A Novel is not a Soapbox

I’ve heard, and believe, that a novel of fiction can get a message across better than a non-fiction book. Why? For one thing, many people won’t/don’t pick up non-fiction books that deal with topics that make them uncomfortable. As an example, consider Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help. The theme of that book is how black women working for the white in the south during the 1960’s were treated. How many people, do you think, would have purchased a non-fiction book titled: How Black Housekeepers Were Treated In The South During The 1960s?

Yes, some of you would have. And it might be assigned as required reading for a college class. But I doubt the book would have had the sales figures The Help had, would have become the focus of so many book group discussions, or would have been made into a movie.

So, if you have a political, religious, environmental, or social position you want to convey to others, should you write a fictional novel?

The answer may be yes or it may be no. Writers must realize a novel is first a story about people (or people substitutes such as animals or robots). Readers are looking for characters that they can either root for or despise. They want to be involved in a situation where there is a goal, motivation for that goal, and some sort of conflict keeping the characters from easily reaching that goal. They don’t buy a novel to be lectured.

The best way to convey something you feel strongly about is to SHOW the reader. Create characters who are dealing with the situation. Have the characters, through their dialogue (which should be natural, not a lecture) and their actions, face a political, religious, environmental, or social situation. Whether the characters solve the situation or not isn’t as important as how it impacts the characters…and the readers.

Stockett’s book was set in the past, but I’m sure it caused a lot of people to think back to those days (if they were old enough). No matter when you were born, it helped people understand those times better, and I’m sure it made a lot of readers consider how they still think about or treat blacks. In addition to that, it was a great read. I know I loved it when that chocolate pie was served. (If you’ve read the book, you understand.)

Over the years I’ve read several unpublished manuscripts where the writer wanted to give his/her take on an issue. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. What didn’t work was when the writer had one of the characters giving a long lecture about the situation. If you want to write a story with a message, remember, unless someone has been asked to give a lecture, people don’t normally talk using long, uninterrupted paragraphs of dialogue. When people talk to each other, they pause, sometimes say “er”, gesture, and express themselves with facial and body movements. They also don’t tell what might be common knowledge to the people they’re talking to. And they are often interrupted. The person being spoken to asks questions, or disagrees with what’s being said, makes some kind of response…verbally or mentally.

Books can teach, but they teach in ways that the ancient storytellers taught…through stories about something that has happened or may happen, good or bad.

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14 Responses to A Novel is not a Soapbox

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    Good post. Leave the lecture to the right moment (like a college class). 🙂

  2. Lucy Kubash says:

    So true. No worse read than a book that preaches… about anything. I have a book in mind in which I want to take up an issue close to my heart, but I’ll need to make sure it’s shown through the characters and not my own view. Thanks for this post.

  3. Having a theme or message that we are passionate about isn’t bad for fiction. As writers we just have to be careful not to bop the readers’ over the head with it. A delicate balance. I’m thinking of books like THE GRAPES OF WRATH, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, 1984, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE or LORD OF THE FLIES, where message is so important.

  4. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    I definitely don’t want to be lectured when I’m reading. Love your posts. You always have very thought-provoking topics.

  5. So right. Many novels do take up such issues and show them to the reader. The successful ones, as you say, don’t lecture and just let us see what the effects are. Story comes first.

    • Maris Soule says:

      As you said, Elizabeth, the successful ones let us see the effects. Those are the ones we remember because they help us understand how that issue impacts the lives of others. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. Bonnie Alkema says:

    Great post. And such a good example in The Help.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. There have been many books that have been successful in telling a good story while also conveying a message, but The Help seemed an appropriate example right now.

  7. Carol Parker says:

    I found your blog (which I’ve enjoyed very much ) from a Venice Florida writers group website that says they have workshop 2x a month but I didn’t see anything from August or a contact page nor could I find how to become a member. Is this group still together and if so, how can I find out about workshops or others in the Sarasota area?