Updated: Aug 8, 2022
I can't count the number of times I've been asked to identify the "moral" of a story or a poem... but what if I told you that there need not be any "moral" to the story at all? That in fact, there shouldn't be?
Michael Kardos puts it best in the book The Art and Craft of Fiction when he writes:
"Nobody likes to be lectured to, even when it's disguised as a story. Especially when it's disguised as a story." (Kardos 144).
Remember, as a writer you aren't a teacher, preacher, or parent to your readers. No-one wants a lecture when they pick up a poem, short-story, or novel. It's not your job to show off what you know when you write—it's your job to tell a story. So don't force a theme on your readers. Theme will naturally emerge as you focus on developing elements of story in fiction and as as you use literary devices in poetry to highlight meaning.
Always remember that creative writing's strength is it's ability to explore complexities. Michael Kardos says:
"Fiction's strength is in its depiction of nuance, its admission that life is complicated. Writing a story that "teaches" a character (and, in turn, the reader) that it's wrong to drink and drive, say, by having the protagonist smash into a tree and cripple his wife, reduces the art form to an after-school special or public service announcement" (Kardos, 143).
Avoid getting preachy with your writing. Don't lecture your readers or talk down to them. Don't know better than them. Get off the high horse. Put the megaphone down. People have a built-in agenda detector, and your readers will know when your writing crosses the line from passion to platform, from devotion to doctrine. There is a difference between writing a manifesto and creative writing.
I hate being told how to think, how to feel, how to react. And you probably don't enjoy it either. Thus, you can guarantee your readers will also detest it. Fiction and poetry just aren't the avenues to push a message.
Now you may be thinking, "but isn't that precisely what writing does? Explore messages?" Well, yes and no. The long short of it is that intention and motivation in writing matter. In the New York Times article "Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?" Alice Gregory and Pankaj Mishra explore this complexity:
"Not only does moral preoccupation corrupt the artfulness of fiction, but fiction is an inefficient and insincere vehicle for moralizing. If an author’s motive is to impart a lesson, he would be better off writing a manifesto or publishing a pamphlet and distributing it free on the subway" (Alice Gregory and Pankaj Mishra).
To summarize, don't be Mr. Collins at the Bennett's dinner table, pulling out a book of sermons and moralizing right there and then, lest your readers react like Elizabeth and Jane!
What About Writing With Passion? Or Writing With A Message?
Writing without moralizing just means avoiding hitting your reader over the head with an ulterior motive, an agenda! Of course writers write to explore an idea, story, or to share something... or perhaps even to explore the consequences of a particular belief-set. But great fiction and great poetry embrace nuance even while exploring a particular idea, truth, belief, or moral.
Moralism that questions is worthwhile. Moralism that teaches should be off-limits.
4 Ways to Avoid Moralizing While Maintaining Thematic Strength
1. Use Subtlety to Your Advantage
Life is complex. There are always subplots occurring underneath the surface—always multiple issues and problems grappling for attention internally and externally. The more seamlessly and tightly you weave your themes, the stronger they will seem without the need for verbal remarks stating moral ideas in your writing. Writing always circles back to this key idea—show don't tell. Show your characters wrestling with morality, with ethics. Don't tell them how to deal with it!
As a writer, it is within your power to explore major themes subtly. And one of the best ways to do this is through writing the physical, emotional, and psychological responses of your characters when confronted with something that challenges their beliefs. Exploring themes subtly is more powerful than having your character pronounce "I don't agree with so and so topic" and ending the exploration there. Few people in life are truly comfortable with confrontation, and so it is entirely believable to have characters carry with them turbulent feelings of discomfort to sort through after being confronted with moral issues.
2. Be Self-Aware
While well-developed characters might make direct statements that reveal their opinions on social issues, politics, ethics, and values, it should never feel to a reader that a character is merely a vessel for YOUR (the author's) opinions. Understanding your own prejudices, beliefs, and values is key to differentiating between developing a character's voice vs. instilling a character with your own voice.
3. Include Opposing Viewpoints
One sure-fire way to make your writing dynamic—especially your dialogue and characterization—is through placing two characters with opposing values and beliefs together and exploring the consequences of their interactions. Further, this method prevents one idea from dominating the narrative and coming on too strongly to the reader. Writing this way allows a reader to take the time to understand a conflict from both sides, and to figure out on their own what they would do, or which side they believe is right, without you as the author dictating what is right.
4. Focus on Elements of Story
Of course, every story and poem must be about something—but rest assured that your fiction will naturally have strong themes through the organic process of developing character, conflict, plot, and through developing the morals, values, and ethics of your story-world. Further, be at ease knowing that theme emerges in poetry because every poem is a deliberate sharing of a truth, feeling, idea, or observation.
Gregory, Alice and Pankaj Mishra. "Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?" The New York Times, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/books/review/do-moralists-make-bad-novelists.html.
Kardos, Michael. The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer's Guide, 2nd Ed, Bedford / St. Martin's Macmillan Learning, 2017, print.