Developing Themes and Messages Without Getting Preachy
When the organizers of WriteOnCon suggested that I write a blog post on developing themes and messages in stories without getting preachy, I immediately knew that it was the right topic for me. I have Things To Say about it.
The first thing I have to say is: Don’t. Don’t set out to write a story with a particular message or moral. For one thing, especially if you’re writing for kids or teenagers, they’re going to spot it a mile away. If you set out to teach, that didacticism is going to come across in your writing, and you risk losing your connection with your readers.
Instead, I propose a less arrogant approach: Set out to write about what makes you angry.
My debut YA novel THE ACCIDENTAL BAD GIRL has been called feminist—“feminist AF,” in one case—and that is a label that makes me extremely happy. When I started writing it, I knew that I wanted to write a feminist book because, well, I am a feminist. I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about slut-shaming, but that was all it was: a vague idea.
I knew I was angry and I thought I had something to say, but I’m glad I didn’t know what it was. Because instead of trying to stick to message, I instead wrote what felt true. And what is true is never purely moral—it is never a singular message. Truth is full of contradictions and discomfort and complications.
I was extremely angry when I wrote my book. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere (see: the YA Interrobang website), but when I started BAD GIRL I was still processing my own sexual assault. The act of writing taught me what it was I had to say about slut-shaming—how it and rape culture constitute a symbiotic partnership and how everyone, even the well-intentioned, girls and boys, adults and young adults, can so easily be complicit in the system and in their own oppression. Writing that book taught me about my own convictions.
So in order to write a book full of incisive messages and with difficult themes, what I suggest is to dig deep into the feelings of your characters. In other words, start with the characters and work your way out. If you do this, the themes and messages will reveal themselves. If you try and do it from the outside in—starting with your message, and tacking them onto your character arcs, not only will it be hard for your readers to connect with the story you’re telling, I would humbly suggest that it’s harder for you to connect with the story you’re telling.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that writing is a magical, muse-born experience. I outline. I make sure before I start writing that I know what my protagonist wants and the obstacles they’re going to face in the journey to achieving their goals. But the joy of writing, for me anyway, comes when my writing surprises me. When the book turns out to be about something I hadn’t planned for. That’s where our souls, and our creativity—our drive—gets fed.
So say you want to write about some pretty heavy themes—for example, the death of a parent. Maybe you want to write about that because you’ve experienced it and you want to show kids that they’re not alone. Instead of starting the process with an idea of the exact right way to process the death of a parent, with your already-settled personal philosophy of grief, and shaping your story around that message, do this instead:
Think of a secondary story to tell around your thematic message. Auditioning for a school play, a parent’s new partner, a meet-cute, a murder mystery—whatever excites you to write about. And then have the theme you want to expound on exist within that story. In BAD GIRL, I wove my theme around a noir-ish crime story. No heavy themes exist in a vacuum in real life anyway. The secondary story gives you breathing room in your writing to communicate the feelings that would exist around your “thematic material,” in the case of this example, the death of a parent, without chaining your entire story to it. It gives you more freedom as an author and simultaneously, some restrictions: you are required to have some oxygen around your message or theme. Because of that, you are required to deal with: character development, relationships, set pieces—you are forcing yourself to write complexity into your story.
This secondary story also helps readers who may not have experienced the death of a parent connect more easily to your story. By giving your message some space, you actually communicate it more effectively … even to yourself.
If you put your message in an environment or storyline it has nothing to do with, your brain makes connections it wouldn’t otherwise. You just might learn something.