Telling the story or preaching from the pulpit?

At the risk of ticking off lots of fellow writers…

I’m beginning to wonder what happened to storytelling — weaving a good tale to entertain people — outside of genre fiction. I’ve been doing a lot more reading of works in progress and published short stories in the past few months, largely thanks to the writers networking on Google+. It seems like among general fiction many writers are trying to express a theme or a message and try to tell a story to fit that theme or message. This might just be me, but those pieces turn me off. They feel self-conscious, as though they’re trying too hard. Instead of getting lost in the characters and story, I hear the message.

Back after the Giffords shooting, screenwriter Jesse Stern had expressed frustration on Twitter about the tone of the national dialogue, and got several people suggesting he use his role as a writer for NCIS to tackle the topic. His response, which I thought was spot-on, was “While I’m all for smuggling meaning, depth of character and complex ideas into entertainment programs, it’s the wrong platform for preaching.”

He’s right on both counts. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy letting my characters wrestle with difficult issues. That’s part of life. But I’ve never set out to do that. Even in Thrown Out, where three of the four stories tackle tough issues, they didn’t start out that way. They started with characters acting true to themselves and running into situations that put them in conflict. Maybe I’m just a genre writer at heart who doesn’t write in a genre.

2 Comments on “Telling the story or preaching from the pulpit?”

  1. My characters are their own people. They aren’t my mouthpieces. That does them no credit if they spout my opinions or if I use them for my agenda. At the same time Jesse (or any other writer) shouldn’t feel the need to have characters tackle an issue just because it is in the news.

    1. Yes and yes. I don’t think he thought they did – at least based on his reaction to the people suggesting he should.

      You read a lot — have you seen much of this trend? Although, to be fair, a lot of the stuff that really drives me nuts is in unpublished pieces or self-published pieces, so this might be a writer thing rather than a publishing thing.

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