Don’t Teach, Tell a Story!

Many of my novel writing students tell me they hope to educate readers about a topic they feel passionate about. I always cringe when I hear this! I want to yell, “Don’t write with the aim to teach me something! Just tell me a good story!”
Writing Tip for Today: What are some of the unhappy complications of trying to educate your audience through fiction?

  • The Moral of the Story Is . . . Today I was reading PORT YONDER PRESS editor Chila Woychik’s article on writing for middle grade readers. In the article, Chila warns against assuming that “mom or Dad” voice that only comes off as lecturing. She advises, wisely, that writers embed (DEEP!) the lesson in an exciting story filled with action and unforgettable characters. In my little opinion, adults don’t like being lectured any more than kids do. Fill your story with action and unforgettable characters instead of encyclopedic stuff.
  • Which Way to Dullsville? A novel with even slyly added info can bog down easily. I once had a student whose time travel novel was all about natural fibers, weaving and natural dyestuffs. My background is in this same area, so at first I was intrigued. But alas, the novel was chock full of long descriptive paragraphs with little action. Even the character didn’t care as much as the author–I say this because instead of being character thoughts or dialogue, the descriptive bits were in exposition, like an encyclopedia. Hmm, encyclopedia again. See a trend here? Exposition like this is usually just stated as if there was an unseen narrator. But it’s a story-killing INFO DUMP. At least work the info into the character’s POV.
  • Let the Reader Beg for More. Instead of force-feeding a history lesson on the Indian wars, give the characters the same passion you possess. Light your character’s heart on fire, make this person ready to die for what she believes in. Make her want the very thing you wish to teach and it’s far more likely your readers won’t even know they’ve been taught something. Like a spoonful of sugar, weaving the info into the fibers of your character’s being will help the medicine go down.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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