Being a Better Writer: You Don’t Have to Teach, But You Can

Hello readers! Welcome back after another weekend! I hope yours went well and gave you plenty of time to relax and engage in some fun activity. Like reading! Few things beat a Sunday afternoon with a book.

70081760_568294170598543_7425837595373862912_oNow, before we hop into today’s post, the usual quick news. First, a reminder that A Dragon and Her Girl is now out! Twenty stories of heroines and dragons, including one by yours truly! The early reviews have started to roll in for this one, and they’re pretty positive. If dragons or heroines are the kind of thing you’re interested in, then you should give this one a look!

Additionally—and there will be a full post on this Wednesday, but I’m mentioning it today—submissions are now open for the fourth LTUE benefit anthology (the series of which A Dragon and Her Girl is the second entry). The prompt this time? A parliment of wizards. Sci-Fi or fantasy. 17,500 words or less.

I’ll do a full post on this one later this week, but if you wanted to get your brain buzzing in advance and start thinking of your submissions, there’s the prompt.

And yes, I do have a story for it I’ll be starting as soon as episode two of Fireteam Freelance is finished. No name yet, but the plot is (mostly) figured out! It’s gonna be fun!

Second, the plan is to have Blackout, episode two of Fireteam Freelance, drop this Saturday morning. If you’ve been keeping up with Freelance thus far, then, be ready for this weekend!

All right, that’s all the news. Let’s get down to business. Let’s talk about today’s topic, starting with that title: You Don’t Have to Teach, But You Can. What on earth does that mean?

Well, this one came from some of the discussion I’ve seen in writing groups online, as well as interviews with young authors, where a common thread came up between both parties. For the writing groups, it was asking “how” and often holding off writing or working on something until they had what they were looking for. And in the case of young YA authors, it was them often mentioning in interviews that they only wrote the story, or wrote the story because, they had “it.”

What is “it?” Well, pretty straightforward. “It” was “something they could teach their audience about.”

This appears to be a real concern these days for a lot of authors. Hence the first group I mentioned, the online writing groups, talking about how they were “holding off.” I have seen posts from these young would-be writers saying that they have an idea for a story, and they have the characters and plot fleshed out … but they haven’t written it yet because there’s not a message or lesson to “teach” their audience.

Similar with a lot of the interviews with young authors, especially YA, that I see these days. They want to talk about the “message” of their book, rather than the characters or the setting or how much fun it was to write. They talk about how they wrote the book to drive home a point or an idea, and that was the cause of their book.

And … we’ve talked about this kind of thing before (Theme VS Message), in a way. With Theme VS Message, we’ve talked about what the difference is. So yes, this may be a bit of a retread. But the prevalence of writers talking about holding back until they can find “their message” made me want to address this from a slightly different angle. Theme and message are different, yes. But you know what else?

Despite the number of voices saying that they “cannot write” without “the message” or talking about it as the only important part of their book, you don’t need one.

That’s it. Plain and simple. You don’t need to have “a message” to write a good story that a lot of people can enjoy (and even learn from, though we’ll get to that in a moment). You can write a perfectly good story that’s just a story about some characters in an adventure or a change in their life, without trying to “teach” the reader something.

Hence the title of today’s post. You don’t have to teach! It’s not a requirement of every work of fiction.

But you can, and often that’s the better way to go about it.

Right, let’s digress for a moment: Who reading this remembers “educational literature” and the like from when you were in public school. Anyone? Show of hands?

Right. Many of us are familiar with this, and the constant struggle, especially in the early 90s, to make this so-called “edutainment” work. Stories that were chock-full of facts, with the goal that the audience came away knowing new things. Some of them worked, like the famous Magic School Bus series, but many others … fell flat.

Why? Because many of them were about the message first, entertainment second. So those that came to learn about the message? Sure, they’d move through it and be fine. But those who wanted to be entertained first and foremost, education on a subject second? They’d often “skip off” of a lot of edutainment because it quite frankly wasn’t that entertaining.

In this way, edutainment was very similar in the kind of people it appealed to soapbox literature (something else we’ve talked about on here before as well). Those who were outright looking to be lectured about a topic would find it and engage in it, but those who were not were put off by the approach and didn’t find anything enjoyable.

Writing with “a message” in mind tends to run into the exact same problem: It appeals to anyone that already wants to read about said message, but if they locus of the story is the message, then those who aren’t interested in it will very likely put it down. A book that’s all about the message runs afoul of the same issues that edutainment does.

Okay, now this doesn’t mean that a book can’t have a message. I’m not saying you’ll see failure if you write a book with a message. After all, these young YA authors talking solely about their message shows that there’s a very willing audience who will pay for that.

What I’m saying is that you don’t, as many of these people I see in forums seem to believe, need to have one. You have a plot, characters, and a general idea of what’s going to happen in your story? Go ahead and write it! You don’t need to wait for some “message” that you can graft into it. You already have a story, and that’s more than enough for an audience! Get to writing it! A story is a story! You don’t need a message.

Now, if you happen to have one, and you want to write about it, well then you can. This isn’t an “only if” or “yes/no” situation. But that goes both ways. You can write a story that’s a fun adventure with a message in it, or you can write a fun adventure without one, and people will read both.

There’s no need to “wait” for a message. If you’ve got your plot and characters, go! Not all stories need to “teach” a reader something. They can just be fun stories!

As the title says, you don’t have to teach. You just can if you want to.

And don’t be fooled, I would argue, by those interviews that focus so much on “the message.” That doesn’t mean that a book won’t sell if it doesn’t have one. It just means that this person was able to sell a book with a message in it.

Additionally, teaching in a story can be a much wider range than ‘the message.” Often books that have no message to them at all still end up being educational in some form or another. Even Science-Fiction and Fantasy. For example, a book that involves the characters riding horses from one place to another can be informative about how horseback riding works if the author does their research. A Science-Fiction novel about space travel and exploration of Saturn’s moons can still be very educational about what Saturn’s moons are like, as well as what sort of orbital mechanics and travel mechanisms we could use to get there.

Granted, a story could just as easily not, depending on the author, but the option is there. Stories can be great ways to get people thinking about what life on a ship is like, for example, or how precariously slippery a grassy hiking path could be in the rain. Or how diplomats handle a crisis.

The ability to teach is there on all these things, but isn’t required for a story to be good. At the end of the day, what matters is that you have a good story, not whether or not you’re including a “message” of some kind. It’s an option, not a requirement. So if you’ve got a plot figured out, and characters, and have just been waiting for “the message,” don’t.

Just get to it, and write your story. You can teach … but you don’t have to.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the support of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, and Lightwind. Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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