Everyone Loves a Good Sermon

Take Away His Microphone)

There is a criticism levied against stories for being “too preachy.” The tale has some moral that it wishes to expound upon, but people are being put-off by how the principle is being hammered in.

One could argue that the aversion to preachy stories is the result of a world that is becoming more secular, but I think that would be an oversimplification.

For one thing, stories are criticized for being “too preachy” even when there is no religious or spiritual aspect involved. A story can be “too preachy” for how it advocates a certain diet, or political bias, or social philosophy. Furthermore, film and literature award ceremonies still favor works that make bold commentary on the state of the world and “preach” the way to a better future. And thirdly, audiences will still call a story “too preachy,” even when it is moralizing on matters that they wholeheartedly agree with. I know. I’m a devout Christian, but even I roll my eyes at the heavy-handed manner of some spiritual media!

It Wasn’t Always This Way)

That isn’t to say that society hasn’t shifted, though. Read a Charles Dickens Novel, or one of the Little Women books, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and see how these stories are absolutely dripping with “preachiness.” The authors even break the fourth wall mid-sermon with a line like “and thus you see, reader…” just to make sure you aren’t missing the point!

Back then it was more accepted and expected for a writer to also be an unofficial pastor, writing stories for more than just trivial entertainment, but to better mankind everywhere. But while these books are still beloved classics, some of their techniques would be a tougher sell for a new author today.

As I mentioned before, we do still value stories that make a point, but we now prefer to have it seamlessly integrated within the narrative. We want to learn our lessons by seeing natural consequences, we want to have characters reprove other characters, but we don’t want to have the author tell us what we are supposed to think and feel about it. And frankly, if they do their part well, they won’t have to.

Literary Lessons)

Consider the moving story of Good Will Hunting, where a mathematical prodigy is thrust towards the limelight while still weighed down by unresolved emotional baggage. The film has arguments to make about how quality of character is more important than fame gained, how no life is a waste that achieves the former, but not every life is of value that achieves the latter. But these ideas are wisely integrated into the characters’ conversations with each other, rather than beaten over the heads of the audience.

Or what about the example of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. This play is about moral convictions, and so naturally there are a number of conversations on that subject. But as with Good Will Hunting, that dialogue doesn’t feel forced, as it is what the central drama is really all about. Also, more important than any line of dialogue is the depiction of Thomas More standing by his morals all the way to his own beheading. In those final moments are the story’s most powerful words, which are never spoken but clearly heard.

Another excellent example is the film I Can Only Imagine. This is a story with a clear, proselyting mission, yet it also benefits from moving its lessons into the subtext of the characters and their experiences. The film speaks of an abusive father and a wounded son, and the Christ-centered healing that takes place within them. But as with Good Will Hunting and A Man for All Seasons, all of these ideas are conveyed entirely in character dialogue that feels natural and contextual. Thus, it treats the audience as being mature enough to understand and apply personally.

My Bungle)

I’ve had a few life philosophies to share in my latest short story as well. I even mentioned how I had been caught by surprise by some of them when they showed up on the page, but I was then happy to have them in there.

But then in my last chapter I almost made the mistake of trying to force in other ideas that didn’t fit the context of the narrative. As Tammath begs for his old village to be restored I have King Taq’ii suggest that Tammath does not know whether the restoration of the village would ultimately be a force for good or evil in the world. Maybe their descendants would go on to do horrible things.

I then had Tammath push back at this, saying that man was not meant to know what unintended consequences might follow his actions, all he could concern himself with was what his conscience felt was right in the moment.

And this whole conversation just felt awkward and out of place. As I considered why, I identified two reasons.

The first was that I didn’t know if I even believed it. Tammath’s philosophy might be good from a mortal perspective, but he is speaking to an immortal who can see both past and future. The more I wondered if the same rules applied to such a being, the less certain I became.

And the second issue was that it really didn’t make sense why King Taq’ii was raising the issue in the first place. I knew it wasn’t going to be a factor in the story’s outcome, so it was only here to give Tammath a pedestal to preach to the audience from. And that was wall-breaking, cringe-worthy preaching. So, I cut it out.

I replaced that sequence with Tammath instead being asked to recall the souls that once lived in his old hamlet. That segment is feeling far more genuine and poignant to me. It might even have a more nuanced lesson or two to convey.

In conclusion, yes, I went astray, but I learned my lesson, and I hope you’ve learned yours, too.

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