"Write to Entertain... If you want to preach, get a soapbox."
"All lasting books are (message books). Period."
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.