There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and it often seems overwhelming. Escapist fiction can give readers a break, but it can also feel too flippant for the moment. We want to read and write books that balance the heavy themes of this point in history with a strong, engrossing story that takes readers out of their own angst for a while.
Maybe you’re writing a novel—a modern Jane Austen story, let’s say, or a lost-in-the-woods thriller or a starting-over tale. But you’re also itching to write about something that’s so important to you, something that others find hard to understand, even if they are empathetic. It could be anything from stuttering to racism, from alcoholism to the loss of species.
Literary novels give us a great platform to enlighten readers without straying from the genre we love. Not only do we get to share our thoughts or experiences about a societal issue not directly related to our storylines, we can actually enhance and humanize our lead characters and write a better novel. Here are five ways to do it.
1. Reveal it in the secondary characters.
You have a great story line planned, with a strong plot that will keep your readers turning the pages. It’s not a book about transgender issues, but you are a transgender man, or your brother is, and you have something to say about that too. And yet, you don’t especially want to tell your own story in this book. So you let your protagonist do it for you by reacting to a friend or a sibling or a nemesis who shows up in the primary storyline.
In The Life We Bury, for example, the main story has a college student named Joe solving a thirty-year-old murder. But he also has a brother with autism. As Joe reluctantly digs into the murder, we get a first-person look at life in a family with serious challenges. Allen Eskens has written a strong mystery, but the narrator’s concurrent family story makes him more real and endears us to more characters, and readers get a little insight into autism along the way.
2. Put it in flashbacks or a subplot.
This is a great way to tell your own story while keeping it fictional; you can disguise it as much as you want.
Jason Mott handles this so well in Hell of a Book (spoiler alert if you haven’t read it, and I highly recommend reading it). The understory about Soot never quite overwhelms the main story of an author on a book tour whose race is never mentioned. The little kid called Soot is clearly Black. Gradually the reader realizes that Soot is imaginary, and eventually you figure it all out on your own.
Flashbacks do need a little special handling to avoid confusing the reader. Using present tense for the main story and past tense for the flashbacks is a straightforward way to do this, if you are used to writing fiction in present tense. But there are many good ways to handle flashbacks in the more common style where the main story is in past tense.
3. Write a surprise ending.
That awesome main character that you’ve made every reader love and identify with? Let it out at the end that she practices Islam, or is recovering from addiction, or has a felony conviction. Just be sure the rest of the story doesn’t make this plot twist impossible or even improbable. And you’ll annoy the reader if you reveal a whole surprising history in the last few pages. You just want the quick punch that is totally believable, but shakes up the reader’s initial assumption about your protagonist.
This technique can thrill readers who didn’t see it coming, and it can make the ending truly memorable, as all endings should be—as long as you didn’t mislead them for the sake of the twist.
4. Hit it full on
It’s fine to make your heartfelt issue the big story, even the only story. Just keep the whole story engaging.
Alison McGhee’s Never Coming Back is all about a woman with Alzheimer’s. But the woman’s daughter has a fascinating job, quirky friends, and a potential romantic involvement that keeps the reader turning the pages and reading every word. Readers get a lot of insight into one person’s journey through Alzheimer’s, but sadness is balanced with amusement in the secondary plot lines.
5. Look for a different point of view.
Let’s say you have something to say about bullying. Often, the bully is portrayed as a secondary character shown from the protagonist’s point of view. An alternative way to shed light on this issue might be to get inside the head of the bully and show the reader what makes this bully tick and what defuses the bullying. The bully could be the main character but could also be a very effective secondary character watching and/or intersecting the main story line.
One effective technique for creating two points of view is to write alternate chapters from different points of view. This can be tricky though, and it can annoy readers if it’s not perfectly clear. Writing with distinct voices is key, and it also helps to title the chapter with the character’s name and include it in the page headings.
You can write your usual genre, in your usual style, and even in a series that’s already under way and still take on topics that are close to your heart. You don’t even need to change up your usual characters. You have lots of options for working on important issues, as strongly or as subtly as you like. Get the reader engaged with the overall story and then work on the social issue in a way that enhances your novel.
One last word of advice: If your story takes you outside of your own experience, consider paying for a sensitivity read. Feeling strongly about LGBTQ rights is very different from writing a story about a lesbian couple if you are not lesbian yourself. A sensitivity reader can save you from an honest mistake and also help you enhance the message you are trying to convey and improve the story overall.
Ellen Barker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and had a front-row seat to the demographic shifts, the hope, and the turmoil of the civil rights era of the 1960s. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Washington University in Saint Louis, where she developed a passion for how cities work, and don’t. She began her career as an urban planner in Saint Louis and then spent many years working for large consulting firms specializing in urban infrastructure, first as a tech writer-editor and later managing large data systems. She now lives in Northern California with her husband and their dog Boris, who is the inspiration for the German Shepherd in East of Troost. You can find her on her website.