Show the Heart, Tell the Mind

Last time I wrote, I contended that Christian writers should preach in their fiction. But I think we all agree that we shouldn’t be preachy. There’s a difference between preaching and being preachy.

This week I’d like to talk about two movies that opened in theaters last night.
One, you’ve heard of: The Hunger Games. The other one, October Baby, is lesser known. 

I read The Hunger Games several years ago, and last night I
saw October Baby.
Two stories. Two messages.  
Both preached, but only one felt preachy to me.
Let’s look at Suzanne Collins’s story first. The Hunger
Games books, as great as they are, have their faults. The story world is as three-dimensional as a map drawn by cavemen. The action, particularly in
the last book, reads like a violent video game on a shot of 5-hour ENERGY. But
one charge no one has laid on the books is that they are preachy.
Is this because Collins has no message? Nope. Her anti-war
message comes out, loud and clear. In her books she’s saying that war is bad.
That we have met the enemy and he is us. That there are no good guys. That even
the winners come home broken.
Collins has said in interviews that growing up as an army brat affected her. Her father was gone a lot when
she was little. She waited for him to return. She worried. When he finally came
home he suffered with nightmares.
It is no surprise, then, to find an absent father in The Underland Chronicles and in The Hunger Games trilogy, or to find soldier characters who are hurt and haunted by
the brutalities of war.
And yet, the books are not preachy. No one says, “War is hell.” Or, “War
is costly and even the winners go home broken.” Collins gets all that across by keeping that rule we all
learned first: Show, don’t tell.
That’s what fiction is all about. Right?
Last time, I quoted Pullman
as saying, “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once
upon a time’ to reach the heart.”
That’s just another way to say “telling” reaches
the head, but “showing” reaches the heart.
Collins shows people dying. She doesn’t need to tell us war
is bad. We’ve suffered through it with Katniss. We watch the broken warriors
limping off the field of battle.
With October Baby, on the other hand, there was some telling.
I hate to discourage anyone from seeing it. It was a wonderful movie that
accomplished what it set out to do and the acting was very good. I’m glad I saw
it instead of The Hunger Games. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t preachy in
places.
I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers, but if you are
going to see the movie, you should watch it before you read any more. Because if
you read my complaints it will probably take away from your enjoyment of the
scenes I discuss.
Still here?
OK, then…
October Baby is about a nineteen-year-old girl who finds out
she was adopted. Worse yet, her birth mother aborted her. She sets out on a
road trip to find her birth mother. It’s a good movie. Very good. There were a
couple of flaws, though. There’s a clichéd scene in which a priest tells Hannah
she has to forgive. That’s preachy because the priest wasn’t put into the story
early enough. He feels contrived. And why contrive something like that
unless you want to preach? Which is exactly what happened.
But I want to look at the preachy scene that came about when
the writer got some telling in, via the nurse who was present at Hannah’s birth.
The movie had effectively shown that unborn babies, aborted at twenty-two weeks
gestation, are living human beings. The young woman is standing right in front
of us. A living person. If we didn’t think abortion was murder before, we have to ask ourselves now, what it is exactly. This girl was alive and her mother tried to kill her. There’s no other way to look at it.
So I was disappointed when the nurse said something like,
“They said it was a mass of tissue. That’s all. Just tissue. Not
alive.” And then later, “You were born and I didn’t see tissue. I saw
a living person,” or something along those lines.
This is preachy. It’s telling. It’s appealing to my head.
It’s making a logical argument.
And it’s out of place in a novel or a movie.
If the main character already knows a thing then the reader
has already seen and there is no need to tell, just to make sure readers get it.
Preaching in Christian fiction has been a hot topic this week. Check out Becky MillerMike Duran, and Mike Dellosso if you want to hear more arguments for and against the practice.
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 is the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com