American bookstores were like Canadian bookstores, because it's absolutely true, every book is a message book.

Nicole said...

Guess I'm a bit of a rebel here, but I do agree with Patti. Intended or not, secular books can be just as preachy as gospel-laden stories.

It's the organic revelation and inclusion of the gospel within story that requires the absence of specific sermonizing. Yet the success of The Shack illustrates the absurdity of preaching against "preachiness" because it was one long sermon (whether or not one agrees with its message), one short novel.

Let's face it, some of us force feed our readers the "point" we're attempting to illustrate instead of allowing the Holy Spirit and the characters to tell the story.

Something, really Someone, sets apart who gets away with downright preaching within the pages of a story. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. JMO

Janet said...

I've read preachy secular books too and they are every bit as annoying as religious preachy books. The preaching invariably happens when the writer just has to make sure that the reader gets the message and therefore spells it out, either in exposition or in the mouth of the most "virtuous" character, preferably laying it out for another character who doesn't yet "get" it but who is invariably blown away by the power of the message. *gag* At least have them fight back, make objections - good ones - and maybe never get it at all. And don't make that person the bad guy. Let sympathetic people have objections. Just like in real life.

And don't insist on spelling it out for the reader. Even if there's a conversion, we don't need to hear the four- or five-point plan of salvation, complete with a sinner's prayer that can be quoted verbatim. For heaven's sake, why do we need that? Salvation is not a formula, it is a submission of the heart. If a reader has reached that point in their own heart, their own words will do. If they haven't, mouthing your words won't accomplish anything anyway.

Above all, we have to resist the temptation of hammering something home. That's when it stops being a story and starts being a sermon. Sermons are wonderful things, but they are not novels. You know how almost everybody skips over the poetry in The Lord of the Rings? They didn't sign up for poetry when they picked up a novel, and it didn't much help that Tolkien's poetry was not at the same level as his prose. So they skip it. In secular novels I skip sex scenes, bar fights, Tom Clancy's interminable love songs to military hardware, and I never miss anything that matters to the story. In Christian novels I skip church scenes, sermons and virtually any section that starts with "he didn't realize". I never miss anything that matters to the story. Ouch.

I struggled with this a lot, because my character does convert, and as a result of reading the Bible on top of it all. I hope I haven't committed the same errors I'm ranting against. But his conversion is set up from the early chapters of the book, as we see the attitudes and events that opened him up. There is a progression, not a sudden lightning conversion based on a well-placed verse. And I definitely did not include a sinner's prayer, nor did his conversion solve all his problems. As a matter of fact, it caused him a whole slew of new ones.

I am very curious to see if I'm going to catch flak for doing things this way.

My favourite books all have deep ethical concerns, although they aren't always central to the story. Pride and Prejudice would just be a fluffy romance without the witty social criticism that pervades it. Chaim Potok's books, while centered on the father/son relationship always involve the clash of faith and modernism. A Canticle for Leibowitz deals with the bankruptcy of science if it isn't informed by faith and morality. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan stories are entertaining space operas, but a very strong recurring theme is the inherent value of the handicapped and the rejected and the different. J.K. Rowling's much-maligned Harry Potter books are absolutely soaked in the message of the power of sacrificial love and, again, in the value of the people who are rejected.

Imagine how tedious To Kill a Mockingbird would be if Atticus Finch lectured his kids on justice and racism and intolerance. But you'd have trouble finding even a paragraph's worth of explicit statements on these subjects in the whole book. It was his actions that preached the message and they did it much more powerfully than a lecture ever could.

Thanks for this, Katy. You've just made me think this through better than I ever had before. Now how can apply it to the next book?

Kathleen Popa said...

How cool that my post inspires replies that are longer than the post itself. I agree with you, Janet, and like you, my greatest fear is that I will commit all the sins I rage against. Writing is tricky business.

Thank you all for your thoughts, and for sharing your favorite message books. Koala, yes, Daisy Chain is a beautiful book. Marybeth, I'll have to try Quaker

Bonnie, you're going to make a Canadian of me one day.

Janet said...

ROFL! You should be a diplomat... A Canadian diplomat, of course. (We've almost got her, Bonnie.)

Mindy Grant said...

Boy, we do love Ian Beckwith don't we. I too love a book whose "story" is so captivating that you chew on it long after you've turned the last page. I think a current writer who has mastered getting the "moral" across without seeming too preachy is Francine Rivers. I'm thinking of 'The Last Sin Eater' in particular. I loved that book and didn't feel like I was reading straight out of the KJV Old Testament, even though there is an abundance of scripture referenced tnhroughout. Anyway, that's my 2 cents on the subject. Good post, Katy. Love you ladies!

Anonymous said...

Mindy, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree, The Last Sin Eater is an amazing story of redemption that doesn't preach a sermon. It does exactly what Stephen King puts forth: the message serves the story and not the other way around. And it does it in Francine Rivers' unique and beautiful style.