There is a difference between message-driven fiction, and fiction that leads readers to discover a message. One drives and the other…well…leads. Which would you prefer: having someone stand behind you, poking you with a cattle prod, or having someone stand in front of you, holding out a carrot big bowl of ice cream?
Both will get you moving in the right direction, but they aren’t equally good ways to motivate people. The prodding sets up a situation where life becomes unbearable and you have to move forward to get away from the irritant. The ice cream allows you to stay where you are if you really want to, but it offers you a tasty reward if you’ll do a little work.
I, being a mother, see benefits in both of these motivational methods. Sometimes a lazy child will not move no matter how wonderful the reward, so you must needs make his life miserable. As an author, though, I think prodding is never the right way to go. Is a reader going to choose a book that prods him with a lecture or a book that offers him the tasty reward of discovering some great truth for himself?
On Monday, Sarah Sawyer posted Faith in Fantasy: Part 2, in which she discussed the differences between Tolkien and Lewis. Both believed that “fantasy lent itself to the expression of spiritual truth,” Sawyer tells us. But Lewis depicted ”more distinct, overt Christian elements” than Tolkien did.
Then Mike Duran gave us The Problem with “Message-Driven” Fiction, on Tuesday.
So this stuff—the “message in fiction” deal—is once again on my mind, and I thought I’d post on it, because this is important for Christian writers but it’s also important for children’s writers.
Children’s writers, like Christian writers, seem to fall into two camps—those that want to put in blatant messages and those that don’t think we should ever deliver answers, rather we should only ask questions and let the readers find their own answers.
I have discussed Katherine Paterson’s excellent mode of preaching in fiction at length here and here. In that second post—Lessons (L)earned—the point I made six years ago is one I still believe. We can push any agenda as long as the answers are “earned” by the characters, rather than given to them by a heavy-handed author.
The problem with “message-driven” fiction is not that there is a message. Fiction needs a message unless you are trying to write mindless drivel that is on the shelf and off again in two weeks. Message is fine. The problem comes when the message drives the characters rather than letting the characters find it and decide to follow it of their own free will.
In my comment on Sarah’s site, I said:
Preaching is OK with me if it’s done well. I think if you want to preach, the characters must be looking for answers and finding those answers as the result of much labor and hardship on their part. Then when they grasp the truth the reader grasps it with them and it all feels earned. It feels like the prize at the end of a tough race.
What happens in too many Christian books, unfortunately, is that we have one surly, angry-at-God character and someone lectures him on how he needs to be saved by the blood of Christ and low and behold the surly character sees the light and is saved. Hallelujah, Amen! That kind of story doesn’t allow the reader to participate with the character in his struggle and growth.
This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in children’s books too much, because the overtly didactic books aren’t published. But if you’ve read many self-pubbed chidlren’s books or done much critiquing, you’ll know that this is a huge temptation for those who want to write and publish children’s books. Based on the manuscripts I’ve read over the years, I’d guess that for many of us, our first inclination is to write books in which an adult, or a know-it-all child tells the hero what he needs to learn.
That’s no good.
Don’t do that.
What do you think? How can we lead readers to discover the lessons we want them to learn, without making them feel like we’re jolting them with a cattle prod to make them go a certain direction?