A story is more than just a sequence of events. Through character conflict and conflicts of value, stories are a reflection of how a person should lead their lives. Stories have the potential to make us realize how we can overcome our own flaws, live better lives and prevent misery and suffering. However, when we write stories that carry a moral argument, we run the risk of coming off as preachy.
Writing becomes preachy when the delivery of a theme is too overt to the reader. It gives the impression that a character becomes the voice of the writer to literally tell the reader what conclusion they should reach from a scene or a story. You don’t want your writing to come off as preachy because it takes them away from the story. Instead of feeling impacted by the insight or perspective your story presents, they feel bothered, awkward, scolded like they’re being preached at.
If you wish to prevent preachy writing while writing a story with heavy themes, here’s what you can do: Define the Conflict of Values:
Stories tend to be a conflict between two or more forces. These forces are represented by the hero of your story and their opponents. If you don’t make a good case for any of the sides, you’ll run the risk of coming off as preachy. You can prevent this by clearly defining the values each side holds and making sure each value is not an intellectual misrepresentation of an actual stance.
For example, if your villain is a greedy businessman that mistreats his workers for profit, you might claim that he values greed. If you would want to prevent preachy writing, I’d advise you to write them valuing efficiency instead. If you were to write him valuing efficiency, you would have a different character and approach than if you were to write him valuing greed and money.
On the other hand, let’s say the hero values empathy. Then and there you have two opposing forces: efficiency and empathy. This is the main conflict of values. When you sit down with these characters, you need to make the best case possible for these two values. Once you accomplish this, you’re well on your way to writing a thought-provoking story.
If instead, you write the villain as evil and one dimensional, greedy businessman, it will come off to the reader as if you have an agenda against businessmen and have summed it up as “evil” and “greedy”.
Be careful with social issues:
Your writing can become preachy if your story revolves around a social issue. Instead of focusing the story on a social issue, look deep into that social issue and find what values are at stake. Then write your story on the basis of that conflict of values.
For example, if you’re writing a story on how the death penalty is wrong, you could instead have the story be about how every life should be valued because every life deserves a chance to be redeemable. However, you need to remember to give the opposition a good case in your story. Instead of writing your villains to be bloodthirsty wardens, have them view the death penalty as justice’s ultimate stand in eradicating irredeemable criminals. Just like that, your story’s conflict of values becomes one of justice vs. redemption.
(SPOILERS ahead for The Green Mile(1999))
In The Green Mile (a novel by Stephen King, screenplay by Frank Darabont), we witness an innocent man who has been sentenced to death. To say this story is all about the death penalty would be an understatement. The story is about duty and faith; it’s about justice in the face of an imperfect system of law; it’s about the power of kindness in a cruel world and so much more. This is to say that The Green Mile revolves around the characters and their conflict of values, not the death penalty. The main character’s death sentence is only one element of the story that aggravates the situation. If you want to give your audience a new perspective on a social issue, the worst thing you can do is have the story completely revolve around the issue.
Show, Don’t Tell:
NEVER have a character literally say what the audience should take from a scene. If you find yourself writing this, consider showing what the audience should learn by having the character solve a dilemma by making a choice. When a character is faced with a dilemma and receives information that motivates them to act, the audience ends up understanding what the character has learned without us writers having to explicitly tell them.
For maximum impact, have the characters figure out this information on their own. Then, make sure this information is strong enough that it even motivates your character to act against their core values.
For example, in Vince Gilligan’s series Breaking Bad (SPOILERS FOR S1 E6), the scriptwriter had to let Walter White come to the self-realization that he has entered the world of drugs and cartels, where he will have to kill or be killed. The writer could have had Walter repeat to himself “kill or be killed” to motivate himself into killing their hostage Krazy 8. However, instead of telling us, Breaking Bad’s writer, shows us: