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First, I'll explain what I mean when I say core idea of a work of fiction. It is the concept that the fictive work tries to be communicate (be it a poem or a piece of prose) through its metaphors, symbols, similes, plot, characters, etc. This idea can be a moral, or it could just be an interesting idea. I'm limiting this to fictive works, as these are the works in which one is traditionally told the ideas shouldn't be explicitly shoved down someone's throat, whereas in factual works, it should be made as clear as possible.


Sometimes I worry that the plot, characters and literary techniques in a work of mine don't paint a clear enough picture. Sometimes I don't. I think I've found out what kind of properties make a work susceptible to this kind of concern:

  1. The idea it tries to convey is quite complex, and thus less likely to be understood.
  2. The way I try to convey it happens to invoke other, unwanted ideas that may be mistaken as the core message.

As for (1), I'm not implying that the reader can't understand the concept (although with very complex ideas, that too is a concern). Thing is, just because the reader can understand the concept, doesn't mean they can infer it from a bunch of metaphors and whatnot. I feel like the simpler the concept, the easier it is to communicate clearly through literary techniques. However, the more complex concepts are also able to be communicated these ways, but it requires subtleties that I feel either go unnoticed, or are too ambiguous.

Now sometimes, I like making ambiguous art. I like leaving interpretation up for the reader. However, this is when I've interpreted my work in multiple ways, finding entertainment and meaning in those different interpretations, and suspecting that there's more interpretations to be had. Sometimes however, I have a very clear interpretation in mind, and although it's often fine that other interpretations are had, I don't want anyone to miss that one intended interpretation. Other times however, I recognize that the work is in a kind interpretative mine field, where a lot of the other interpretations are not just unintended, but unwanted: this is what I mean by (2).

So, here's my question: is it okay to create work that is dependent on a separate, explicit explanation? As in, it can be enjoyed without the explanation, but when enjoyed as such, it will likely be misunderstood, or be experienced as without deeper meaning. Then, the explicit explanation, available in some way or another, is read, and thus a new experience of the work is had. Basically, the work is acceptably enjoyable in isolation, but the work isn't truly experienced without the extratextual element.

Some of you may be tempted to say: if you don't have the ability to communicate the message, then you simply don't have the ability. You may say if a work that is split into two elements, one implicit (the story or poem), and one explicit (the explanation), that's a bad short-cut. However, that is dismissing the possibility that there are ideas out there that cannot be "safely" communicated through fiction, meaning no matter the author's ability, it would always require an explicit explanation to be truly understood. And what's so bad with a work that is first read by an uninformed reader, before being retroactively understood (and potentially reread) via the explanation, giving the reader aha moments and letting them appreciate the ways of communication that the work displays, despite those communications being insufficient in the absence of explicit explanation?


Here are some examples of where context was needed for the work to be experienced properly (a), and where an explicit explanation was needed for the work to be understood, and thus experienced properly (b).

(a) 13.43 to 15.39 of this video

(b) This poem and it's subsequent explanation in a comment (see the long one made by OP in response to a commenter's questions)

EDIT:

I want to say that I'm looking at this from the perspective of someone writing a smaller work. These issues are most relevant to smaller pieces, as one has less material to communicate the idea (with a long novel, a complex idea is easier to get across, as one can drive the point home more strongly with repetitions and looking at the idea/moral from many different angles). Furthermore, the proposed solution of using an extratextual element to explain a confusing piece, and try to motivate the reader to reread, isn't likely to work with a novel. I think most readers would stop reading, as existing in a long state of confusion and uncertainty, as would be created by a convoluted novel, isn't enjoyable. And then to expect the casual reader to actually reread it shortly after the explanation is also unrealistic in my opinion. A confusing short story or poem however, can actually be quite fun.

So, definitely respond to this question with general comments about fiction of any length, but I'd like to encourage responses focused on shorter fiction, as I think that's most relevant here.

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  • A Fable usually ends up with a maxim - is it what you are looking for?
    – Alexander
    Dec 8, 2021 at 19:39
  • @Alexander The side project that I'm working on that spawned this question is actually a fable (I think, the animals are anthropomorphized). How long do maxim's tend to be? I wrote a little text, mainly for my own guidance, that explicitly explained the meaning of the story. I think it's too big for a maxim though, consisting of three paragraphs.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 8, 2021 at 23:35
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    I can't say how long a maxim should be, but in my opinion a good maxim must be short, like a punchline.
    – Alexander
    Dec 9, 2021 at 18:34
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    I'm fairly sure there are plenty of works of fiction that have books written about hidden meaning within (whether intended by the author or not). There's also books like "science of discworld", that alternate chapters of fiction and science. And books where characters discuss or read from (fictional) books. Or you could have a narrator tell a story about his/her life, and reflect on it. There's a lot of places you could go with this.
    – towr
    Jan 7 at 10:12

4 Answers 4

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In my opinion: No, it is not okay.

The closest you can come to that, which may suffice, is to engineer your plot and story so that some central character comes to the conclusion that is, in fact, the complex message you wanted to convey with the whole work.

However, even then, you need to be able to convey this message without a soliloquy, perhaps you can also engineer the plot and story so that this explanation unfolds in a conflict over some time, providing tension and drama that make it easier for readers to swallow the "philosophy."

A good fictional read is emotionally engaging for the reader, an escape into other lives where they can safely grieve in the losses of others, exhilarate in the bravery and triumph, and be excited about "what comes next" throughout the story.

For the vast majority of readers, the classroom is not entertaining. They don't care about whatever philosophy we're spouting. They'll buy in to whatever premise we like; temporarily.

I suggest you make your argument within the fictional world. If it needs examples, bring those examples to life by illustrating them in the fiction, and then later just make reference to them during the argument, in plausibly short dialogue -- "It's just like what happened to Mary!"

The maxim for "show don't tell" has a quite wonderful corollary. Showing takes longer than telling. In fact, showing in an entertaining, dramatic, tense way can be hundreds of times longer than showing; Mary's experience, which we refer to in a line of dialogue, can take a chapter by itself.

This makes the argument for your philosophy shorter, you don't have to explain your examples because the reader already lived through them.

Another time-tested technique that can be successful is "Stranger in a Strange Land." Like Gulliver's Travels; Gulliver is the Stranger, and visits or gets stranded on islands with strange beings and cultures. But Gulliver is like us, and everything surprising about the culture is something Gulliver can plausibly explain.

The most recent incarnation of this I have seen is the series "Resident Alien" (begun in 2021), an alien crash lands on Earth, disguises himself as human, and must fit in with human culture, which is largely a comedy about our own (small town American) culture.

You may be able to do much more explication about your philosophy with that story structure, the POV "stranger" is a foil that needs explanations for everything that goes into your philosophy, and the arguments are made piecemeal.

As a general rule, however, the answer is NO. Do not include the lecture. If you cannot explain the core idea through your characters in an entertaining way, then don't write about it at all in fiction. It is not entertainment, and that is what people are buying, not a Trojan Horse for your classroom lecture.

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  • I accepted this answer, because not only did you give a reason behind your stance (a reason I agree with, the classroom is not fun for most people), but you also gave me alternatives to my problematic solution. I was starting to form this idea of having the different morals prop up in my story, as it makes a lot of sense given the plot. But the moral I want to make would actually be the inverse to the moral that's directly explored in the story.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:22
  • This way, I'm able to explicitly, yet indirectly, explain and show the moral, in a way that makes sense given the story. Your answer gave me confidence in this solution, whilst also giving a good reason for why my original solution was unlikely to work, and teaching/reminding me of more solutions. The stranger in a strange land is a good one, one that I completely forgot when considering this conundrum.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:22
  • @A.Kvåle Excellent, good luck. Glad I could point you in a worthwhile direction.
    – Amadeus
    Jan 8 at 22:41
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No. Well, almost always no:

From your explanation, I suspect you are looking for justification of the view that it's okay to be explicit about the goals of a story. If so, you may not end up picking my answer. But hopefully you'll appreciate the point.

In a work of fiction where you are trying to convince people to somehow shift their perspective on the world, you CAN explicitly tell people what you're trying to do - but I wouldn't recommend it.

All the cases where the author has been explicit about the goals of the story are examples that felt like telling-not-showing. I'm not saying you CAN'T sometimes tell, not show, but if you can't show people what the whole point of your work is, you aren't doing a good job of showing it to them.

Telling them, "I'm trying to make a point about the evils of date rape!" doesn't serve the point of educating people on the evils of date rape. It instead makes the book about date rape, not about telling a story that emotionally connects with the reader. Anyone who simply wants an entertaining story stops reading, because it is apparently not about entertainment. Anyone who feels justified somehow about date rape they might carry out is offended and stops reading instead of experiencing the situation from a different perspective. Anyone wanting to read about the evils of date rape already has their mind made up about the subject and you aren't persuading them of anything.

If the point you are trying to make is too complicated to relay in a story, fine. DON'T relay it in a story. Do a social commentary, or blog about it, or write a documentary. I've read too many stories where an author ruined a perfectly good story beating their point to death. I quit reading those authors.

If the sub-plots or sub-points are so involved or central to the story that the reader can't tell which is which, then you may need to either compromise the purity of your message for the sake of a good tale, or ruthlessly cut out all those other sub-messages to make your point. Personally, if I'm making more than one point, I'm not upset if someone gets a slightly different message out of it - as long as it isn't the reverse of what I was trying to relay.

One exception to this is if it is a mystery/suspense story, and you have a big reveal at the end. In this case, being a little more explicit is in the core of the reveal. So if we discover that the villain was really trying to get revenge throughout the story, but all their actions led to their own downfall, you can be a bit more explicit about the "revenge is self-destructive" point at the end. In this kind of story, however, the point you make should still be clear enough that clever readers will have seen it coming, while average readers will at least say, "Aha! NOW I understand why THAT part happened, and how!" or at the very least, "I totally didn't see that coming - but in a good way."

Another exception is in an extremely short form. Personally, I don't like short stories specifically because it's incredibly challenging to pack in a point in a small space without being overly overt (or just stating your point). I have great admiration for those who can. In a REALLY short form (like a parable or a children's story), the story itself tends to take a back seat to the point of the story - and in most, the point IS explicitly stated. Often, the parable is simply an illustration of the point the author is making, or even a mnemonic for the point. You aren't reading it for the story, you're reading it for the point. But even Jesus gets a little frustrated when he needs to explain the point.

Think about the parable of the good Samaritan and you think about people doing the right thing unselfishly. But even here, there's subtext. Samaritans were the despised people in Jewish culture, almost synonymous with evil. It is an answer to a question, and the question was "Who is my neighbor?" The road to Damascus was twisty and a perfect place for robbers to hang out. Stopping to help someone was taking your lif in your own hands. Your neighbor is defined in the parable as the one who treats you like a neighbor, not the person who lives close to you or is technically virtuous and deserving. It teaches both who your neighbor is, but also how you should behave to BE a neighbor. It's really dense.

Sure, sometimes you need to be more overt in how you message the point of your story. But the more overt you are with it, the more you risk turning off readers. I wrote a story about violence begetting violence, and evil decisions for good causes resulting in more evils. But it got quite tricky to balance rule-of-cool action scenes with the message that all this fighting was ultimately pointless and even counterproductive. The very people I wanted to reach (those glorifying or attracted to violence) were the same people who wouldn't respond to overt messaging. There was a lot of rewriting to get the tone just right, but in the end I hope it turned out well.

If I failed to deliver the right message, at least it was a pretty good story.

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  • [1/2] "I'm not saying you CAN'T sometimes tell, not show, but if you can't show people what the whole point of your work is, you aren't doing a good job of showing it to them." This is the point I mentioned in my post. Imagine an idea. For some reason, this idea does not lend itself well to be implicitly communicated through fiction in a way that makes it visible to the reader, simply from reading that piece of fiction. Do you think such an idea can exist? If no, why (why is very important here, it gets at the crux of the problem)? If yes, is it okay to explicitly explain the idea in some way?
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:16
  • [2/2] You may be thinking, if it doesn't lend itself well to be communicated well through fiction, then use non-fiction to communicate it! Well, here's the thing; the idea can be communicated in a very entertaining, thought-provoking way through fiction, but it just isn't clear enough on its own. It needs explicit explanation, for the reader to understand everything and then enjoy how the idea is communicated through the fiction. Also, just for context, I don't run into these problems with novels and whatnot. More with shorter stories and poems, that are quite philosophical in nature.
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:19
  • @A.Kvåle I DO think such ideas can exist. But if they are so complex or difficult to explain that you can't make it clear in a story without being explicit, then story format isn't the right format. Write a parable. Jesus can totally get away with explaining his point. I can't get away with it, though, and I haven't seen a story yet where i wasn't resentful of an author when they did so. I feel cheated.
    – DWKraus
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:20
  • "It instead makes the book about date rape, not about telling a story that emotionally connects with the reader. Anyone who simply wants an entertaining story stops reading, because it is apparently not about entertainment." So a book cannot be about a moral and be entertaining? I know that when one shoves the moral down the reader's throat throughout the work, that makes it less entertaining. But that isn't necessarily the same thing as just explicitly stating the moral at some point. In fact, in what I proposed, the moral/idea is stated in a different, separate text, hence "extratextual".
    – A. Kvåle
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:21
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    @A.Kvåle I hope someone else gets you a good answer. I feel a bit negative with this one, but it fits my understanding and philosophy. But there are as many views on the world as there are people to look.
    – DWKraus
    Dec 8, 2021 at 5:51
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It's (mostly) fine to make statements after-the-fact about what you really meant in a story

Assuming the story you plan to write and publish is successful enough that people are talking about it for weeks, years, generations afterwards - then there will be people who will examine your correspondence, essays, etc, to get an understanding of this or that point, or of your general intent. Tolkien's after-the-fact letters about the Lord of the Rings have been scoured for what he had in mind in regards to different characters, what his inspirations were, what the "message" was, or whether he thought well or poorly of fiction written with a "message".

However. People may be annoyed if you announce afterwards that what you "really meant" and "what people MUST take away" is X, if X doesn't seem to be the point, and isn't what people were getting from the story. I have been told that the creators of the Matrix stories afterwards asserted that the "Red Pill" was a metaphor for gender transitioning. This takes a story that impressed many people, not only in its special effects and choreography, but with the pop-philosophy conundrum that you can't truly know if what you always thought was real is actually real, or is somehow an illusion/simulation plastered over a "more real" reality. Thinning out such a broadly appealing exploration of truth and choice into a narrow experience that is alien to the majority of people isn't going to make the story more appealing for more than a few people, at best.

In that vein:

No, don't tie your story to a moral if your intention is to lecture

Well, I guess it depends on the length of your piece of fiction.

I'm actually all for a story which revolves tightly around a moral question. But the thing about novels, or other longer stories, is that they are roomy things, with lots of space to consider many facets of an idea. If you take 500 pages to tell me that stealing is wrong, you're wasting your time, and you're wasting my time; you can get that out in three words. In 500 pages, you need to explore something actually complex, preferably without simple, obvious resolutions. If you can summarize your point in 3 paragraphs (enough to summarize even a fairly complex idea), why write a novel?

If you want to explore how stealing, even when seemingly justified, even when easy to get away with, might poison the thief, and even poison the beneficiaries of the thief's subsequent generosity, that might be worth 500 pages. If you wanted to explore the hypocrisy and self-destructiveness of those who are only too willing to take when the opportunity arises, but are willing to throw away their fortunes pursuing vengeance on those who take from them... That might be worth a couple of hundred pages, though I would also expect interesting sub-plots.

Another problem with having an explicit moral or point in a long story is that you may tip your hand if you haven't yourself really thought through what you're saying. In a once well-known but now forgotten novel, Elsie Venner, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the author is not shy about telling the reader he wants to moralize about his view that evil, if inborn (ala the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden), should be viewed a medical condition to be treated, rather than as a moral deformity to be condemned. However, while there are two characters you are meant to be tolerant of the (murderous) foibles of (Elsie, and her wild-because-of-his-half-Spanish-heritage cousin), there is no forgiveness or sympathy for the other villain of the story, an Grinchly school principal who overworks his employees for profit. Holmes seems disinterested in exploring the "medical" underpinnings of capitalistic fervor, unlike with the desire to murder, or to marry someone against her will to inherit a fortune.

Many of the writers of the great classics openly moralize, from Dickens to Victor Hugo and on. But the questions wrestled with in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Hugo's Les Miserables, or Shakespeare's Hamlet, don't refine down to one complete and settled position you can sketch out and be done with. If you're writing a novel around a specific point which can be "revealed" elsewhere, you're probably not writing a very good novel, not because your point is too complex, but because it's too simple.

If you're talking about a 3-stanza poem, on the other hand... Sure, write a clever, evocative poem, dripping with imagery and allusion, whose "real meaning" can be still be summarized in another piece.

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  • [1/3] "If you take 500 pages to tell me that stealing is wrong, you're wasting your time, and you're wasting my time (...)". The complexity required to communicate an idea depends not just on the complexity of the idea itself, but also the depth of analysis. Imagine a 500-page book that explores different viewpoints on stealing; only to pick one of them, show why it is somehow superior, that one viewpoint being the one that says stealing is bad.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:06
  • [2/3] This approach to tackling the different viewpoints of the question involves communicating those viewpoints through literary techniques, which makes everything more ambiguous. Therefore, to lessen that ambiguity, you need to find as many ways to say the same thing, using logos, pathos and even ethos, as well as employing different analogies, using different symbols, etc. It is a harder, more indirect way of communicating a stance or an idea, but it also a more entertaining way. That's a part of the point of fiction; you trade clarity and/or concisity for entertainment.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:10
  • [3/3] So, it then follows that if you don't make this trade, i.e. you don't make a work of fiction, but rather an explanatory piece, then you'll get more clarity and/or concisity (probably both). So, I disagree with your point: "If you're writing a novel around a specific point which can be "revealed" elsewhere, you're probably not writing a very good novel, not because your point is too complex, but because it's too simple." The fact that you can write it a lot more concise in a different format, is just a product of how fiction versus factual writing works.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:12
  • So, given my above comments, it is clear that my problem here is a concern for clarity. I fear that, given the complexity of my idea, as well as the interpretative mine field it lies in, a short story wont be clear enough to communicate it safely. I could, of course, make a longer story; I do believe that I'd actually be able to reach a level of clarity that I'm comfortable with in doing so. Thing is, I already have a few novels going, so I don't want to add another one. So basically, m situation can be generalized to: for some reason, I can't achieve good enough clarity; is it okay to (...)?
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 22:17
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It is a well accepted fact that you the author can ultimately do what you want.

In fact you could provide only half of each word, leaving the other half for the reader to figure out.

Readers may appreciate more explanations provided within the story

Fiction writing produces work that is often a form of escapism for the reader. To reach the end and be taught some maxim by a voice external to the story can be perceived as a forceful intrusion in an otherwise intimate moment.

Some children's book present maxims in an explicit manner to ensure that the message is received. If your readers are not children you can still give them the maxim explicitly by means of a voice internal to the writing, for instance having a character spell it out, or deliver it from an object in the story, e.g. finding it written in a book, receive a letter, or carved in stone in the secret place.

The -aha- factor is not diminished by including your explanation/reading-key within the story. For instance, 'In the Name of the Rose' includes a major explanation at the end of the book, which provides several consecutive -aha- moments without sounding like a lecture from the writer.

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  • 1
    +1 for pointing out that the aha-moments can be achieved without any extratextual element. I do want to say however, that if one is using the confusing-story-with-extratextual-explanation format, the "aha-factor" is likely to be bigger, as the reader will have gone through the beginning, middle and ending of a story, confused and unsure, only to have things explained (getting their first wave of ahas), and then reread the story (then getting their second wave). However, this only really fits with short pieces, as most people wouldn't want to read and reread a big, convoluted novel.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 20:40
  • "It is a well accepted fact that you the author can ultimately do what you want." Yes, and this is obvious. I'd say it is implicit in questions like these, that one is really meaning, "if I did this, is it likely to work as intended?" Of course I have the right to write about trains that find their wings and leave the tracks, only to live out life on Mars alongside the dinosaurs, but that doesn't mean I'll get my book published or that it'll be received well. It is the latter part I'm asking about. TLDR; "is it okay to? / is this allowed?" = "will this be received well?"
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 8 at 20:49

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