Last month I wrapped up a series of posts looking at the elements of good narrative nonfiction. My last post focused on theme — and one of the points I made then is that authors should avoid being didactic. I want to focus a bit more on that idea here, because it’s something that’s incredibly important not just for narrative nonfiction, but for any kind of story.
When agents and authors ask me what Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is looking for, I always tell them that we’re looking for stories that have substance but aren’t didactic. Stories should have meaning, but not an easy moral. So — how can an author go about creating a story like that?
1. Don’t write a story simply because you want to convince your readers of something.
Unless your goal is to write parables or fables, your message shouldn’t be your motive for writing. This seems pretty basic, but it’s actually a mistake I see very frequently. Writers come up with a thesis (friendship is important, we should all recycle, grandparents are much cooler than you think) and then they create a story around that idea. But the characters and setting and action are all just cheap props in service of the moral — they have no life of their own, no ability to capture the reader’s attention. So before you even begin writing, examine your motives.
2. Instead, write your story to explore character and plot.
Character and plot are the heart of any good story. Readers care about stories because they care about the characters in them, and they read on because they want to know what happens. Only if readers are invested will they care about what the story means. A story’s meaning, then, should grow organically out of its characters’ emotional journey. Just stating a theme doesn’t make it true, and it certainly doesn’t convince the reader. If, however, a story feels deeply true to life, readers won’t need any further convincing.
3. Show the reader the struggle.
Often I find that stories stray into the realm of didacticism when the problem or conflict at the heart of the story is too easily resolved, when an author tries to wrap everything up too easily. Stories are more convincing and compelling when the reader feels that something is truly at stake for a character. Themes are more meaningful when they take into account the complexity of life, rather than boiling things down into a series of convenient clichés.
The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have does this extraordinarily well. Faced with an absent father and a distant mother, Nino dreams of a dog who is the perfect companion. When he gets a real dog, the reality isn’t quite what he’d hoped for — but Nino manages to find comfort in a whole new realm of even grander imagination. Nino’s lonely situation hasn’t been fixed, of course. But there is excitement and hope — with just enough sadness still mixed in so that the story feels realistic and deeply true.
When you write for children (or anyone), try to resist the urge to settle for a neat, tidy ending. The ending should absolutely be satisfying, but satisfying and tidy aren’t the same thing. Real life usually isn’t tidy or neat — and stories don’t always need to be, either.
4. Ask big questions (and don’t feel compelled to give easy answers).
Life is full of complex emotions and hard questions. The best stories are the ones not afraid to tackle these difficult questions in brave and original ways. Take Anna’s Heaven, for instance. In this poignant picture book from Stian Hole, Anna and her father are trying to make sense of her mother’s death. It’s a book that’s full of unanswerable questions and gentle wondering.
“Why can’t he who knows everything, who can pull and push and turn over clouds and waves and planets — why can’t he invent something to turn bad into good?” Anna says.
“God should hang up a mailbox for people to send questions and complaints,” Dad answers.
To offer an easy answer to the questions that Anna and her father ask would cheapen the pain that they feel. But through their journey, and in their companionship with each other, they do find some peace. Rather than offer readers some nicely packaged idea about where we go after death, Anna’s Heaven invites readers to ponder and wonder, to continue asking questions.
Having substance without didacticism can be a difficult thing. It’s understandably tempting to want stories to wrap up neatly, to leave the reader with some helpful message to take away. But avoiding that temptation can allow for stories that have much greater depth and impact — stories that invite the reader into a bigger world, full of complexity and meaning far beyond themselves.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.