What’s the point?

The second topic my letter-writer asked about is making a point in a story, not necessarily a moral but a point. She thinks a story should make one, but when she tries, she feels preachy, and she also wonders if she has enough experience at age twenty-two to go after a point at all.

Probably by the time we’re eight, or maybe even younger, we’ve accumulated sufficient experience to tell many stories with points, even if we don’t have the skill to tell them well. Some of my earliest memories are from the viewpoint of a grownup observer looking out through my three- or four-year-old eyes. For example, when I was about three, my mother sneaked me off to New York University to have my intelligence tested. On the way home she asked me not to tell my father. I remember consenting and also understanding why she wanted the test. I’m new, I thought. She doesn’t know what to make of me yet.

Do you remember times when your understanding way exceeded your age? And certainly by twenty-two, we’ve all reached many adult conclusions.

So I think age is no obstacle. Deliberately making a point may be a problem, however.

Consider the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. We’re told that the moral is to always do one’s best. But suppose the moral weren’t handed to us. What might we conclude on our own? One interpretation might have to do with kindness. If my brother pig’s house falls down I should take him in. I shouldn’t let him be eaten, even if he could have built a better house. Another moral might have to do with solidarity in the face of a common enemy. Or the moral might have to do with the wolf. He – and by extension we – shouldn’t make empty threats. And on and on.

In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” I think the real moral is that children shouldn’t be given responsibilities that they demonstrate are beyond them. I’ve asked second graders who they think is the villain in the tale. Many say the boy, but a big minority blame the wolf. Some blame the sheep, for not running away fast enough. A few have blamed the parents of the boy for failing to teach him not to lie.

The moral belongs in the mind of the reader. If you make your point too strongly, you may deprive her of the opportunity to find her own meaning. I’ve heard more than once from readers that Ella Enchanted made them want to be more obedient!

Your story will have a point, whether or not you are trying to develop one. It will be infused with your values and your take on the world. My book Fairest is about a young woman who is unsightly according to the standards of Ayortha, the kingdom she lives in. I wasn’t trying to write a moralistic tale about beauty. I was only trying to tell the story of Snow White from a new angle. But my ideas about beauty crept in.

Regarding another aspect of point-making, I’ve been criticized for letting my villains off too easy. The villain in Fairest, for example, is merely exiled to a castle outside the capital. Her husband still loves her. She’s still queen, still living in luxury. She certainly doesn’t have to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.

There are real people in my life history, people who were cruel to me or to someone I loved, whom I can pleasurably imagine (imagination only) tangoing in burning shoes. But I don’t hate my fictional villains. They’re often the most fun to write. My strongest feeling toward them is gratitude. So in my books maybe evil isn’t punished enough. Yet the bad acts of my villains always have consequences they don’t want and haven’t reckoned on. Most kids learn that their actions have consequences too, and sometimes mercy teaches them that lesson best of all.

Here’s a kind of prompt: Think about books you love and what their points were for you. Discuss them with pals who’ve read them too. See if you all picked up the same meanings. Now think about or reread your own stories and decide what the point might be. Think of more than one possible point, four or five if you can. Go from story to story. Do your points have a family resemblance? Notice how the real you seeps in. Find out what other people see in your stories. I’ll bet that what they take from a story is no surprise to you, based on what you know about them. Your readers melt into a story, just as the author does. It’s one of the miracles of writing.

Of course the point is, don’t worry about making a point.

  1. This is a very interesting post, as all of yours are. I recently found your blog and have been devouring the archives.

    It's rare that I even give a new book ("new" meaning written after 1960) the time of day. But Ella Enchanted was one that not only did I read, but that stuck with me. I read my favorite parts over for days after I finished it, and I still think of it fondly. I even have some of my favorite lines memorized – at least the dialogue, that is.

    There is one thing I would love to read a post about, though. What did you think of the Ella Enchanted movie? I saw the movie before I read the book, and though the book is my favorite, I still do like the movie. It's a good story (despite the fact that I missed things like the way the ogres really act, and the things that happened after Ella wrote the letter to Char). And I did like how Char acted after Ella nearly killed him – how he still rushed in to save her. But I'm not the author, and I've just wondered what you thought. I really hope you would write a post on this, because I would absolutely love to read it.

    ~ Katherine Anne Dawn

  2. Excellent post! I struggle with having a moral point to what I'm writing. On one hand, I just want it to be a good story, to entertain the reader. On the other, I worry that my story then won't have enough depth. A tricky thing, but then I have found that most parts about writing are difficult when you try to do them well.

  3. Thanks so much for writing about this topic! When I am writing my own stories i always feel lke I should tie in a lesson and i never know how to go about that!

    Thanks for shading some light on the subject!

  4. Hi!
    I am a REALLY BIG fan. I love your books and my favourite "Ella Enchanted." I personally wanted to be more obediant after reading the book, but it was harder than I thought. That book had a really big affect on me in so many ways. Mostly ways I cant explain.
    I also love "Fairest." It made me feel more better about myself,how i didn't have to look perfect. Have you ever wanted "Fairest" to become a movie? I have. Just a few days ago i was searching to see if it was. It would make an awsome movie. But the book would always be better.
    I have written a few little stories for myself, but they are not that good. I cant come up with anything creative enough. When did you first start writing Ella Enchanted?

  5. Hi Ms. Levine! Interesting point about Ivi and your villains. I don't think that you let her off easy, especially since her main flaw seemed to be her insecurity – she was so insecure, it was really heartbreaking. It was a blow to her pride to be revealed like that, and it's necessary for her to be chastised, but we don't have to 'go medieval' on her. I appreciate the fact that you always emphasize the importance of 'walking in another's shoes, whether it's the Fairy Lucinda or Queen Ivi. (on the other hand, there are Ellis' brothers, who are hilariously indifferent! I love them!)

    But being able to relate to another and sympathise – a moral in and of itself, isn't it? I agree with you, with a caveat – when people write well and thoughtfully with enough attention to people, they shouldn't have to worry about 'making' a point. With a bit of imagination, it will come with the people or the interactions in the story.

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