Posted by: Trisha Leigh | February 11, 2011

Yeah, So What’s Your Point?

Sometimes I talk too much.

Okay, fine. Most of the time, I talk too much. I need to make sure people get my point, and whether that’s due to my astrological sign, being a firstborn child, or just plain having a bossy personality, it’s the way I am.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned (am still learning) as a writer is to trust my reader. Plant the seeds, but gently. Let the reader’s brain wrestle with issues, wonder about some things, and frame the story using their own experiences. It’s a hard concept to grasp, and even harder to execute well.

A story’s first job is to entertain, by making you care about a character, a relationship, or a situation enough to keep turning pages. If it doesn’t, no one will ever hear what you’re trying to say, because they won’t be reading your books. On the flipside, if you try too hard to make a “point” with your story, it comes across as heavy handed and preachy, two things that will certainly make teenagers wrinkle their nose and tune out.

It’s important to me that my book both entertains and has something to say.

I write Young Adult literature because I love exploring the experiences and emotions that shape us during those few, important years. As writers, we have the chance to influence the people they’ll become, and those of us that grew up avid readers know how important a book can be, how much it can mean.

It’s a big responsibility.

I think the current trend toward dystopian novels (with many being written by young authors), stems from a worry, maybe even a fear, of what life will be like if our society continues to decline – morally, ecologically, socially. Children and teenagers feel the corruption.

The various dystopias created by authors give readers scenarios to think about. Make them consider the choices they may be faced with, about what kind of people they want to be and what’s important no matter what the world looks like.

When I closed Mockingjay, the last of the Hunger Games novels, the force of Suzanne Collins’ anti-war statement washed through me like a tide…but she never came out and said, “war is bad.” She crafted her message, her “point” beautifully; carved it into each character’s arc, brushed it in broad strokes across three books. She showed us -through the slow but total destruction of the characters we came to care about – all the horrific effects of war on the world and its people.

That’s how you convey a message to teenagers. You show them the potential impact of a situation or decision on their lives, their friends, their families. It has to be personal; they have to see how it could affect them personally. I have a long way to go to master the craft, but it’s so inspiring to catch people doing it well.*

What do you think? Is it important for your stories to have a “point”, to say something particular about life, or relationships, or the world around us? If not, do you only write stories for entertainment? Do you like to read for pure entertainment?

I’m curious. It’s completely possible that I’m just a bossy person, like Sean Ferrell says.

*I recently finished a book called Divergent. It’s the first in a series, so I don’t know the direction the author, Veronica Roth, will take us in the future. She has something to say, though, and I’m quite excited to find out what exactly that is. (Divergent is available from Katherine Tegen Books (a division of Harper Collins) on May 3, 2011. You can preorder it here.

What I’m watching right this second: American Idol. I know. I can’t quit, people. I can’t quit.

 

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Responses

  1. You made me think…I seem to have the opposite personality type of you, yet we both have to struggle to not push too hard on our readers and give them space to wonder and roam in our world without everything being given to them. How’s that possible?:

    I’m so laid back and un-bossy (and aware of it) that in my writing I have to consciously compensate for that by giving more to the reader and not leaving so much open space that they get lost – but if I go to far and _over_compensate, the mystery is lost and everything becomes too explicit.

    As you say, it’s a difficult thing to execute and difficult to balance. I think be purposefully going to either extreme it is easier to find a place to settle in the middle when you want to.

    Thanks for waking me up on a Friday morning!

    • Thanks so much for the comment, and I’m glad I’m not the only one contemplating these issues. You make good points yourself.

  2. Man, as soon as I sniff an agenda on the author’s part, they lose me. Salman Rushdie? Milan Kundera? True I read them when young and so could have misread them, but they seemed to be using their novels as vehicles for their philosophies, thinly veiled attempts at telling me how the world worked according to them. Lost me.

    As for your trusting the reader to pick up on subtleties–man is that hard. Nothing stinks more than a beta reader coming back and saying, “But why did he do that?” Then you lamely answer, “Well, on p36 remember he said that… and then on page 89 he told the other guys that he felt…? No?” It’s like I swing between obscure and ham fisted, either eliding my nuances altogether or throwing them right in the reader’s face. Hard!

    • It IS frustrating when a reader doesn’t quite get it, but it’s SO SATISFYING when they do. I think if you have to explain a shared idea, you haven’t gone far enough. At least, that’s the gauge I’ve been testing out.

  3. I’m with you. I want to be entertained, but I don’t usually enjoy totally escapist books as much as I enjoy Books With a Point. Those books stick with you. Those books mean something, outlasting fads, generations, wars, etc. And you’re absolutely right — the important thing is to SHOW the point you’re trying to make through a compelling story. I think it can be tempting — and easier? — to preach. But people, for the most part, don’t like preaching. It’s like *ahem, whips out nerd card* Captain Malcolm Reynolds says in Firefly: “Men of God make people feel guilty and judged.” The same sentiment applies to Books With Points. Don’t preach. Don’t judge. Tell a story, make it personal, write something that reflects all our hopes and fears and worries right back at us in a way that means something.

    I’m starting to ramble. You get my point, though. Wonderful post, Trisha! 🙂

    • I think you’re right, it is “easier” to preach, to just put your beliefs in your characters mouth and let them tumble out on the page. It’s not effective, though. I don’t appreciate being told what to think any more now than I did as a teenager – and there have been writers getting it right for at least my whole lifetime.

      I like what you said about “all our hopes and fears…” That’s the key, isn’t it? To land on those pieces that, as humans, we all share. Thanks.

  4. Above all else, when I pick up a book I want to be entertained. But I’m not averse to a message, as long as it’s adequately greased with a good story, so it goes down easily.

    Same goes for the books I write: story first. If I manage to convey a little something extra, I hope it’s subliminal. 😉

    • Haha, love the imagery of the greasy message 🙂

  5. My reaction to Hunger Games was the same. Ufdah, good writing there!

    • Seriously. The kind of writing that makes you simultaneously want to salute and delete your own manuscript.


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