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The Heavy Hand of Didacticism

COLUMN BY JON GINGERICH MAY 16, 2012

It seems the deeper the thought, the less description is required. I dont know what lines or passages in stories do it for
you, but I can guarantee you didnt have to reach for an encyclopedia to hit that spellbound moment.

Many beginning writers forget about this. Theyre so wrapped up in the novelty of writing they often lose sight on what
makes these investigations special in the first place. Instead, their early descriptive efforts are littered with pointlessly
pedantic derailments or instructional intrusion because they arent convinced the reader will understand whats going on.
This is the practice known as didacticism, or a writers proclivity to be overly explanative, making the work appear as an
educational guide instead of a means of enlightenment. As pedagogical as it seems, its actually a practice found most
often in beginning writers work. Simply put, its the writers habit of making an overbearing presence in the story, where
heavy-handed gestures are made either at the plot or the storys central meaning. And it can kill an otherwise strong
story very quickly.

One of the most common behaviors Ive noticed in first drafts is a tendency to litter the plot with lengthy passages of a
writers inner thoughts. In other words, a scene simply showcases the writer talking to him/herself instead of delivering
the narrative fundamentals to show us whats going on. How many times have you read a story where a scene is
interrupted with a jarring bit of internal dialogue such as: What would Rick do, now that he discovered his wife had
cheated on him? I dont know: why dont you show us? This habit rears its head in other ways too. Out-of-place
witticisms and inappropriate irony find their way onto the page, the voice is self-conscious and ill-fitting, and all the wrong
things are described and invariably, theyre described for a beat too long. Unfortunately, for many beginning writers
myself definitely included this practice has an embarrassing habit of making us look like shut-in schizophrenics, no
matter how sound-of-mind we may be otherwise.

More than anything, theres almost always an aesthetic insecurity afoot in this practice, a tip-toed compulsion to assume
writers must explain every little detail in order for the reader to get it, when the best route instead would be to let the
dialogue and the characters actions speak for themselves. It simply isnt necessary, for example, to tell us that Rick was
pissed after catching his wife in bed with another man, when youve laid down the descriptive and dialogue
fundamentals to show us this is something that would definitely leave Rick pissed. And while its usually not the writers
intention, pocking your prose with needless instruction reveals a mistrust in your readers ability to comprehend whats
glaringly obvious. Worse however, is the fact that for the reader, the same rule applies: when the narrator feels a
compulsion to let us in on every little detail, its by dint of the assumed notion that he/she essentially has no faith in
his/her own storytelling authority.

When the story is slightly more complex, this officious narrative habit can manifest itself when the writer begins
repeatedly making heavy-handed hints at the overarching theme behind the story. Youll see this in work submitted in
MFA programs all the time. Stories begin wearing their symbolism on their sleeve; theres a self-conscious effort by the
writer to explain the metaphorical Easter eggs theyve littered throughout the work, and the result is always something
clumsy and embarrassingly pedestrian. Imagine if the train in Hills Like White Elephants was titled Abortion Express,
or if the couple in the story was drinking back alley beer. When the writer begins repeatedly sharing winks with the
reader over the storys thematic armature, those metaphorical suggestions youve spent so much time crafting can no
longer do their intended behind-the-scenes lifting. And while it may not be your intention, this habit has a nasty tendency
of telling us youre desperately trying to prove how clever you are.

To be clear: reserving your explanative proclivities is not an attempt at literary ambivalence. On the contrary, its an
exercise in clarity. Writers should rely on real, accurate, visual, concrete concepts and characteristics so you can hook
readers with a specific and then bring them to the abstract. Its also an exercise in trust. Dont worry about our ability to
decode the thematic. The human mind is designed to see patterns. You dont have to reveal the wizard behind the
curtain in order for us to pick up on the symbolic ideas orbiting a story.

Readers get to the big ideas from the small. Consider this interesting paradox: the more abstract a concept, the more the
listener has a tendency to specify it so as to make it applicable to his/her own life. By contrast, the more specific a
concept, the more the reader has a tendency to abstract it so as to decode its overarching meaning. So dont wallow in
the abstract, and dont explain with a heavy hand. Its the writers job to enlighten. More often that not, this means you
just need to let the facts speak for themselves.

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