Save the Preaching for the Sunday Sermon

As a writer, you more than likely have strong opinions. And more than likely, a majority of your writing will stem from those strong opinions. You might write dystopian sci-fi to warn your fellow man of the dangers of our all becoming Cylons, or you might write fantasy stories that act out the consequences of chauvinism. Or, alternately, you might write literary fiction concerning some awful social injustice.

This is good–illustrating the human experience is the point of art. But in each piece like this, you run a risk: the risk of preaching.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from imagining a dystopian future to preaching? Usually, you’ll create a character, probably older and jaded, into whose mouth you’ll put long speeches to explain why the world has gone or is going to hell.

You know what? That’s boring.

Stranger in a Strange Land
A prime example of a character who does little besides preach is Robert A. Heinlein’s Jubal in Stranger in a Strange Land. This classic starts off in typical Heinlein fashion, all story. At some point, however, Heinlein begins using the story as a platform for preaching–largely through the (older and jaded) character of Jubal.

Throughout most of the book, Jubal goes on long-winded rants about society, art, religion, and endless other subjects. Are they on target? Yes, these speeches certainly are. As a reader and artist, I agreed with the speeches. But did I find them interesting? Not at all. Did they move the story along? Not at all.

And that’s the risk you run with preaching in a story. When you stop relying on the action in the story to do the work and instead put your ideas into sermons Father O’Shaughnessy would approve of, you’re really not doing anything artistic—you’re just ranting, and because the speeches have little action to back them up, your readers won’t be inclined to agree with you. Worse, they may abandon the book altogether.

It’s definitely true that a piece of fiction must enlighten readers. But it’s even more true that a piece of fiction must entertain. Honestly, nobody is going to enjoy reading a book that does little besides preach at you. And if your readers don’t enjoy your work, who on Terra is going to learn from it?

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