Often the most engaging stories, the most affecting stories, are those that involve contentious issues.
War, sex, religion, race—highly emotive subject-matter that people tend to have strong views about are a quick way to draw a reader in. You don’t have to worry whether people will be interested in your story’s themes, because everyone’s interested in these sorts of themes.
At least, that’s how it seems.
In practice, while it’s easy to catch a reader’s attention with a topic that they already have strong feelings about, it can be a lot harder to maintain and build on that interest through the 300+ pages of a novel. And even harder to follow through with a satisfying ending.
While people may have strong opinions on these things, there are three basic questions you need to consider:
1. Even if it’s a hot button topic, why would people want to know your opinion?
There are those who are primed and ready to get into the topic du jour. Abortion, gays, immigration—plenty of people are heavily invested in these subjects and what society should do about them. A ready-made audience for stories exploring these themes, you would think.
But most of the people who feel emotionally and politically moved by these kinds of issues have already made up their minds. They tend to be more interested in being heard than listening to others, especially others with a different opinion. Or they want stories that reinforce their particular prejudices.
So what are you adding to the debate? Why would anyone care what you think?
You can certainly jump in there and have your characters push for one side or the other, but will it have people rushing to find out what conclusions you came too? Probably not.
You may make good points that people respond to, but they’ll have to read the book to see that. The question is, how are you going to get them to read the book if simply addressing big themes isn’t going to be enough?
And the answer is that it isn’t the theme in isolation that’s of interest to people, and it certainly isn’t your opinion about what’s good or bad or what we should do about it, what’s of interest is how you present the theme in story terms.
If my story about abortion is the story of a woman who discovers she’s pregnant, but isn’t sure what to do about it, you can see the conflict and the drama but there isn’t very much for the reader to hook into.
If the story is about a woman whose husband turns out to be psychotic serial killer and she discovers she’s pregnant, her quandary takes on an extra dimension.
If the story is about a woman who fakes her pregnancy to trick her boyfriend into marriage, thinks better of it and has a fake abortion, inadvertently becoming the poster-girl for the pro-choice moment, then the story becomes about a specific predicament rather than a general issue.
In each of the above cases I can explore the issue as much as I want, but for the reader deciding whether or not to give the book a go, what really matters is if the character’s dilemma is an interesting one.
2. Is your take obvious and familiar to everyone already?
When you’re dealing with contentious issues, you’re probably dealing with issues that have been around for a long time and had plenty of stories written about them. Which means a lot of the arguments, for and against, will have been made before. War is horrible, unfair, run for profit and good for absolutely nothing, as we’ve been told many, many times. So if you want to write a story exploring the brutalities of this most popular of human past times, then how do you do so without flogging an already long dead horse?
Like with any cliché, the trick isn’t to ignore it or pretend it isn’t true. It is true, that’s how it became a cliché in the first place. The trick is to find a new way of getting the information to the reader.
Again, it’s the story question the reader needs to be aware of, not the thematic one.
If my war story is about a soldier who kills his own commanding officer, assumes his identity in an effort to dessert, but is captured by the enemy and his fellow POWs treat him as their leader, then I can still explore every aspect of war but what will engage readers initially is the personal journey of one person trying to get away with something he’s ill-equipped for but has little choice in attempting.
Making the issue the big selling point (Look, this story is about Ebola! Like in the news!) can work occasionally, sometimes very successfully, but it's rare and often down to luck and serendipitous timing. Making the story premise an interesting predicament or dilemma that also happens to deal with a contentious issue will allow you a lot more options.
3. You probably have strong opinions, but has that made you present a one-sided story?
The more contentious an issue, the more likely you, as the writer, have strong feelings about it. Some subjects are complex and have grey areas. Some don’t. If your story has a rape in it are you going to try and represent the rapist in a fair and balanced way?
But a one–sided story, even if it’s a one-sided issue, rarely makes for good drama.
The hero who’s right, who knows he’s right, and is eventually proven to be right, can work (James Bond and Indiana Jones rarely eat humble pie), but when it comes to issues, beating the drum relentlessly for Team A and making Team B look like chumps can get old very quickly.
At the same time, bear in mind that a story that looks at things from many angles and gives everyone a chance to have long debates so that we can see that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, tends to be incredibly flat and tedious.
So if too balanced is boring, and too one-sided isn’t much better, how do you write a story that allows for more than one point of view without losing focus and watering things down too much?
The answer is that the only opinion that really matters is that of your main character. The protagonist, not the writer, is who the reader wants to know about. The more certain the MC is about where he stands on an issue the better. Not only does this allow you to create a strong and focused character, but you can use other characters to challenge the MC’s views without weakening the overall theme since the MC’s views carry far more weight.
That doesn’t mean views are correct or that they can’t change—they can and they should. A character who’s unsure, who’s trying to work out how he feels about things is incredibly hard to write without coming across as weak and wishy-washy. It can be done, but more often than not it’s a sign of a wishy-washy writer.
And the great thing about a character who is sure where they stand is that when their beliefs are challenged, the struggle for them to find their footing again is far more interesting than someone who wasn’t particularly invested in the first place.
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