I’ve been stuck for a while on a short story I’ve been writing, and I think I’ve finally found a path forward. It seems the problem was that I was trying to use story to explain something to a non-specific audience. This created a few problems.
The most obvious issue was that art tends to be best when it’s authentic (from the heart), not didactic (designed to instruct, especially morally). I ran into this idea recently in The Creative Church Handbook by J. Scott McElroy, a fellow arts ministry leader and member of my writing group. I’m reading it to understand how to lead arts ministry better, but I was struck by the idea that my literal brain’s attempt to use story for an end purpose might be my big problem here.
As Scott put it, “What can tend to happen is that the art may have a ring of inauthenticity to it because it is supporting an agenda instead of expressing the heart of the artist. Trying to shoehorn a message into a medium can result in mediocre work, instead of passionate visceral work.”1
For me, experience agrees. My best writing seems to come out when I’m exploring, not explaining, an idea through story. I find I complete a draft faster with authentic writing, too.
I think the second big source of my stuck-ness was that I didn’t know my characters at all. They were stand-ins for concepts, and therefore ended up shallow, flat, fake. Even though the story has evolved into something less allegorical than I started with, I never adequately fleshed out my characters’ hearts and motives. Now I have an idea of their main motivations, and as I explore those in their fictional world, the story can move forward.
Narrative can be a good way to explain something, but the context matters. In a teaching context, simple stories like parables can be helpful. If you do that, know who your audience is. The point of using story as a teaching tool is to connect with what people already know, which means you need an idea of what your audience knows if you’re going to succeed. Jesus was great at this; see any of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) for good examples.
My worldview and values will come out in my writing, whether I’m trying to send a message or not. I have another story (the one that did well in the NYC Midnight contest in 2018) that’s all about the value of life, but when I wrote it, I was focused on assembling a story according to the writing prompt, which focused on genre and story elements rather than a message or personal values. The theme of the value of life came out naturally in the context of the world I was writing. Now I have hope that as I complete my new story, my heart will emerge through it the same way.
What do you think? Where have you seen didactic stories either succeed or fail? What stories have taught you something without a clear teaching intent behind them? I’d like to see your answers in the comments. 🙂
1. J. Scott McElroy, The Creative Church Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books / InterVarsity Press, 2015), 243.