You open a book you just found on the shelf at your local bookstore. The summary in the inside cover intrigues you and you’re eager to see if it lives up to all the praise on the book jacket. You begin reading and find it enjoyable. The characters are likable and relatable, and there’s enough suspense that you want to know what happens. But then something odd happens: the story stops.
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You’re confused; the characters start talking about how they all need to work together to save the environment. Which is important, yes, but that wasn’t what the book was about! You flip ahead to see if maybe it’s just a fluke, but you find it mentioned several times in the book.
You put the book down. You never intended to pick up a book with environmental themes anyhow.
Theme! There’s a word most readers hoped not to hear after high school English. It isn’t hard to understand why—many readers just want to enjoy a story, not pick apart the narrative in order to settle on what the author thinks of important issues.
So when an author decides to derail a narrative in order to preach to the audience what he or she thinks, it just brings the audience’s mind back to the classroom where teachers insist what the lesson learned in the novel was.
My point being: readers don’t like being preached to. To paraphrase Stephen King: “Story comes FIRST.” The story is generally what the audience is invested in, not the underlying ideas you’re pushing, and if the story stops being entertaining for the sake of pushing a public service announcement, they’re not going to be grateful.
This isn’t to say that books shouldn’t have themes, or that authors shouldn’t try to tie in their stories to a greater context that makes sense in the real world. Themes are not bad; there are plenty of incredible novels with noticeable themes that teach and inform about the world.
But in fiction, a writer should not be willing to let pushing a message overtake the medium’s primary directive: telling a story.