Do you have advice for avoiding preachiness in your work? I assumed I had this problem because I like to write stories that teach and inspire and was getting too caught up in that motive. But I’m plotting a story with no teaching motive at all, and I still have this problem.
For context, the hero’s internal conflict is a moral dilemma between doing what’s right to rectify her past wrongs and doing what’s wrong to save herself from a position she was wrongly placed in. […]
No matter what decision she ultimately comes to, I can’t find a way to make it look like it’s HER decision and not my attempts to endorse an opinion via that character. Do you have any suggestions? […]
Thanks in advance.
Hey there, thanks for writing in!
In my experience, when audiences describe a story as “preachy,” it means one of two things.
- The story is trying to impart a message or lesson that it doesn’t support.
- The audience doesn’t like the message the story is trying to convey.
Not much can be done about #2. You could try to make the message subtler, but doing so risks losing the message altogether. In my experience, it’s usually better to plant your flag firmly and let people say what they will. Of course, it’s always helpful to have some self-reflection and ask why audiences might object to a story’s message. James Cameron could have saved us all a lot of trouble with Avatar if he’d realized that audiences wouldn’t respond well to a message about how what native people really need is a white man to save them. But outside of something like that, audiences will either appreciate the message or they won’t.
For #1, it’s usually an issue of covering the show-don’t-tell fundamentals. If the characters spend a lot of time talking about how publicly funded healthcare is better than privately funded, but the audience only ever sees bad outcomes from publicly funded healthcare, it’ll create some dissonance. Often, this problem arises from a message being added afterward, rather than tailoring the story to fit the message.
This is a major problem with Star Trek: Discovery, which is a story about a morally black-and-white conflict against the Klingons, but the writers keep telling us it’s a commentary on Federation ideals. In order to make that work, they would have needed a conflict in which Federation ideals actually played a major role, but instead they wrote a grimdark war story against evil space cannibals. If you ever find yourself in that situation, the best options are to either drop the message and save it for a more fitting story or make some major revisions to the story so it fits the message.
For your specific scenario, it’s tough to have a main character do something without making the action feel like it has author endorsement. The first place to look is the action’s outcome. If the action has the desired effect and things turn out well for the character, it’ll always seem like the action had author endorsement. There’s no way around that. To prevent this, either the protagonist has to realize their mistake before they go too far, or the action has to turn out badly. That either mean it fails, or it turns out to have such steep costs that the protagonist realizes it was a mistake. They might actually succeed in taking the throne through murder and deceit, but once they have it, they see that their actions have spawned more violence, plunging the country into civil war. Greek tragedies are a great place to look for inspiration, as they pioneered the genre of a sympathetic hero who makes the wrong choices.
Once you have the ending figured out, you need a way to signal to the audience early that the protagonist is heading down the wrong path; otherwise, the audience may not wait to see how things turn around. I’ve found a good way to do this is to have another character – possibly a friend or mentor – there to warn the protagonist against their chosen course. If this character seems credible, most audiences will take their warning to mean that the protagonist’s choices are supposed to be wrong, even though the protagonist doesn’t realize it.
Another option is to make all the protagonist’s choices seem reasonable until the end, when you reveal they’ve really been making the wrong choices. This is tough, but it can be done. Perhaps the protagonist is a queen whose family has been the target of multiple assassination attempts, and to prevent more she starts having her allies interrogated, since they were the only ones with the knowledge to plan such attacks. That’s an understandable reaction, and it’s only later revealed that the assassins specifically wanted to provoke the queen onto this course.
Either way, the key is to preserve sympathy for the protagonist. Even if you have a direct aside to the audience that the protagonist’s actions are wrong, it won’t be enough if they make choices so unsympathetic that the audience doesn’t enjoy reading about them anymore. This may take some trial and error, but in general audiences don’t life selfish characters or characters who cause unnecessary suffering, so it’s often a good plan for the protagonist’s mistakes to come from a need to help others rather than themselves. It also helps if the protagonist is avenging a wrong done to them, which it sounds like you’ve already got in your story.
Hope that’s helpful,