When I first started writing, specifically Christian Fiction, I went to many Christian writers conferences. Out of all the classes I attended, one piece of advice was stressed above all others: Don’t preach. At the same time, many agents and publishers ask one question about the story: What’s the main message or take-away?
It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. As I’ve written previously, stories matter, not because of the message, per se, but because they’re engrossing, entertaining, and sometimes terrifying. Stories immerse us into worlds and cultures we’ve never experienced, and give us characters we can love, hate, and everything in between.
Should all stories contain a message? No, but I also think few stories don’t have a message, however subtle. Like it or not, writers can’t help but bring their own biases, and yes, agendas to their stories.
For instance, I wrote my first novel because I was frustrated with the current selection of stories in my favorite genres. At the time (the early 2000s) I found little to no Christian science fiction, and few science fiction stories where God played any role at all. Most science fiction, in fact, was by and large hostile to any religion or idea of a higher power beyond a Force or ethereal Universe.
As I was silently lamenting my frustration, a little voice in my head said, “Then you write it.”
I doubt I’m alone in writing certain stories out of similar frustrations.
Plus it’s difficult to find stories without some message, even (perhaps especially) a lot of classics: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I could name a hundred others.
While many of the messages the authors sought to convey shined through, I doubt many readers would call them preachy. The plot, setting, and characters always came first.
All that said, a few days ago I saw the following conversation on Twitter (with permission):
“The best stories have no agendas. They’re not shoving social justice down our throats or giving us a limited narrative to make us learn. They just grip us with their excellence and beauty, the thrill of their surprises and the poignancy of their narratives. #books #writer” ~ Jessi Lyn Robbins (@jessilynrobbins)
“I think I can safely say I’ve never learned anything from a book that set out to make me learn a lesson. Well, maybe I learned never to read anything else by that author.” ~ Gillian M Kendall (@GillianMKendall)
Does that mean I disagree with them both? Based on what I’ve written so far and my response below, you might think so:
“It depends on the story and how it’s written. I read a book where the MC struggled with clinical depression. I used to silently scoff at those who suffered (I’m a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of person). I’ve never scoffed (silently or otherwise) at sufferers since.”
Ms. Robbins graciously responded: “From the sound of it, I’m not sure that book has the kind of agenda I’m talking about. It sounds like it’s extremely well-researched and well written with serious subject material that made you really feel something. Agenda books are not written like that. They’re not genuine.”
To which I added: “Perhaps. I agree too many books have “social justice” agendas. They make me leery of reading newer books. When I want to be preached to, I’ll go to church. Then again, if someone wants to add a message, write it in a way that I find it on my own. Don’t bust my head open with it.”
So no, I don’t disagree with either Ms. Robbins or Ms. Kendall. They both are expressing the same frustrations I have with so many newer books. The authors writing agenda-driven stories haven’t learned the lesson that I learned so many years ago: Don’t preach.
Their — and my — complaint is when the agenda or message becomes more important than the story. Too many seek to convert the reader through intellectual and emotional force instead of inviting the reader to see a different point of view through the plot and characters.
Stories should be an invitation, not an invasion, because the former shows trust in the reader whereas the latter does not.
UPDATED: “Moby Dick” was written by Herman Melville (I accidentally attributed it to Charles Dickens).