Show, don’t tell: on hiding morals in stories

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If you’re like me, you believe that fiction – more precisely, the story – is one of the most powerful forces on earth. And if we don’t use that power to try to make the world a better place, we are wasting a gift.

Trouble is, if you have an agenda – whether political, religious, or moral – your readers will smell it from a mile away, and it will make them mad. Not in the “oh, this is controversial” kind of mad, but the “quit trying to sell me something” kind of mad. Because, no matter how worthy the cause, you are selling something; a point of view.

As a copywriter for an advertising agency, I have a full time job selling things through writing – before you get out your pitchforks, hear me out; I’m a novelist first and foremost  – and I’ve learned the difference between good advertising and bad, and how the same difference can make your novel a powerful message instead of a soapbox sermon. That difference is simple: a poorly-moralized novel just says “believe me” in the same way a bad advertisement just says “buy me.” It touts its own benefits, insults the competition, and ultimately cares for nothing but the message. Much like that closeout furniture salesman who waves his arms and yells “lowest prices ever!” at the camera.

On the other side, the message-in-a-novel done well cares about the story. That story is driven by the characters, not by an agenda. Take the eBay commercial above (click through if you’re reading in RSS or email). eBay didn’t just say “buy stuff from us!” – in fact, they didn’t say it once. Instead, they created a character and a story we could relate to. It’s simple, but it’s moving, and the message (buy stuff on eBay) is an organic part of that story, not just tacked on at the end. It is, in fact, a prime example of show-don’t-tell.

Do not, then, simply construct a story to serve your agenda. Instead, when you  write your novel, put aside your agenda for a moment. Focus on your characters and the story they create with their personalities, desires, and actions. Write as honestly as possible, and if you are truly pouring your soul into it, a deeper meaning will grow naturally out of the story.

Remember to make your villain – the character with the opposing viewpoint – as realistic as possible. Don’t become bigoted in your passion, making the villain stupid, heartless, or insane. Make them as smart, as human, as grounded as you are. Argue both sides of the question, and do it with conviction. Otherwise, your novel will be nothing but a 300-page commercial.

So the moral of this story is, focus on the story, not the moral.

What books that you’ve read seemed to be selling a certain point of view? Which ones delivered a message that seemed to spring forth naturally?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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13 Comments

  1. Great post as usual! I’m still figuring out exactly what all my book will communicate–and where the plot will end. The two seem pretty intertwined right now. I’ll get there, but right now I’m enjoying just flying by the seat of my pants and letting the words do their job. Who knows what the exact moral will be? I’m learning stuff myself as I go! haha

    Love the new look! =)

  2. Hmm. I have trouble writing short stories unless I can narrow the point down into a sentence or two morale. Like the worst crime I could say, learn from mistakes. Or like “normal” I could say that people don’t view other people as normal even if they are very… Normal. Anyway great post.
    I have two books that are likely to get written and neither of them have a point.

    • Lavender Water: A Writing Blog by Christy Farmer

      Love the post…the video…and the new look! 🙂

      I agree that stories should be story driven. In my humble opinion…great stories can sometimes seem like debate teams in the sense of it is presenting characters in a realistic way and by the writer showing…each character is given their own time to respond.

    • I find that short stories often have a point, or a more obvious point than full-length books do. The books are your chance to simultaneously dig deeper and remain subtler. I’m encouraged to hear neither of your books have a point (haha), and hope you’ll have fun watching the points grow into being, as I have confidence they will.

  3. I think it depends on the genre. Most readers don’t like to be taught a lesson when reading commercial fiction. Whether readers can identify the lesson or not, they’ll sense it, and it will sour the story in their mind, no matter how well you thought you’ve hidden it.

    For some genres, including a moral might work. The one that comes to mind first is children’s books. But maybe children are a more forgiving audience…

    • It’s not about hiding it, really; more about letting it grow naturally versus forcing it. You’re right though, it does depend on genre. Commercial fiction doesn’t exactly have a “point,” while YA or children’s usually involve the hero learning some kind of lesson (lots of coming-of-age stories), and science fiction often has social/ethical points. But ultimately, every story is going to be a struggle between right and wrong, and will therefore, even inadvertently, have some kind of point, whether it defines right from wrong, or proclaims that right always wins, or points out that we are not always as right as we think we are, or questions whether or not there even IS right and wrong, or whether there is any point in being right.

  4. Pingback: Writing Roundup, August 5 « Uncategorized « Jen's Writing Journey

  5. Excellent food for thought here. I recently finished reading a sci fi book that had such an agenda that you couldn’t look past it. I enjoy sci fi, because there almost always is some kind of commentary on our society embedded init, but I don’t want to be hammered with it.

  6. I feel more like a character-shepherd than a writer sometimes. Maybe that’s a good thing.

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