Stories can do a lot of things. We use them often to entertain others, sometimes to elevate mood, but sometimes we use them to teach and transform.
Indeed, if a story is merely entertaining, if it doesn’t have some deeper meaning, then I often feel that it is a bit lightweight. When judging stories for publication, if I have a story that merely entertains and seems devoid of any deeper connotations, it can pale in comparison to something that touches upon matters that are more profound and universal.
Some authors will immediately object to the idea that we should use stories to teach, saying, “I’m not trying to write didactic literature!” First, let me say that making observations about life and the human condition is not necessarily the same as being didactic. You can be wise without overemphasizing your observations. People who are didactic often wield their words like clubs, and go about beating their fans with them. They’re notorious also for being highly opinionated and not really examining all sides of an argument.
People who claim that they don’t want to teach through their literature may actually be honest, but they will fail in that endeavor. You see, everything that we write teaches something. As writers, each of us have our own values, and our values come out through our own writing on a subconscious level.
Every time that I hear a writer say, “I don’t want to be didactic,” I’m reminded of a statement by one editor who put it this way, “The subtext of every novel is ‘How to be more like me.’”
The truth is that all of us feel as if our insights and life experiences have taught us something, and the lessons we have learned from life are worth sharing. And while transforming others might not be an intended effect of what you are writing, our insights and values do have an effect.
When you read a novel and are transported into another world, you are carried on a vicarious journey into the author’s fictive universe, and the act of reading changes you. For example, as I was reading The Lord of the Rings growing up, I recall having to stop to catch my breath when the Nine Riders were chasing Frodo. Now, no one was chasing me, but my body responded to the tale at an emotional level. I recall pondering Gandalf’s compassionate words to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Tolkien’s ideals informed me on a very deep level, became a part of my psyche—and in that way made more more like Tolkien himself, so that I share some of his values . . . along with millions of his other fans.
There are some writers who believe of course that we should be actively struggling to change the world through our writing. Heck, I admit it. I want the world to be better. But our missionary zeal can be carried too far. As I was once giving a lecture on the importance of entertaining readers, one young author became quite angry and said loudly, “The purpose of storytelling should be the transmission of culture.” I was rather startled that such a new author would see this as an ideal. I don’t recall that any student had ever challenged my assumptions like that, and I really have to say that I respected both her passion and her intellect. So I suggested, “Even if that is your aim, you can’t transmit your culture to an audience who isn’t first entertained.” She must have taken the lesson to heart. She went out and sold millions of books thereafter.
So, I’m going to write a few articles on how to transform your audience, but please bear in mind that I do so with caution. There is nothing wrong with trying to make the world a better place through your art, but I feel that as an artist, I have a strong responsibility to really first consider the values that I advocate.
A value can be popular and still be dangerous and foolish and evil, as Adolf Hitler showed.
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