“Preachiness” in Novels: How to Present Controversial Ideas in Fiction

Note from Jodie: I’m busy meeting deadlines and getting ready to head off to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference this week, so I invited former journalist and talented thriller author Robert Bidinotto to guest post for me here today. Take it away, Robert!

Vigilante heroes – including Dylan Hunter, the hero of my vigilante thriller series – break lots of laws and conventions. I confess that I occasionally do the same about the laws and conventions of fiction-writing.

For instance, one cardinal rule, taught by many fiction instructors, is: 

Avoid expressing your personal views about politics, religion, and other controversial issues in your fiction.

Your job as a novelist, they say, is solely to entertain—not to “preach.” If you get up on your soap box, you’ll only alienate many potential fans. To attract a broad readership, you should suppress the desire to push divisive “agendas.”

Or, as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously admonished a screenwriter: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

But is it true that you shouldn’t express controversial views in popular fiction?

Well, it is true that readers of popular fiction don’t want to be lectured to or harangued. Some authors, believing they have important ideas to convey, beat readers over the head with their views. In static scenes on porches, in drawing rooms, and around dinner tables, characters don’t converse; they deliver speeches and soliloquys. Too often, these wooden, one-dimensional “characters” are little more than premises with feet.

I had to confront this issue head-on when I decided to move from nonfiction into fiction. You see, I have strongly held views and have never hidden them. My writing career began with “advocacy” journalism: essays, reviews, and other opinion pieces. So, when I decided to write thrillers a few years ago, it felt natural to incorporate my views into my stories.

First, I rejected the belief that there’s an inherent contradiction between entertaining fiction and thought-provoking fiction. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Rostand—all wrote works that entertained millions while taking sides on the controversies of their times. Taken literally, the “no politics” rule would have deprived the world of Les Misérables, 1984, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—serious novels of ideas that still won vast popular audiences.

Moreover, if you watch marketing expert Simon Sinek’s influential talk, “Start With Why,” you’ll see that building compelling stories around your passionately held beliefs can become a great marketing strategy. They will attract those who share your views, making them loyal fans, even evangelists for your work. Distinctive views also help to “brand” you, making you and your work stand out from the crowd and become more visible.

But how can authors with “something to say” avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handed preachiness? And how do I incorporate controversial ideas into popular thrillers, without turning off readers looking mainly for a good rollercoaster ride?

I think many opinionated writers fail to entertain because they engage in extraneous pontificating, rather than make their ideas integral to the stories themselves. The trick is to weave a provocative theme or premise into the very fabric of your story, making it the thread that connects your characters to each other and to the events of the plot.

In his classic how-to, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri devotes the first chapter to structuring a story upon a “premise.” Egri shows how to develop a controversial theme, first by creating major characters that hold uncompromising, opposing positions. Their clash of values drives the plot’s central conflict, which is resolved at the climax. The climax “proves” the story premise. Minor characters play complementary roles, representing “variations on the theme.” (Of course, your challenge as a literary craftsman is to make your characters seem three-dimensional and fully real—and not mere mouthpieces for arguments.)

I used Egri’s approach with my first thriller, HUNTER, which draws upon my past investigative reporting about the criminal justice system. It dramatizes the outrageous leniency I discovered, in which vicious criminals are routinely recycled back onto the streets to prey on new victims. The major antagonists are my hero, mysterious investigative journalist Dylan Hunter, and a wealthy philanthropist funding “alternatives to incarceration.” The complication is that Dylan doesn’t know that his sworn enemy also happens to be the father of the woman he loves.

This orchestration of characters allows the thriller’s theme—the injustices caused by excessive leniency—to be not only articulated and argued, but to be dramatized in action, with all the scary violence, intense suspense, and sizzling romance that thriller fans expect.

For the sequel, BAD DEEDS, I set the story in even more controversial territory: the clash between environmentalists and the “fracking” industry. Here, my views are not what most readers would anticipate. But once again, I present villains who uphold ideas and values opposite those of my hero. Once again, the plot brims with action, suspense, colorful characters, and white-knuckle thrills. And once again, the climax “proves” the theme.

At first I feared that my maverick opinions would turn readers off. Instead, HUNTER became a Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestseller. And the even-more-controversial BAD DEEDS is maintaining an Amazon customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible 5.0 points.

So, if you write mysteries and thrillers, relax! You don’t have to avoid touching hot-button controversies. In fact, doing so can become a badge of distinction, helping your work to stand out in the overcrowded marketplace. I describe my novels as “thrillers for thinkers.” 

And in an era of recycled plots and worn genre retreads, that’s not a bad brand.

Robert Bidinotto is author of the Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestselling thriller, HUNTER, and the thrilling sequel, BAD DEEDS. Robert earned a national reputation as an authority on criminal justice while writing investigative crime articles as a former Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest. His famous 1988 article, “Getting Away with Murder,” stirred a national controversy about crime and prison furlough programs and was named a 1989 finalist for a National Magazine Award. Robert is author of the acclaimed nonfiction book Criminal Justice? The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility. He also wrote Freed to Kill—a compendium of horror stories exposing the failings of the justice system. Robert drew upon this background and his personal experiences with crime victims to write HUNTER.

28 thoughts on ““Preachiness” in Novels: How to Present Controversial Ideas in Fiction

  1. Well stated, Robert. Recall that Travis McGee was not shy about sharing his views on the passing scene.

    Speaking of vigilantes, I just read #1 in The Executioner series, and there’s a point late in the book where Mack Bolan argues with a pacifist about fighting evil. This was the most entertaining part of the whole book. The key was putting the views into confrontational dialogue.

    Thanks for stopping by TKZ.

    • James, thanks so much for that. Yes, you’re absolutely right about Travis McGee. In fact, his opinions about the world, expressed cantankerously and often elegantly, were one of the delightful and distinguishing aspects of his stories. And it’s funny that you bring up the old “Executioner” series. Mack Bolan gave me plenty of thrills back in the Seventies, when I started devouring them. Confrontational dialogue IS a great way to presenting opinions in fictional form. You do have to be careful. To establish credibility with the reader, you should make sure that in these confrontations, you give a “fair” presentation to views you don’t share.

      Finally, thanks so much for your classic how-to book “Plot & Structure.” I’ve studied it carefully, taking copious notes, and it has been a big help to me in structuring my own fiction.

    • Many thanks for the kind word about Plot & Structure. Much appreciated.

      And YES to your comment! I am always hammering that the writer must play fair with the opposing force. And even create a sympathy factor. It creates emotional cross-currents in the reader that make the whole experience deeper

  2. Robert, thanks for the post. Thought provoking.

    “The trick is to weave a provocative theme or premise into the very fabric of your story…” Wow. When you think about it, the topics we’re taught to avoid are actually the very issues that create the hottest and most passionate conflict in our lives and in the world.

    Thanks for the link to Egri’s THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING. And I look forward to checking out HUNTER and BAD DEEDS.

    • Steve, you’re right about that. Drama rests on conflict; and passionate conflicts are not about small things. You can’t hope to present a big conflict without getting into clashing views and values. And I don’t see why popular genre fiction should not address such things. You’ll find Egri’s book — which focuses on writing plays, but is just as valid for writing novels — to be a fertile source in how to construct stories built on serious themes.

      And of course I thank you for checking out my thrillers. I sure hope they live up to the build-up I’ve given them!

  3. Welcome to TKZ, Robert! Discussing controversial topics in fiction is not for the faint of heart! I can just see all the one-star reviews that could pile up from people who disagree with the author’s viewpoint. That your two books have so many reviews, with such a strong overall rating, is a testament not only to your passion but to your talent as a writer.

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your first thriller, Hunter, but will have to reserve judgment on the second until I’ve read it, as I’m a staunch defender of protecting our environment, and not sure where you’ll go with that topic!

    • Jodie, thanks so much for the invitation to guest-post here.

      It’s interesting. HUNTER did rub a percentage of readers the wrong way. It’s received 32 one-star pans on Amazon to date. However, it’s also received 358 five-star raves, a better than 10-to-1 ratio. I can live with that.

      As for BAD DEEDS, thus far (knock on wood) it’s not received a single one-star, though I think the book is even more provocative. Obviously, I hope you enjoy it, but if you don’t, that’s okay. Different strokes, and all that. Once an author internalizes the fact that NO book will appeal to everyone, then he or she will receive criticism with equanimity.

  4. Love this post. Am printing it out for my workshop files. (Will make sure you get full credit, Robert!) Love the Travis McGee example. His “digressions” were often the most entertaining parts of his stories. Ditto Carl Hiaasen’s books. I just started a Florida mystery that was really promising but around chapter four the writer went into this diatribe about the destruction of the Everglades. I’ve given up on it. Not because I don’t care about his topic but I don’t want to be lectured.

    • Kris, you’ve just pointed out the critical fine line between skilfully addressing topics through character interaction and heavy-handed lecturing to the readers, which is so transparent and such a turn-off!

  5. PJ, thank you very much! I’m delighted that you understood the distinction I was making between diatribes and lectures on the one hand, and on the other hand building the story upon a controversial premise, and only occasionally having your characters confront each other explicitly about their differences. It’s a subtle distinction to grasp, and it requires some subtlety to handle well.

    For instance, regarding argumentative dialogue, I think at all times you must keep in mind your reader and her limited tolerance for extended preaching and speechifying. A little abstract argumentation goes a long way. But if you have built the points of controversy right into the characters and plot, then your story can “show” the argument in an entertaining way, leaving you a lot less to “tell” in a didactic way.

  6. Well done, Robert. I remember a couple of issues a few years ago which got everyone in the literary world all bent out of shape. You may remember them, too.

    One was the proliferation of serial killer novels. Violent and outside the rule of law, serial killers in these novels invariably chose women as their victims — according to the prevailing argument. This was apparently a big no-no, raising the hackles of feminist authors and leading to repeated calls to “do something” about it. A frightening concept, indeed.

    The other one that comes to mind was the “People vs Frank Miller” inquisition that was led by a pitchfork-bearing Alan Moore a few years ago. I’ve never read anything by either Miller or Moore, but I thought the whole thing was disgraceful, crossing over into blatant persecution over political beliefs. I even wrote a blog on my website about it called, “Before I buy your book, where do you stand on the bank bailout?”.

    You’ve shown that politics, when handled tastefully, can have a positive effect on the storyline of a book and on how the reader perceives that book. Many congrats.

  7. Some of John Grisham’s novels could have been preachy, but weren’t (e.g., THE LAST JUROR.)

    I was very concerned about preaching in my thriller, ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL (to be released in February, 2015), so I set it up so that the protagonist (who kills pedophiles) is married to a lawyer who doesn’t even believe in capital punishment.

    As well, she and her two conspirators, who also kill pedophiles, have a violent disagreement near the beginning about whether they should…or not…kill, because one of them is a “recovering” Roman Catholic.

    Then I asked my first editor if he thought the book was preachy, and he said, “Definitely not.” I hope he’s right!

    I think another way, in addition to setting up conflicts between characters in the story (which can still sound very preachy if you’re not careful), is to plot in such a way that the reader has to question what the right or wrong positions are.

    I’m hoping I’ve done it well, and that book clubs will be interested in the questions the novel raises. If nothing else, I believe it’s a page-turner (or so I’ve been told many times), but I’m hoping it’s also a thinking man and woman’s thriller.

    Do I expect people to change their views about pedophilia as a result of the novel? No.

    Do I expect people to care more about the issue of pedophilia as a result of the novel? No (but I can hope._

    • Good for you, Sheryl! I think you’ve taken the right approach. You’ve orchestrated your characters well, by having your vigilante married to an anti-capital-punishment lawyer — an intrinsic source of conflict. You’ve added realistic personal value-conflicts by giving one of the protagonists a religious background that clashes with his or her actions.

      And you are absolutely right about plotting in such a way as to cause your (possibly dissenting) reader to question his or her beliefs. That is where the real art and craft of writing come in. You set up a set of circumstances that force them to confront the real meaning of their views. Or, you set up heroes/heroines who are so appealing that their views and actions, which may be opposite those of the reader, begin to seem more appealing. There are lots of tricks of the trade that can be employed…instead of heavy-handed diatribes. Good luck with your novel!

  8. Robert –

    This is an excellent TKZ debut post for you!
    I very much enjoyed it and agree with your observations completely.
    A favorite author’s last work slipped multiple times over the line and the preaching tainted what was otherwise a solid tale.
    In my writing I have positions I feel passionate about and address them. I’m hopeful the reader would be hard-pressed to identify any personal bias. Thanks and welcome to TKZ.

  9. Tom, many thanks for the kind welcome.

    Let me raise a glass of Shiraz to writers who manage to stay on the right side of the line that divides passion from pontification.

  10. “writers who manage to stay on the right side of the line that divides passion from pontification”! Love that line! An important goal for all strong-minded fiction authors to keep in mind.

  11. Good advice, Robert. One classic way to ‘go on your soapbox’ in a fictive story is to present a character, decent and well-intentioned, a person the reader might bond with, who holds exactly the opposite views to yourself. Then show him/her changing their views. The reader’s views might change as well, and no ‘preaching’ is involved.

    • Yes, that is a good technique. In fact, one of the “villains” in my first thriller, HUNTER, fits that general pattern. Another variation is to have a character on “the wrong side” who is horrified when he or she learns “the truth” about her cause and colleagues. I used that one in BAD DEEDS. There are lots of ways beyond tedious speechifying.

  12. It is a difficult task to represent characters and arguments that differ from my own particular political, philosophical, spiritual, geographical perspective. I want to have the characters say and act in ways their compatriots would find acceptable and “real.” The stereotype becomes so trite and obvious. Just another straw man ready to be torched. And at that point, I suspect most readers simply bail.

    If right up front the book is identified as a “lefty,” “righty,” “T-party,” or whatever (did I miss anyone?) kind of book, then the writer is simply preaching to the choir. I don’t want to do that. I find things out there in the world to be more complex and twisted than I can imagine. These old positions folks take don’t serve them or anyone else well in this world. That’s my take on it. I’d like to take the reader beyond all that and into a place that’s beyond anyone’s comfort zone. I think if the writer can be honest about it, then the story will work. It ain’t easy, though.

    I just finished the True Detective series and can’t quite get all of that out of my head. If there is any way to get Nic Pizzolatto to attend Bouchercon next month, I will personally drive over to his house and give him a ride and by him a beer.

  13. Adam, you raise an interesting issue. I think it’s probably a mistake for an author to stick some label on his perspective, at least in his fiction. The story ought to speak for itself to readers. In “show vs. tell” terms, the story should “show” its perspective more than “tell” it.

  14. I tried for the past two days to post on here, but life kept slapping me back from it. I was going to write something eloquent about expressing world views and so on and maybe do a bit from a Leprechaun’s perspective but…well … didn’t happen.

    Then yesterday I finished listening to the audiobook version of the final book in a series by one of my absolute favourite authors. Sadly, I will leave him unnamed because I don’t want to make an enemy of a person I may be meeting at ITW next summer.

    Suffice it to say, I know a lot of writers over the age of 45 or so don’t have particularly fond memories of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as icons of history, but to spend a few dozen pages of an otherwise very well written (and very long) novel not only slamming them, but insulting, cursing, and lambasting them like the negative image of a Westboro Baptist was more than a little over the top.

    By the end of the book it felt like the author’s preachiness had turned into historical revisionism praising the glories of reform communism and decrying ‘Imperialist Capitalism’.

    I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.

    Make your point, but be careful on the preachiness…you might really alienate your audience.

  15. It’s not easy being a Vegan, when your characters want to stop off for a few plates of calamari, spaghetti and clams. My InnerVegan jumps up shouting, “No way, dude. Make mine a bean burger with sweet-potato “fries” (they’re baked).”

    Get out. This crew wants a thick cut of New York steak (grass-fed, no hormones or antibiotics) medium rare.

    So as a Vegan author of thrillers, how can I convince y’all love a story about Vegan bank robbers? Maybe they could kidnap Little Oscar and his Wienermobile when it comes through town. Just so happens it’s here in Missoula this week. Keep watch for headlines in the Times.


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