Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Don’t Club Your Reader With Your Message

 Today, Carolyn J. Rose is posting here on Straight From Hel.

Carolyn is the author of several novels, including Hemlock LakeThrough a Yellow Wood, AnUncertain Refuge, Sea of RegretAPlace of ForgettingNo Substitute for Murder. She penned a young-adult fantasy, Drum Warrior, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.

She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers' Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Welcome, Carolyn.

Don’t Club Your Reader With Your Message

As a substitute teacher, when I’m not giving instruction I like to blend into the background, to be there if I’m needed to answer questions and explain directions for projects, but otherwise to be unobtrusive. My goal is to keep the focus on the lesson, to help kids learn and think, not to influence their thinking by telling them what I think.

The same philosophy can be applied to writing fiction. For me, the story unfolds more smoothly if the writer blends into the background and deflects attention from himself/herself.

An author who intrudes into the story to belabor a point, express an opinion, provide far too much background information on a subject, or make sure the reader “gets it,” is taking time and attention away from characters and action. When the author ceases to work behind the scenes through characters’ thoughts and dialogue, the flow of the story can be disrupted. That, in turn, can disrupt the reader’s involvement.

Sometimes the reader feels clubbed over the head with the author’s message. A clubbed reader—even one in agreement with the message—may skip passages or even put the book down.

As an extreme example, let’s say I have strong opinions about chunky peanut butter.

Here’s that message delivered in what I call a character rant. The character is channeling the author who is obviously up on his/her soapbox expounding, lecturing, and dumping opinions like a load of wet cement.

Carla added a giant jar of peanut butter to her shopping cart. Smooth, of course. The chunky stuff was gritty and stuck in her teeth. On top of that, it demonstrated laziness and carelessness on the part of producers—and lack of respect for the correct way to do things. Chunky peanut butter represented all that was wrong with the United States. Standards had slipped appallingly in the past fifty years and politicians were only greasing the skids for further decline. It was all the fault of the Supreme Court. No, it was the fault of those men who wrote the Constitution. That document was far too vague. There was too much leeway. Far too much room for interpretation. And it didn’t help that . . .

And on and on and on, in huge, dense paragraphs.

Now let’s put that message in short bursts of dialogue to make it more interesting and easier on the eye. And let’s go a step further and allow another character to challenge Carla. That lets us examine the peanut butter issue from other angles and learn more about both characters as they debate it.

Carla plucked a jar of smooth peanut butter from the shelf and set it in the shopping cart.

“Can’t we get crunchy?” Alex asked.

“Crunchy?” She frowned at her four-year-old grandson. “Crunchy is gritty.”

He nodded and swung from the handle of the basket. “I like that.”

She shuddered. “It sticks in my teeth.”

“I like that too.” He grinned. “That way I have some for later.”

Carla narrowed her eyes. Was he baiting her? No, surely not. He was too young. But it appeared this innocent child was becoming a tool for his mother’s liberal agenda. Well, since her son apparently was doing nothing about it, it was up to her to set Alex straight.

“Crunchy peanut butter is inferior,” she told him. “It’s what you get when workers no longer take pride in what they produce.”

Rubbing the end of his nose with his index finger, Alex gazed up at the display of peanut butters.

“Pay attention, Alex. My father wouldn’t tolerate crunchy peanut butter in his house and I won’t either. It’s a symbol of what’s wrong with this nation!”

“Okay.” Alex turned and peered into the shopping cart. Then, using both hands, he lifted a carton of orange juice and thrust it toward her. “Then I guess we gotta put this back.”

Carla gaped. “Why would we do that?”

“On accounta the guys who made it didn’t do their job ’cause it still has pulp in it.”


Carla has been painted into a philosophical corner.

Double oops.

I’m right there with her because she was expounding on my theory—a theory that seems to have some holes in it that I didn’t notice until Alex challenged it.

How will I write her out of this corner? Will she amend her rule to explain this contradiction? Will she re-examine her beliefs? Or will she defend them? Will I change my tune about chunky peanut butter?

You tell me.

Use the comment space below and get your name into the drawing for a copy of my latest book, No Substitute for Money.


  1. Thanks for hosting me, Helen. I'm looking forward to how those who stop by dig me out of this hole. Right now I have to run to work - darn it - but I'm asking my husband (and sometimes co-author) to hold the fort for me.

  2. Personally, I think Carla is correct on the chunky peanut butter.

  3. Good post, as always, Carolyn. You always do a good job with your books.

  4. I agree - Chunky pb is the bane of our existence :) I love your examples though. Very easy to see and understand. Although I MUST differ with Alex on the Orange Juice part. Pulp in OJ is not lazy, it adds a nice chewiness :)

  5. I always seem to be a minority of one. I always buy the chunkiest peanut butter I can find -- can't think of the brand but it's just ground up peanuts. Love it! Great example of an author's intrusion into the story.

  6. That first example is a funny author rant. I also agree - chunky is gritty and gross.

  7. Such good advice, Carolyn...about peanut butter and writing. Or, writing about peanut butter. Well done.

  8. Pat, I'm with you - chuncky all the way! There's plenty of jars out there to chose from, with or without those lovely bits of crunch.

  9. It shows remarkable self-control for someone as opinionated as Carolyn to keep a lease on expounding them in her fiction. But she's right. If readers wanted to be preached to they'd be watching a television evangelist.

  10. We tend to write about things we're passionate about, but we do have to be careful not to insert ourselves and our opinions into the book. And if it's a character who's passionate on something, you might have to rein him/her in or have an opposing opinion character.

  11. Pat, Anonymous, and others - actually, my passion right now is crunchy almond butter - and I'm having trouble finding it in the stores although there's plenty of the creamy kind. I may have to rant at a store manager.

  12. I like creamy peanut butter myself. Also, I don't care for preaching in novels, whether it be politics or religion. There should be a right balance, and a savvy author knows when not to cross over the line.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. Great advice in your post, Carolyn. And we're getting more in the comments! Thank you all.

  14. Just to make it clear - I'm not saying that characters - and authors - shouldn't have opinions - we just have to balance that with all the other elements that go into creating a novel.

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  16. Great illustration of 'show, don't tell' strategy. This is one of the many things I need to work on more.

  17. One of my mentors, writing coach Elizabeth Lyon, advocates showing and what she calls telling well, and creating a mix of the two. I confess to not thinking about this as much as I probably should.

  18. Great & very amusing example of how to get a point across to the reader without preaching!! I love crunchy peanut butter & crunchy almond butter too! I think they have that at Trader Joe's.

  19. I'm a chunky girl, myself. (Wait...I may have phrased that not exactly right....). I'm big on texture--both in food and in writing. Nothing is worse than the dreaded authorial rant. There's a very well-known self-pubbed author...one of the "first in" guys (no, not Konrath) that does this. He has characters just STOP whatever they are doing and suddenly there's an exposition dump on woman's rights, or whatever. Total non sequitur. It utterly jerks me right out of the story, and gives me the undignified impulse to toss the book across the room. Thank heavens...I read it in Paper! Launched Kindles can inflict *such* damage... ;-) (Oh, yummmm...crunchy ALMOND? {sigh}, to die for.)

    1. I so agree with you Hitch. That tears me right out of the story and often makes me set the book down and walk away.

    2. Especially if the rant comes early on, before the plot picks up steam and you get to know the characters. I'll skip over a rant at the end of an otherwise rant-free book, but if it comes in chapter one, I'm outta there.

    3. Absolutely. That early rant usually makes it impossible for me to keep reading. If I wanted to be clobbered over the head with a sermon on X, I'm sure I could find those in the non-fiction section. I have never understood why some authors forge that fiction--however educational it is, and some really ARE--is *entertainment,* not torture. Just my $.02, and worth less than that. Still thinking about that crunchy almond butter, though, and my hips don't forgive you, Carolyn! ;-)

  20. Hi Helen and Carolyn,

    A great guest post, it really made me smile, although I didn't miss the moral of the piece, which I agree with whole-heartedly, although personally, I do quite like good descriptive writing, which provides a firm bed-rock for the story it supports.

    As for the peanut butter debate ... well, it just has to be the chunky stuff of course!!



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