Writing: Should Fiction Persuade?

Many fiction writers I’ve known have told me that they intend their novels to educate or persuade readers of something. But is this a wise path?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss some pros and cons of persuasive or educational fiction.

Writing from the Pulpit

The fiction writers I mentioned above mostly wrote out of their religious beliefs, specifically Christianity. Yet any world view or belief could be used to educate or persuade in fiction. The major problem with writing to persuade is the risk of preaching. Unlike Sunday parishioners, novel readers usually resent being told what to think or believe.

Your core beliefs can and should appear in your writing. Yet if you hit readers over the head with heavy-handed prose, readers will likely run. The most persuasive bits of writing should be shown, not told. Imbue your characters with deep emotions and motives. Put the character into a situation that requires great effort to demonstrate those beliefs.

Writing a character who says and does things to illustrate what you’re trying to say must also be a character who can stir reader emotions. In the same way that you write the arc of a story through scenes, you can persuade readers to either change or reinforce their beliefs through adversity.

The Slippery Slope

As you unfold your novel’s story, your character should lose more than win. An easily obtained goal can’t hold readers—you must place tougher and tougher obstacles in her path. Every story must effectively answer the So What? question—if your character doesn’t meet the goal, so what?

To make readers care about your character and story, the character should take one step forward and two steps back. Instead of thinking of your character as a video game where you conquer one level and then move up, think of your character as re-inventing himself to tackle increasingly difficult obstacles.

The lowest scene is often called the “point of no hope,” where the character almost gives up, but then rallies for one last battle (climax scene). In the process of reinventing oneself, the character outsmarts the adversary through both determination and cleverness, which rewards readers’ satisfaction.

We tend to form our beliefs according to deeply held emotional truths.

Preach to the Choir

If you hope to educate or persuade readers of a belief, start where your readers live. Readers long to see themselves in your characters. Give your characters doubts, fears and uncertainties at the onset. Then, over the arc of the story, show the character growing and changing. This formula helps readers feel as if they too can be courageous, steadfast and open to change.

If you write your main character with too many pat traits or views, readers may conclude the character is judgmental or shallow. Allow your character to focus on the human aspects rather than the abstract of beliefs. We tend to form our beliefs according to deeply held emotional truths.

As you write fiction, it’s tempting to want to persuade or educate your readers. Adding too many facts or scientific or religious jargon will slow your story and crowd out the reason readers read: to join in on a story about how one person overcomes obstacles to attain a goal. Instead of an education, give your readers an emotional journey. Even if readers aren’t persuaded, they won’t forget your story.

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.

4 comments on “Writing: Should Fiction Persuade?

  1. Thank you for this very helpful piece. I am writing fictional stories for international students/scholars, mostly from the University of Washington. Our Seattle church has a weekly outreach, and those who choose to attend my group come for opportunity to improve their English, build trust through discussion, and learn something about Jesus and the Bible. I try to let the story convey a low-key appeal to Jesus. Your piece reminds me to beware of preaching. And to elicit emotional response through authentic involvement in the story. (Your piece on Nov 29 also jogged my awareness of the importance of emotion). Thanks again. Loren E. Van Tassel, formerly at George Fox University.

    • Loren,
      Great to hear from you! I so appreciate your efforts with students. Thank you for your dedication. If we meet people where they are, they usually respond with more trust than if we “tell” them the right way. Another vote for Show, don’t tell!
      Keep Writing,

  2. A pastor from long ago told me his greatest success rate was in reaching people through empathy during moments of grief. In that moment, people are hurting, and often consider their own mortality. For that reason, if I do choose to be a bit persuasive morally speaking, at a graveside service scene in my novel, I might inject a bit of morality.

    A meaningful quote
    Deep conversation
    A meaningful monologue
    A read well-stated epithet on a headstone
    A gracious act of kindness

    A little bit goes a long way for sure, but it can be an effective time to convey morality and religious beliefs that are compelling and not despised.

  3. Travis,
    I think the biggest thing to remember is that we don’t want to bludgeon our readers with belief. Beliefs that come from the mind aren’t nearly as persuasive as faith from the heart. When we tell readers what they ought to believe, we can’t easily reach the heart.
    Thanks for commenting and keep writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *