Moral Pushups

On January 7, 2021, Belle Adora wrote, Whenever I am writing I always have some sort of moral to push. But I stress over pushing my point too much and causing it to be cliche or under involving it in my story and leaving the reader confused at the end. I tend to end up having a character recite a monologue where their views on something is pushed. I don’t know how to get my points across without it being dry. Any advice?

Two writers replied.

Melissa Mead: Try writing a story that doesn’t have a moral, just to see what it feels like. Often, if you focus on writing the story first, the moral will come through anyway.

Christie V Powell: I call it a theme instead of a moral, and it gets integrated into every element of stories: setting, characters, plot, etc. The theme might be hinted at, or maybe even said outright in a few key spots, but you don’t want to preach. People listen and learn much better through stories than sermons.

For instance, in my Mira’s Griffin, I wanted the theme to be about the value of communication. The theme is reflected in the setting because there are two different species that cannot communicate–and at first believes that the other is incapable. It’s in the characters, once some of the characters learn how to communicate and others don’t. It’s in the plot as the main characters work to teach their species to communicate with each other before they cause a war and kill each other. The main character doesn’t need to stand up and give a speech, because she’s living the theme.

These are spot on!

I don’t look for morals in novels. I’m most eager for engaging characters, an exciting plot, a solid setting, and good writing. But when I look at my own fiction, I do see a theme (as Christie V Powell says) that runs through them: kindness, which I suppose is my highest value—even thinking that chokes me up a little. I don’t believe humans have much if we take away kindness—and kindness means empathy. My crazy fairy Lucinda doesn’t intend to hurt anyone; she wants to help, but she has no empathy, so she can’t even guess what real help would mean. Mandy and other fairies, by contrast, don’t practice big magic because empathy constrains them; they imagine the chaos and suffering they could cause. They suffer just thinking of it and hold back.

I’m like Christie V Powell in that my characters don’t speechify. The kindness theme reveals itself in the way the plot plays out, in the lives of the characters, in what succeeds in the end and what fails. (I’d argue that kindness also underpins Mira’s Griffin as described.)

I was at my preachiest in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which are both, moral-wise, about the evils of prejudice. In Lost Kingdom, MC Perry makes a speech about tyranny but not about prejudice, which isn’t addressed directly, but it’s implicit in everything. In Ceiling, antisemitism is discussed, as it would have been back then (and now), and it’s part but not all of what caused the Jews to be expelled from Spain. They were also taxed into such poverty that they were no longer economically useful to the monarchs, which made them disposable.

If we want to convey a moral and we want to make sure our readers get it, how do we do it while keeping them happy and engaged?

Louisa May Alcott stuffed a moral into every chapter and sometimes every page of her books for children, which I loved when I was little. My parents loved them too, because I turned into a paragon for as long as I was reading one! Back then, the morals didn’t bore me as they do now. I was eager for the lesson, whatever it happened to be. Sometimes Alcott’s perspective was feminist, and sometimes it was distinctly not.

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was also a moralist. I don’t agree with her doctrine of selfishness, which seems to me not to embody either kindness or empathy, but I loved her books while I read them. I plowed enthusiastically through her characters’ endless speeches on economic and political theory. During the reading, I saw the world as she did. A week or so later, I’d wake up.

(If you’re interested, her early novel We the Living is autobiographical, and the reader gets the backstory of her positions—and feels for her.)

Both writers, both dead, are still popular. So how did they do it?

I’m not sure, but I have some ideas.

We care about their characters, and part of what we love about them is their ideals, which is where the moral is found. The characters may fall short, as Jo March often does, but the falling short makes us love her more, because we often fall short too, but we like to think we pick ourselves up and keep going, as Jo does. The Rand heroines are mysterious and surprising—weird, really, but I liked that.

The novels of both authors are romances, and the moral is tied up with the romance. The girl and the guy can’t love each other if they don’t satisfy each other’s idea of what’s right. Jo can’t attach herself to Laurie, no matter how much I wanted her to, because he just isn’t upstanding enough, but he can be paired with Amy, who will whip him into shape, at least as I remember.

The moral in both books is usually stated in dialogue rather than narration, and the reader loves the speaker who puts the moral forward.

In Rand in particular, the stakes are high—the world, actually. The importance kept me glued to the story.

So we have: character, romance, a dialogue delivery system, and high stakes. Here are three prompts to try them out on:

  • The moral of the story of Robin Hood is that stealing is good if the poor benefit. The moral of Ayn Rand’s novels is that selfishness is good because it improves the human condition. Write a story with an Opposite-Day moral, like that lying—or cheating or laziness or greed, etc.—is good.
  • In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the moral is to listen to your mother. Or maybe it’s not to stray from the righteous path. Little Red doesn’t listen and does stray and matters don’t go well for her. But what would have happened if she stuck to the road? Write that story, and make sure it doesn’t go well. If you like, bring in a different moral for the reader to ponder.
  • Write a story spun off from Pride and Prejudice about Lydia’s life with Wickham. If you don’t have the book memorized, read a plot summary to get you going. Lydia has flouted the morality of her time. If you like, work in a moral for your story.

Have fun and save what you write!

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.