We all have issues we care about, and anyone who tells you novels shouldn’t have agendas hasn’t read any lately. But how do we as authors plot issues into our manuscripts without coming off as preachy and one-sided?
Here are five ways to prevent “preachy” from showing up in your future book reviews.
- Present the issue without your character having an agenda: say your genre is mystery, and your issue-du-jour is forest clearcutting. Instead of making your detective an eco-warrior, consider using a clearcut forest as a setting, as the scene of the crime. Your issue is subconsciously in the mind of your reader, with the ominous ambiance of fallen nests, the terrain of stumps and sawdust devoid of the sounds of animal life that once thrived there, but your characters aren’t barking about the unfairness of the ecological crime; they’re focused on the one perpetrated with a bloodied tree chipper.
- Balance the argument externally: If your main character is anti-nuclear facilities, have another character challenge them with the opposing viewpoint in an intelligent way. And do your research for both sides of the argument. Think about it this way: in order for someone to take an educated stance on an issue, they need to understand both sides of the argument. If you only present one side, you’re not giving readers all the information they need to make a decision. And isn’t that what society is crying for? Discussion? Give readers the debate that you think should be taking place in real life.
- Balance the argument internally: either your character is undecided on an issue, or they are firmly on the pro or con side, and we see their character arc to the opposite end of the spectrum. Either way, there is opportunity via the character’s internal monologue to explore the opposing sides of an issue in a balanced way. At the beginning of your novel, if your character is anti-assisted suicide, help the reader to understand why. If the character just thinks it sucks, but then a grandparent develops ALS, and they arc to the pro side, the con argument at the beginning of the story doesn’t balance with the pro argument, which is given more screen time throughout the remainder of the manuscript.
- Turn your issue into a red herring: there’s a pipeline spill in my current manuscript, and when contractors are fixing the problem, they discover a body buried beneath the track of burst pipeline. The assumption is that it’s been there since the pipeline was originally laid years prior. Logically, readers will add the pipeline company (or someone associated with the pipeline company) to their list of suspects, and only when I reveal the actual murderer, do they realize the pipeline company had nothing to do with the crime. See what I did there?
- Make that unlikable character likable for other reasons: in my first novel (the practice one), my YA protagonist was an in-your-face environmentalist. In the original iteration of my first chapter, she wasn’t as likable to as many beta readers as she could have been. The young activisty beta readers wanted to high five her, but others thought she was flawed. I needed all my readers to be rooting for her before I introduced the parts of her personality that were less likable to the majority of readers. This can be accomplished via a “save the cat” moment, or by first portraying the parts of your character’s personality that are easier to empathize with.
This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.
What do you think is a good approach to issue-based fiction writing? Have you tried something that I haven’t thought about yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Chat me up in the comments.