Thursday, June 4, 2009

How to convey a point of view without being preachy

Elizabeth Zelvin

In my panel on "Tackling Social Issues" at the recent Malice Domestic, every one of us considered avoiding preachiness an essential requirement for putting across a point of view on a serious social issue. The authors—Pari Noskin Taichert, Clea Simon, Marion Moore Hill, and I—represented a broad range of serious themes, including bigotry of various kinds, the environment, addictions, and the treatment of feral animals, the last more controversial than I’d realized. One aspect of the topic that came out in the panel, about which I’ve been thinking ever since, is the variety of ways that authors sneak their point of view into their mysteries.

The most popular way to avoid preachiness is revision. Several of us cited the need to rewrite and delete heavy-handed passages about our pet peeves and hobby horses. The uninhibited first draft of my mystery series, with its focus on recovery from alcoholism, other addictions, and codependency, also includes far more explanation of the mores of twelve-step programs than anyone will want to read.

As I’ve become a more experienced writer, I’ve become more willing to slash, slash, slash. Ever since a powerful workshop in 2006, I’ve found the offending passages leap out at me when I reread the first draft. And when I review each revision, even more cuttable preaching pops up. Most recently, I’ve realized there is more to why these passages must go than simply to avoid irritating the reader. Preachiness is the enemy of pace. When my protagonist Bruce muses about AA, it stops the action. I have to find ways to make the AA principles serve the action, build character, and advance the story.

My point of view is that alcoholism is a disease and recovery is transformative. But Bruce would be unbearable if he constantly plugged that point of view. Instead, I’ve given him a sardonic ambivalence that is much more palatable to the reader. Bruce’s mixed feelings about recovery create internal conflict, one of the key elements in building a fictional character, while they also get the point across. A T-shirt expressing Bruce’s attitude toward recovery might say: “Gimme a break!” He is constantly rolling his eyes over some AA platitude—and then experiencing its inner truth.

My sidekick character Barbara carries another theme that is important to me, that of codependency. Barbara is addicted to rescue and control and to minding everybody’s business out of an excessive desire to help. Having gone to Al-Anon for many years, Barbara is not at all ambivalent about the point of view that becoming overinvolved with or even giving advice to others is a way of distracting herself from her responsibility to manage her own life. She knows that fretting over what other people think undermines her self-esteem, that she can’t “fix” anybody but herself, and that she can’t blame others for her feelings or choices.

If Barbara had all the virtues she’s striving toward, she’d be insufferable. So I’ve made her a chronic backslider. She is constantly being derailed by nosiness, embarrassment, and a desire to run the lives of others. Her T-shirt would say: “Oops!”

One way for the author to gain some distance from the character who represents an issue is to put that character in third person rather than first. That’s what happened with Barbara. Originally, she was a co-protagonist rather than a sidekick and alternated first person chapters with Bruce. Bruce’s voice was sardonic and clever, with a lot of heart hidden under the bravado of the newly sober alcoholic. Barbara was self-conscious and digressive and, yes, preachy, no matter how much I revised the manuscript. In retrospect, I suspect she was too much like me. I was too invested in her point of view, and the result was alienating to readers.

Demoting her to sidekick and putting her few point of view chapters in the third person made her much more palatable and more successful as a character. Reader reactions to Barbara vary: some find her endearing, some hilarious, some inspiring, and some annoying. But they don’t forget her, and I think they come away knowing more about codependency and why codependents need recovery.

My fellow panelists suggested a few more techniques for avoiding preachiness. We all agreed that “show, don’t tell” served not only the roundedness of characters but also the integration of serious themes.

Someone said it helped to give the villain a point or two rather than making him or her completely bad and wrong. That made me realize that, unlike some authors, I don’t bestow my point of view and its opposite directly in my characters. Many writers do, pitting good environmentalists against evil developers or good feminists against evil polygamists. It’s good technique to present flawed good guys and let the reader empathize a bit with bad guys.

But I don’t create drunks as foils for my sober characters in Death Will Get You Sober. Several characters, including Bruce, carry the theme of addictive relationships in in Death Will Help You Leave Him.While Bruce’s sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy do have a good relationship, I don’t set them up as role models. Maybe what saves the character-driven mystery from turning into a sermon is simply: Nobody’s perfect!


Sheila Connolly said...

I think you've got the right strategy: first draft, put it all in; first edit, take half of it out.

Sometimes it's convenient to have the controversial or dogmatic opinions expressed by a secondary character, and your protagonist can react (wouldn't work in your case).

But I hope no one tries to tell us that personal opinions or causes have no place in our writing!

Pen N. Hand said...

I'm learning that anything that isn't integrated into the story including "the inventory" stops the action. Seasoned readers skip it and novices put the title aside to find another book.
The panel was correct, editing and rewriting are the master tools. It is difficult for an author as we tend to take what we have to say seriously.
The thing to do is let the work cool off. Then pretend someone else wrote it and work the delete key like mad, or have a trusted support group with the courage to say, "Oh, come on!"
Readers tend to pay attention to an issue when the mental references are sparse, but a personal stance/belief influences the action of the character.
Nash Black (Irene)

Sandra Parshall said...

I think Bruce's ambivalence is realistic and makes him real. Most recovering addicts would probably love to practice their addiction if they could do it without any negative consequences. They get something from it that they don't get anywhere else, so when they decide to stop indulging their addictions they do feel deprived of something vitally important to them. Ordinary life may seem flat and dull. That kind of struggle is what makes any character interesting.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Sandy. The same is true of relationship addiction, the theme of my second book. If you're used to high drama in your love life (along with negatives like infidelity, abuse, and unavailability), a healthy relationship with a good person who cares about you may seem boring. What a dilemma!

Mark Zamen said...

Yes, being "preachy" when conveying your message(s) is a sure turn-off for most readers. I specifically avoided doing so in my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay, bipolar man and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance and stability. You can learn more about the book at

Mark Zamen, author