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Monday, May 21, 2018

Preach vs. Teach

In the writing industry, you might have heard the advice that you should never preach to your readers, but I feel like no one actually breaks down how preaching is different than teaching. So that's what I'll be doing today.

How Preaching Works and Why We do it

Preaching often comes from handling a theme or story's "lesson" too heavy-handedly. It's the author trying to make the reader see or adopt a particular viewpoint or way of life. Obviously the author thinks that viewpoint or way of life is right (and that readers should follow it).

We all have ideas we feel strongly about, and those are often themes we should write about.

But preaching them is usually more of a turn-off, and as I'll talk about, it's also sort of a shortcut/cheat that can blow up in your face.

So let's talk about the characteristics of preaching and how it happens.


Focuses on Answers - One of the ways preaching can manifest is when the author is focusing too much on the answers to thematic, moral, or ethical questions. I know that sounds backwards, so let me explain.

You know how stories have a plotline?

Well, in my opinion, great stories have a thematic line, and I argue they look awfully similar at the most basic level.

With themes and morals, there needs to be a struggle before the answers come.

Themes and morals can go bad when the author starts swinging around the answers straight out the gate or at the wrong point in the story.

See, when we want to teach something to our readers, it's easy and naturally tempting to simply start swinging the idea around, because we want the reader to get and understand whatever point we are making.

But like the plot's climax, the statement doesn't have power until we've struggled (rising action) for the answer.

If the moral of my story is that mercy is more powerful than justice, and I start the story stating and restating that, it has no power because it has nowhere to grow, and it has no power because there was no struggle.

The audience has to see a need for the answer, first.  A.k.a. the struggle.

As you show the characters struggle with a moral or ethical or philosophical question, the audience becomes more invested. If the audience isn't invested in the story, they can't really be changed by it.

If you focus too much on getting across answers to the audience, the story will become preachy.

Close-mindedness, Bias, and Simplification - Writing can turn preachy when the author doesn't actually consider or genuinely explore viewpoints that are contrary to what they want to teach. For example, if you want to write about how mercy is more powerful than justice, you might run into this problem if you make everyone who enforces justice demonic or other; you also may run into it if you don't consider the real-life complexity that justice is.

But usually I see this problem with more political statements. And few come quicker to mind than environmentalism. If I have to watch one more show about how humans have to leave Earth because we polluted it, I think my mind might die from the cliche. (I can respect the concept, but it's so overused and can be so heavy-handed these days). In stories like this, often the situation is overly simplified, those who don't support something that is supposedly pro-environment are demonized. And it's usually very obvious what the writer believes.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying we shouldn't have stories about these subjects. But unless you are employing stereotypes for humor, you probably need to at least genuinely consider what you view as the opposing side.

I have a friend from when I was a teenager, and as adults, she came out as lesbian. When gay marriage became legal she said, "Just because people don't believe in gay marriage doesn't mean they are bigots or homophobes. Some people just don't believe in it because of their religion. Others because of their worldview. Some feel that it is just not morally the right thing or natural." In other words, she did not oversimplify the situation or name-call the other side.

I will argue that some themes and stories are more black and white, and for younger audiences, you may write more simplistically. Some evil behaviors are so evil that probably no one will have a problem if they are demonized (like mass extermination). But if your story is too preachy, it might be because you aren't opening your mind enough to genuinely consider the opposing side.

In most stories, even the villain should offer us some level of understanding and sympathy.

Some writers may be afraid to make those of opposing views sympathetic or understandable because they feel that doing such promotes that viewpoint. You don't need to fear that, and that approach actually causes other problems that I'll talk about in the teaching section. 

Tells more than Shows - Preaching can happen when you are telling the moral of the story or the answers to the theme more than showing them.

It might be a long drawn out conversation with a character about the thematic answer . . . paired with a plot that didn't illustrate it enough. See, the plot or the character arc should ideally illustrate the argument you are making (remember the struggle?)

Preaching might happen when you are simply telling the audience what to think and how to live their lives. Again, until you've illustrated a need for that (through plot or character arc), the audience probably won't care about the information.

It's not wrong to say answers and thematic lines straight out:

But like with writing the actual story, it needs to be shown more than told. Things can sound preachy when there is more telling than showing. And if you tell far more than the audience "needs" then it can be annoying. 

Usually as writers we turn preachy because of one of these reasons. And as you look over these characteristics, you might notice that they are all sort of shortcuts to doing the actual work. Surely it takes more work to actually show a struggle and illustrate a need for an answer than it is to just give it. It's way easier to simplify arguments and demonize opposing views than it is to take the time to understand them and add depth on some level. And obviously, as most writers will know, it's way easier to tell than to show. So preaching is a shortcut . . . that doesn't work.

How Teaching Works and How to Do it

Teaching is different than preaching. It's sort of the difference between having a conversation and being talk at.

With storytelling, instead of trying to force the reader what to think and do, we show events (causes and effects) and then suggest how they be viewed via the narrator or characters. Again, this doesn't mean we can't make direct statements (like the Dumbledore one above), but we aren't hitting the reader over the head repeatedly. Remember what Dale Carnegie taught? Ideas are best taken to heart when the other person comes to the conclusion on their own.

How do they come to that conclusion? You illustrate a need.


Explores Questions - Do you remember sitting in school and having a peer raise his or her hand and ask, "When are we ever going to use this?" I do. (Sadly, I honestly don't use most of what I learned in all my years of math.) We usually learn better, quicker, and change more powerfully when we see a need.

Going back to my earlier example, if we want to talk about how mercy is more powerful than justice, we need to first explore those two topics, and this is usually most effectively done by posing questions about them, that are illustrated through struggles. Sometimes you can pose those questions directly. Other times the questions aren't directly on the page, but instead the story sets up situations and struggles that suggest the questions and the need for answers. Almost always these come from the character arc, but they can also come from side characters.

By doing this, the writer is teaching about the whole subject instead of just a simplified shortcut of it. The audience becomes more invested in the story--the plot and the characters--and yearns for a conclusion--an answer. It's only in this state that the audience can experience a form of transformation. The climax of the theme or moral. The part that will actually stick with them long after the story ends and that they will take with them into their lives.

Considers Other Sides or Explains Them in a Way We Can Understand or Sympathize - No one really wants to be Voldemort. But we understand his perspective and through his backstory, maybe even sympathize with him in some way. He literally doesn't have the capacity to love others.

If you are working with Absolute Truths, you may be working more with Voldemort situations--where the point is to help the reader understand or sympathize on some level why that person is that way, even if no one agrees with them. If you are working with worldly truths, where things aren't so black and white, you'll probably need to genuinely consider and illustrate opposing sides without demonizing people.

And in most stories you are going to be doing some of both.

After all, we also understand many of the Death Eaters and their perspective, even if we don't agree with them.

In the musical Les Mis, we sympathize and understand (and even on some level, respect) Javert, even if his inability to accept mercy as a more powerful force drives him to death (an action which in and of itself illustrates that ultimately, mercy has the upper hand, and even shows tragically how in the end, Javert could not even show mercy toward himself).

Give depth to characters who have and illustrate views contrary to the lesson of the story. Les Mis wouldn't be half as powerful if we didn't understand and spend time with Javert.

If you have controversial or political statements, please remember that there is a reason there are people on both sides of the argument--and it's not because everyone on the other side is a bigot or ignorant or blind. Actually spend some time with the opposing thought process. It will make your story more powerful and help human beings empathize with one another. Even if we don't agree with someone, learning their perspective can greatly enrich our own.

And if you have readers that have the opposing viewpoints, they'll appreciate you and listen and consider your story and viewpoint more. People don't care what you know until they know you care.

Show the Lesson more than Tell it - The story itself should illustrate what you are trying to teach through plot and character. Usually, statements told should validate or put words to what the audience is witnessing.

Lord of the Rings is a story that's clearly about good overcoming evil. But that lesson wouldn't really be there if we didn't witness it happening with the characters firsthand. It doesn't mean as much if we don't actually see evil being really evil. If we don't actually see the Ring thrown into the Crack of Doom.

Same can be true of the Dumbledore statement above. It doesn't really mean much if we don't see it illustrated--Harry and Voldemort actually have a lot of similarities in their backgrounds, but it's their choices that show who they really are, not the fact they both speak parseltongue.

Showing the lesson cements it to the reader. Actually doing a science experiment is more meaningful and sticks with you longer than reading about someone doing one in a book. Experience trumps telling. In stories, experience relates to showing.

In the end, we show and illustrate the lesson, and ultimately it's the reader who decides what he or she thinks about it. We can't force the reader to believe anything. All we can do is provide opportunity and perspective and let the reader exercise his or her own agency about it. And even if the audience comes to a different conclusion, if you did this stuff well, their views will have been expanded in some way, and hopefully, so will their empathy. Ultimately, that's all we can really ask for.

So I hope that helps clarify the difference between preaching and teaching. It's worth noting, however, that not all stories exist to intentionally teach something. Some stories simply explore topics and viewpoints, without necessarily coming to a clear conclusion--or offering several. Some stories simply aim to take an "as is" approach--not trying to persuade anything, but simply show what is. In the end, however, all stories are teaching something, even if it's unintentional or subtle. And if you look at most classics, they are timeless usually because of the takeaway value.

Come back next week to learn more about how to infuse theme into your writing.


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