We often write stories because we have something we want to say to our readers. How we convey those ideas–essentially, our literary themes –can be tricky. For example, let’s say you’ve written a YA novel about a girl who’s determined to take control of her life. You’re proud of this story and passionate about its themes, especially the idea of fate versus free will. So, you love how scene after scene features the heroine following signs that she believes will lead her to her destiny and cheerleading other young girls her age to do the same.
Your beta-readers, however, don’t feel the same way. In fact, a couple of them describe the story as “preachy.” And so your first thoughts are, “What does that mean? And how can I revise the story to fix it?”
If you’re already venturing a guess–yes, a story’s preachiness is linked to how the story’s themes are expressed. And yes, it can be fixed through careful revisions. But first, it’s crucial to understand what it means for a story to preach its themes. Then you’ll have a better idea of what mistakes to look for in your manuscript and how to revise those sections so that your themes come across in a more subtle yet powerful way.
What Does It Mean When a Story Is Preachy?
When it comes to literature, “preachy” means that an author’s delivery of a theme is too heavy-handed. This doesn’t mean that the story and its themes are religious (though the word “preachy” does originate from “preach,” and religion can be a theme). Rather, the theme is presented in a forceful or pretentious manner, as if you’re using the plot, characters, and so on as your proverbial soapbox. This approach might feel gratifying as you write. But for readers, it can be enough of a turn-off that they might quit the story.
Of course, not everyone agrees on whether a story preaches its themes. Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia–these and other novels are adored by many readers but have been criticized by others for advocating certain themes too strongly. But when a story polarizes its audience to this degree, it’s an indication that the author may have been too enthusiastic or aggressive in sharing their ideas.
The key to approaching theme is that it should express the story’s messages with subtle impact. If it’s gently and skillfully woven in, it will become a natural part of the story, just like the plot’s events, the setting, and the characters. It will also resonate longer and more deeply with readers than if it’s hammered over their heads. So, being aware of the pitfalls can work to your benefit. You won’t be able to write stories that everybody will love (and no writer can, really), but you can control how you integrate your themes into your work.
Three Mistakes That Lead to Preachy Themes, and How to Revise Them
So, what can you look for to determine whether your story is preaching its themes? Here are the three most common mistakes, as well as solutions for bringing more subtlety to those themes.
Mistake #1: The Theme Is Presented as a One-Sided Argument
A story can be preachy if there isn’t enough external conflict to explore both sides of a theme. It’s fantastic if the protagonist spends the story becoming the master of her own fate. But what if no one stands in her way, or any characters who do are portrayed as evil? This lack of opposition doesn’t just make your exploration of the theme one-sided. It also strips the story of conflict and demonizes the other character’s perspective–a perspective some readers might actually share. Presenting only your viewpoint on the theme can therefore be a one-two punch: It can result in some readers losing interest in the story and others feeling alienated.
Solution: Show Both Sides of the Theme Through Opposition and Conflict
We experience conflict with others on a daily basis. So, if stories are meant to reflect real life, then they should contain a healthy amount of external conflict. This means that, as the author, you must be open to playing devil’s advocate with your themes.
Ruta Sepetys does this masterfully in her World War II YA novel Salt to the Sea by using Alfred Frick, a young German soldier, as one of her viewpoint characters. Alfred is egocentric, bigoted, and difficult (though not impossible) to sympathize with. However, his chapters reveal crucial information about the circumstances of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff as well as a unique perspective on the themes of fear, family, and compassion. By giving the opposition a voice and creating natural and necessary conflict between Alfred and the other characters, Sepetys adds layers to her story’s themes that make them richer and more poignant.
Not sure how to use conflict and opposition to explore theme? Maybe these questions can help:
- What motivations, beliefs, or morals does the antagonist have that clash with the protagonist’s? How does this fuel their conflict during the story?
- What disagreements take place between the protagonist and any supporting characters, or two viewpoint characters? How do these conflicts illuminate the story’s themes?
- What other kinds of opposition occur in the story? Which themes do they touch on, and how?
Mistake #2: The Story Lacks an Inner Thematic Struggle (a.k.a. Internal Conflict)
Like plot and character arcs, theme sheds light on the protagonist’s internal conflict. This can be portrayed in various ways, from a struggle to save a cherished ideal (e.g., their family, their home, a friend) to a wobbling between conflicting morals. But what happens when this struggle doesn’t happen? If the protagonist gets what she wants too easily or never feels torn or fearful, then…well, the story might not make readers feel invested in the outcome. In other words, they might find it boring–and preachy.
How does a lack of internal conflict force a theme on the audience? It often frames the theme as a clear-cut statement, with no room for ambiguity or questions. This creates a problem similar to Mistake #1, in that only one perspective of a theme is presented. And if the challenges or gray areas of a theme aren’t adequately addressed, then that perspective might also be inaccurate and unrealistic.
Solution: Develop the Internal Conflict, Then Use It as a Source of Theme
The first step is to create a war within the protagonist. Her goals, desires, and fears should be impacted by the plot’s events and her interactions with other characters in ways that send her emotions reeling and prompt her to question her decisions. Once the inner struggle is present, you’ll discover which themes you can draw upon, since the themes will tie in with that struggle.
In her best-selling novel The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah delves into the theme of courage through the experiences of two sisters who endure Germany’s invasion of France during World War II. Isabelle embraces her rebellious side and joins the French Resistance, risking her life to run an escape route for downed Allied pilots into neutral Spain. Vianne, on the other hand, constantly belittles herself for her lack of bravery, yet her maternal instincts drive her to save her family and nearly two dozen Jewish children. By giving Vianne and Isabelle related yet unique struggles to overcome, Hannah creates a true exploration of the theme, presenting the many faces of courage in a realistic, nuanced way while making her heroines vulnerable and relatable.
If you’re looking to mine themes out of the protagonist’s internal conflict, consider these questions:
- What are the protagonist’s goals and dreams? Beliefs and desires? Fears great and small? If your story has multiple viewpoints, determine these and other motivations for all of those characters.
- As the protagonist(s) journeys through the story, how do the plot’s events or her interactions with other characters affect her motivations? What conflict(s) does this create within her? What themes arise as a result?
Mistake #3: The Theme Is “Told” and Not “Shown”
Yes, the “show don’t tell” advice applies to theme. In such cases, writers “tell” a theme by relying on dialogue and exposition over plot and action. Characters might repeatedly discuss, give advice on, or tell stories (including internal monologues) that underscore a particular theme, but the story’s events do little to demonstrate it. The problem here doesn’t lie in the use of dialogue and exposition, though. Many of literature’s most memorable and beloved quotes are rooted in theme. Rather, the problem is the overuse of dialogue and exposition.
Think back on the last book you read where the characters talked or thought about a theme at length, but the plot didn’t illustrate that theme very well. Did you become annoyed or lose interest because it seemed like the author was telling you what to think? This is what happens when a story preaches its themes through “telling.” It tries to persuade the reader to accept the presented theme without showing much evidence in support–and most of the time, it frustrates readers instead.
Solution: Illustrate the Theme in Action, with Related Dialogue Interspersed
Showing themes allows you to offer the supporting evidence that’s missing when telling themes. It requires careful crafting of plot events, character actions, and symbolism so that the underlying ideas are communicated subtly. You can still use dialogue to convey theme as well. The key is to balance dialogue with concrete examples to avoid forcing themes on your readers. It might also help to think of a reader not as a listener, but as a witness looking over the protagonist’s shoulder, experiencing the story firsthand as it unfolds.
Suzanne Collins uses this technique throughout her YA blockbuster The Hunger Games, particularly with the theme of power. As readers follow Katniss, they witness how the Capitol maintains control over Panem’s citizens not just through the violent, live-televised Games, but also through enslaving traitors and hoarding wealth that results in food rations, lack of resources, and starvation in the districts. They also learn how the people of Panem resist the Capitol, from the symbolic three-fingered salute that characters give one another to Katniss wreathing the body of a fallen Games ally with flowers. In this way, Collins doesn’t simply tell how a government abuses its power and how the people in its grip band together and rebel. She truly brings the theme to life by letting readers experience it, which allows the theme to sink in slowly and resonate more deeply.
So, how can you show your story’s themes instead of only telling them? Start with these questions:
- How could the inciting incident, the climax, and other plot points illustrate the theme? What does the protagonist observe during these scenes that contribute to this?
- What actions and behaviors, either by the protagonist or other characters, illustrate the theme in action? How?
- What symbol(s) are used in the story? At what point in the story is it introduced? When and how frequently does it reappear? How does this symbol reflect one of the story’s themes?
Have you read any novels that, in your opinion, were preaching their themes? Did you ever revise one of your own stories to make your delivery of a particular theme more subtle? What other thoughts or tips would you like to share?
Sara Letourneau is a speculative fiction writer and poet in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is currently brainstorming / world-building two very different story stories. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry is forthcoming in Canary; and has previously appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.