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Author Topic: When does a story become PREACHY?
Member # 3622

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In a short story I'm writing, there is going to be a strong religious tone. The MC is in an unusual cirmucstance, and responds by leaning on her belief system and acting approproately, i.e. becoming somewhat of a missionary. In her efforts, she will be talking to others that have no belief system, so I think some "preaching" will be necessary to the story.

My main worry is that only people that are members of the church whose belief system I'm emulating will understand what's going on. There will be plenty of opportunity during the story to explain things, but that is where I'm afraid of getting TOO preachy.

I should probably specify that my definitiion of "preachy" is a negative one. It brings to my mind overzealous, hellfire and brimstone, mean-spirited hatemongers whom take pleasure in pointing out everyone's sins and damning them to hell.

My character will be acting with love and concern, but there will probably be a lot of religious discussion, and I fear that will get to be too much. I guess my question is, can I get away with it, if it helps to clarify the MC's beliefs, and her motivation for doing what she's doing?

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Member # 3673

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Who is your target audience? People with the same belief system or general readership? Maybe someone on the board with a different belief system could read through it for you and give an opinion.


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Member # 1738

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Parable of the Talents was pretty preachy. But it was kind of about preachers, so what are you going to do?
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Member # 2109

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Write it first, then worry about it. Your readers will find the overly preachy sections for you.
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Member # 2267

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Here are some ways it can go.

* She's preachy, and it's clear you don't think she should be. If you let all those explanations be in her thoughts, this is doable.
* She's preachy, and so are you. More of a risk if you do omni, I think.
* She isn't preachy. You can make her talk in terms of "I believe" rather than "You should," and that goes a long way.

If you have the time, check out Out of the Salt Shaker, by Becky Pippert. (You can get it at Amazon for 1 penny, last I looked. Seriously.) She's writing about evangelism, and she wants people to do it, and she doesn't sound preachy at all. She sounds personal. Her stories also show her being open, generous, etc., rather than pushy. I liked the one in which one of her nonbeliever friends said, "Becky, you're getting so stressed. God's working you too hard! You need to tell him to give you a break!"

I see the problem, though. I deal with it in yet another way: I try to make sure that my POV characters don't share my religion or political stance (whichever's relevant). OSC talks about this. He says he tries to make sure that if someone's a mouthpiece for his views, that someone is an idiot. I don't know if I believe him -- Lost Boys.

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Aust Alien
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The biggest turn-off for me in a preachy story (whether it's religion, politics, social justice, relationships) is if the MC or worse still the author puts something forward as an implied "of course".
Eg it is not credible to simply say, "we based our community on those St Luke described in Acts so we alway had plenty to eat" (could similarly be Buddhism, Islam, any religion) unless it's some sort of deliberate irony. But if you show how this is possible. I had this problem with Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series. Because they all had politically correct ideas, good intentions and were fighting "evil multi-national corporations" there was enough food and everyone was happy to abide by the majority vote. Somehow people had enough food even though nobody had to do the dull work of growing it. He he just preached his political ideas without any concept of how they would work in practice. The same works with religious ideas.
St Francis is credited with the saying "Preach the gospel constantly. If necessary use words." So if you can show this is more effective than telling.

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Member # 3622

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Y'all have been more helpful than you know. I like the suggestions and I think I see how to do this the right way. I was trying to reach a general audience, but I think that folks of one particular religion will find it less unusual than other folks. I sincerely hope it will be good. From what a couple of people have said, the first page has given them the "unsettled" feeling, or the heebie jeebies, so I think that is a good sign!
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If your main character is a preacher and is the one doing the preaching, then you have some leeway. If it is written well, it will come across as if the CHARACTER is preachy rather than the STORY and that is a huge distinction.

On the other hand, your story had better have something more to offer than preachy character or it will only be a reflection of the character's beliefs and attitudes -- thereby making it preachy as well. There needs to be a bigger theme.

On the other hand, countless religious works sell and sell big as preachy inspirational books to the great religious masses of this country. So it can be preachy and still sell.

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I think ultimately you need to look at your own motive for writing. Are you only writing this story because you want to convince readers that this belief system is really the best? Then it will be preachy, and nothing about how you present it can make it anything else.

Of course, I don't think that there's anything wrong with being preachy, as long as that's what you're trying to do.

On the other hand, if you're just interested in helping the audience understand the belief system of your protagonist, that isn't preachy at all, and anyone who says it is deserves to be roundly ignored.

I think you're probably interested in both, with probably a slight bias towards explaining rather than evangelizing. Still, the preaching angle is still going to be there. All you can do is make the preaching as effective as you can. Don't just assume that the beliefs you present are the best, go ahead and show us plausible reasons to believe they're as good as you feel they are. Don't try to hide what you think either, just show us that your thinking is rational.

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Robert Nowall
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When does a story become preachy? The first time the writer writes something you disagree with...
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Member # 3622

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Awesome feedback, y'all! Thanks a million!
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There are basically two authors I can think of that were "preachy" in a bad way, and they are something of opposites -- and not just politically.

The first bad way to be preachy is to let it consume your story. Don't let your characters go on and on in endless monologues, that's really boring. (Atlas Shrugged does this, and while I've talked about why Atlas Shrugged worked as a book before, this is why it doesn't. It would have been a much better book with some editing.)

The second bad way to be preachy is to have horribly stereotyped bad guys. The preachiest part in Threepenny Opera was when the rich guys (bankers? I think) sit down and say "It is a good thing that the poor don't realize that we need them and they don't need us! Let us toast to ignorance and eat the poor man's bread!" It's a bit difficult to get anyone whose politics are to the right of Stalin to actually buy that dialogue.

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franc li
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I just saw on imdb that Angelina Jolie has been cast as Dagny Taggart in a film of Atlas Shrugged due out in 2008 or something. For the first time in my life I'm hoping the Rapture happens in the next 18 months.
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Sara Genge
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Hmm interesting dilema.
I just read a story that annoyed me because the MC was patronizing women. If I could have just believed for a second that the author didn't belive this MC to be a hero, I would have swallowed the pill as a necessary defect because of the MC's background. However, I felt the author was rooting with the MC, and I distrusted them both.
Just an idea. If you can show that it's your character that's preachy and not you, that could help. Look up "Message from Fred" in Turkey City Lexicon. In general, it is a mistake writers should avoid making, but having other characters talk about how preachy your MC is, would give the impression that _you_ don't approve of that behaviour.

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Member # 1563

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Remember that one reason that "preachiness" is so offensive is that the preacher is basically saying, "I'm smarter/more knowledgeable/holier than you," often times because "I have more/better/more blessed faith than you." People don't like to be told that someone else is better than they are, especially if that other person initiates the conversation!

If someone asks your MC about her faith, then that comes across as an explanation. If the MC starts talking about her faith, that's preachiness. So one way to prevent preachiness is to have a neophyte asks questions. But make absolutely sure those questions are vital to the plot, or else you are just pulling a fast one on your reader. And believe me, they'll know!

[This message has been edited by AndrewR (edited September 15, 2006).]

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Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged? Yikes. What are they thinking? That's almost as bad as James Brolin as President Reagan.
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Robert Nowall
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Googling "Angelina Jolie" and "Atlas Shrugged" produced over fifty-six thousand hits, along with the information that Lionsgate acquired the movie rights to the book recently.

Couldn't get into Ayn Rand when I was a kid...I'm older now and maybe should make another try---not that I'm terribly drawn to the philosophy as I've heard it expressed elsewhere...

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One of the ways to smooth out the "preachy-ness" of your story is to show the MC has a valid rationale for being preachy.

I, in my real life, do not ascribe to fundamentalist Christian doctrine. For years I was annoyed and irritated by people who did. Then I had a chance to have an honest talk with a co-worker, someone who DID follow a fundamentalist path. He told me of his previous life, and the horrors of drug use and such he went through. When he became "saved" he found the strength to clean up his life, and since then has followed a fundamentalist doctrine.

While I don't agree with his interpretation of certain events, I can empathize with his reasoning. In his mind, he sees himself as walking a razor's edge, one false misstep and he will fall back into darkness. I was able to view his belief system in a new light. While I don't share it, I recognize that it brings him comfort.

In other words, if you give your MC a logical rationale for her behavior, she will seem more of a 3D character rather than a device you are using to preach your own belief system.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited September 17, 2006).]

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