Being a Better Writer: The Soapbox

Lately I’ve been thinking about soapboxing. It might have something to do with the current Hugo Controversy. Or it might just be because I’ve been reading writing forums here and there and seen the topic come up a few times. Regardless, I’ve got soapboxing on my mind, so today we’re going to talk about it a little bit.

Don’t worry, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

So, to start off, what is soapboxing, and more specifically, what is it to us in the terms that we are most interested in, AKA writing? Well, the original term comes from the days when individuals would would publicly campaign for things on street corners. Back in the day, if you wanted to get someone’s attention while standing on the street, one of the best ways to do this was to get up above the crowd so that you were highly visible. So, for this, obviously, you’d want a platform of some kind to stand on. And since most goods came in sturdy wooden crates way back when, a soap box was pretty easy to get one’s hands on. So, if you wanted to speak in public and get others attention, you’d make for yourself an improvised speaking platform out of an old soap crate—aka the soapbox. Over time, the name of the implement came to be associated with the act itself, and so the term “soapboxing” came to mean using a temporary platform to espouse one’s own ideas and concepts. Of course, as history marched on, the platform itself began to change and new avenues of soapboxing made themselves available. No longer was speaking in such a manner confined to a street corner. Speakers had a wide variety of manners in which they could spread their message. But the term stuck.

Which brings us to today. Soapboxing, at least in the writing world, is the art—or maybe I should say act—of using one’s position as the author of a story to directly speak about or spread personal views and beliefs on issues. Many well-read readers have come across such moments in a story. The action grinds to a halt, the characters almost look directly at the reader, and a view or an opinion on a subject is offered.

This is poor writing. But especially when it becomes clear to the reader that the whole point of the scene was for the author to shove their opinion at their reader, we as readers tend to put the book down. But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to.

Because the way I see it, soapboxing at its root concept isn’t actually a bad thing. Bear with a me for a moment and please extinguish the torches. This will make sense.

Note that I said “at its root.” That’s the key issue here, because I want us all to think back and ask ourselves a question: what is a story without theme?

Well, nothing. A theme is something that is woven into the core of the story, a concept or idea that is part of the characters, part of the narrative, that makes the reader think. And each story that is written with a theme as part of its design is going to present an idea or a concept to the reader. Which is exactly what soapboxing does.

“Now, hold on,” you might be saying. “Soapboxing is different.” And you’re right, it is different, in the same way that a tumor is different from the body’s normal healing process. But that’s why I would argue that at it’s core ideal soapboxing isn’t bad. What soapboxing is happens to be poor writing and poor execution, rather than something that is altogether bad. Because a good story should have a theme, just like a good healthy body should have a healing process. The problem is that a writer takes that theme a few steps too far, and it turns into something that becomes entirely off-putting.

So then, if we want to put themes into our work, how do we avoid that mistake and keep things from becoming the dreaded soapbox? Or, in other words, what are some signs that we might have drifted into the soapbox and might need to take a step back?

The first, and most obvious sign is if our character’s words or actions are no longer concerned with the story. This is the easiest way to spot a soapbox. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty common occurrence among young writers who come into the field with an axe to grind. Now, this can happen a couple of different ways, but the most common one is usually a thinly-veiled monologue or out-of-place scene. A scene that has little to do with the story, or sometimes even with the characters, but serves only for the characters to address an idea or concept and pitch it at the reader. Right behind this, and usually following on its heels, comes the second red flag—the declarative point. Especially if it, again, has little to do with the actual story.

These two are usually hand-in-hand. The story will come to a halt, and the reader can often feel as if the characters are looking right at them and saying something like “If you don’t agree with ____ ____ ____ then you’re just a fool!” And suddenly the reader’s interest drops out to the bottom, because the few people who are going to overlook such a statement are the ones who already agree with it.

That’s a mess. And it might not be the only one. Have you ever read a book where something happened that really didn’t feel that vital to the plot overall, almost like the scene itself had only been written to get a single character to deliver a single, opinion-charged line? It happens, and again, this is a case where an author has gotten up on their soapbox. There’s usually no real relevance to the scene (though if the soapboxing is more competent there might be a small relevance), but rather the entire scene was constructed and glued into the story to serve as a machine to advance the author’s stance.

Obviously, we don’t want these things to happen in our writing (unless you’re really, really sure you can make it by just writing to one small, specific subgroup). But we can’t react by removing theme entirely. After all a story without theme is forgettable, no matter how well written. It makes us think, makes us ponder and revisit a story in our mind. We have to have theme. But at the same time, we need to make sure it doesn’t rage out of control. We need to keep it from becoming a tumor on our writing.

So, how do we do this? First, we need to remember that the theme of our work needs to be interwoven into both our story and our characters. This is a critical concept. Now, don’t misunderstand, our characters should not at any point be mouthpieces who exist only to drive home an idea, nor should the story. But when picking themes that you want to explore in your work, regardless of what those themes are, you should have characters and setting that allow you to explore those themes naturally, without having to force anything into place.

Second, we need to show, not tell (one of the instances where this actually is show don’t tell … please don’t misquote this) the varying ideas and concepts that make up that theme. Is your theme that family should be one of the most valuable things in our life? Don’t just have the characters tell us about it. Have the characters show us as they move through the story, experiencing the theme as a part of the narrative. Let the story explore some of the concepts of the theme rather than the characters simply talking about them. Or better yet, let the characters explore and experience them—good and bad.

Which brings us to the next point: Don’t just have a character make a declarative statement (and especially not at the reader). If they are going to make a statement about a theme, let it be because they’ve explored the theme over the course of the work, or maybe even come up against a foil in the antagonist. But do not, repeat, do not have your character face the reader and give a statement of declaration without a shred of support to back it up. And if that support does exist, it should be in the narrative, a part of the story itself.

Now, there’s the antagonist. Sometimes an antagonist serves as a dark mirror to the protagonist’s point of view. Sometimes not. But again, if you want to avoid soapboxing, don’t make your antagonist a thinly-veiled cardboard cutout villain whose only purpose it to provide a “rival” point-of-view (if you want to see what this looks like in action, watch any major US news network during a presidential campaign). If you really want to have a theme that’s explored in all its avenues, or at least, in a manner real to the reader, your antagonist needs to be more than just a stand-in. They need to have teeth. And if you give them teeth but can’t come up with a valid response from your opposing viewpoint? Well, you’ve just made the whole theme that much more gripping and though-provoking.

Now, what about the aforementioned scenes that exist only to have a character espouse a certain line or point of view? Well, let me put it this way: If you can’t write the story where it would make sense for that scene to occur and that character to say that line, then that scene and that line don’t belong in the story. Don’t do it. You’ll just be forcing an idea and forcing the story to step sideways when it really should move forward. If you can’t make the scene or the character work, don’t force it.

In the end, all of these points, each and every one of them, boil down to a simple, straightforward point: Don’t let the message take over the story. Did you ever watch those horribly put-together and patronizing “anti-insert-evil-of-choice-here” TV shows as a kid? Those were usually the result of valuing the message over the story, and the story is what the readers are there in the first place. They were soapboxes. The message became a tumor that clashed with the rest of the work.

So, do you want to write a story with a theme? Of course you do. But don’t forget that the theme needs to be a part of both the story and the characters. You need to make it part of the work. More importantly, you can’t neglect the story in favor of the message. If anything, when in doubt, focus on writing a good story and let the characters and narrative build the theme itself rather than trying to force things into place. The more you force things, the more you fight to push a vision into a story that clearly isn’t taking it, the more you lift your own voice above that of the characters. In other words, the more you soapbox. And your story begins to resemble a tumor: originally a useful mechanism of the whole, but now something overgrown and damaging the rest of the work.

Don’t let your stories develop tumors. Keep them healthy and fit, so they can run where they please and build a captivating world for your reader to get lost in.

Don’t let your themes become a soapbox.

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