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September 30, 2008



I totally agree with you. If you want something that might teach morals, buy a self-help or a religious book. Fiction, it's supposed to be fun and entertaining to read, to take you away from "real" life. Right? That's what I think. I have related well to the Twilight books. I met my husband when I was 15. We got married at 18. This was 20 years ago. I would never not tell my children about my experience just incase they decide to follow in my footsteps. There where other issues and the older two know about them, so far my 16 year old isn't following that direction.
I don't know if that made sense?


Thank you for saying this so well! It's funny, the Breaking Dawn furor... I happened to see in Breaking Dawn the (very true) message that happily ever after takes work! Just because you find the perfect guy doesn't mean that the wedding is the end of your troubles... and the fact that there were still some bad guys left at the end said to me that the troubles weren't over, that there would be other big conflicts in the future. Just because the book ended on a comparatively high note doesn't mean that there will never be lows again in that story; I came away feeling that even if I face impossible odds sometime, if I give my all, I may come out on top. The highs are worth the lows. And those are great, true-to-life messages, in my humble opinion.

So anyway, I'm glad you've tackled these issues of interpretation and reader responsibility in your last few posts! I agree that the book an author writes will become something different to different people... and that's okay. It's okay if a story really speaks to you, and it's okay if it's just a nice bit of fluff to help you unwind before bed. And if readers feel that certain stories have a hot-stove-burner effect, they need to put their fingers somewhere else next time; other readers may feel that that story saved them from freezing of cold.

So write on, dear authors, write on! :-)


Definitely, a reader's own situation in life and experiences are going to color the moral they see in the story and whether they agree with it or not.

I remember not being able to finish reading a very popular and famous book for book club a few years ago. I just could not get into it because all I could see was a whining "poor" little rich boy who had everything he could want and was mean to another kid who didn't have anything and even caused more struggles for this kid. I was having my own personal struggles and could not see past this interpretation of the story. That's not the writer's fault, it's mine. This is where my 50% of the reading experience comes into play. The author wrote a story, but it just didn't click with me.

Some adults believe that kids are more easily persuaded by what they read than they really are. The majority can read a book and know that it's just fiction and is not a manual for how to believe or act in real life. But there are kids who will be influenced by what they read. That's where the parents come in to know what their kids are reading.

I think it all comes back to your previous posts about author & reader responsibility. Authors should write the story to the best of their ability and reader's should judge whether the story is appropriate for them or their kids.

Great posts!

Speed Reader

Merritt Mecham

Usually I'm strictly a blog *reader*, but since I liked this post so much I just thought I might post something.

I definitely agree with you! A story:

I once was talking to a friend about Little Women, a book which is probably one of my all time favorites. She thought it was obnoxious. She felt that the author, Louisa May Alcott, was so very... preachy. She felt that the morals were so obvious.

I loved it. I really didn't understand how she could feel that way. Yes, I felt there were morals, but... preachy? It's just what you said: she chose to take those morals in a different way than I did.

Also, lots of times we're looking for the morals. In some ways, this is a good thing. If you're reading a book with something that's just waiting there for you to learn, maybe like To Kill A Mockingbird, I think you should look for the morals. But if you're reading for pure enjoyment, you really shouldn't: it ruins the book. The best books have a good balance between enjoyment and teaching.

Another thought: Maybe, just maybe... Maybe the moral comes through the story. Maybe some stories just have obvious morals just because that's the story that's being told. I'm not talking about the way we take it, that's our own opinion. But maybe the morals are *there* simply because the story being told needed it to be that way.

Just a thought!


Can I just tell you how much I enjoy reading your books & your blog. I am impressed with your ability to speak sense when those around you are speaking nonsense.
I think people most forget we are talking about fiction here. I don't ever remember thinking that my life was going to turn out like Anne Shirley's but even if I had does that mean I should not have read Anne of Green Gables, to save me from disappointment? Let's not be silly. For me reading is a way to escape, I do it because it makes me happy. Not to find a pattern to follow my life after.
I also wanted to add that I am excited to read your new book. And I hope you never let the "haters" get to you. Because I think you are awesome and so I am pretty sure my opinion is the most important.


My comments were so long they turned into a blog post


It's a tricky sort of thing, that's for sure. But I do have to say, that whatever moral we get from a story, we can never really claim that was the author's intention, because there is too much subjectivity.


Thank you for a well thought out and well articulated post. I feel there are a lot of people out there who need to take responsibility in their lives--too many people today are solely consumers and live this lifestyle without taking the time to process the information they receive more than a simple "yeah, I liked that" or a "I didn't like that." I've found in my life when I found out WHY I liked something and hated something else, I have enjoyed my experience with the book/movie/conversation/whatever it was much more than if I hadn't understood the why. I think the world could use a little more thought and a little less hasty judgment. Thanks again. :)


As to the Breaking Dawn fiasco, I totally agree with Gabriela. Yes, Bella may have gotten most everything she wished for, but she didn't get her happy ending with just a fairy-tale magic carpet ride. No. Over four books, Bella (and Edward, too) have had numerous hurdles and mountains to overcome, and who's to begrudge them just because they did? Don't they deserve a little bit of happiness in their lives? Yes, not everyone has a happy ending, but that is what's so wrong with the world today: we focus on the negative and less on the positive. Just look at the news and the books we high schoolers are assigned to read for English. These mass media publications more often than not are filled with tragedies and horrific tales. Well, people need a bit of happiness in their lives, and by golly, if it comes from reading a book where the character does get a happy ending (but only if she/he has to struggle to get it), then by all means, they should go for it.

Thanks for addressing these issues. They're something that needs to be addressed, both among the literati and regular schoolkids. Your diligence in taking your time to air out these issues really shows how much you care. I hope you post more informative and entertaining stuff soon!

Becky Williams

I hate it when an author force feeds it's oatmeal of a message into the story. I find it somewhat insulting to my intelligence, assuming I can't take a good story and digest it for myself. Scott Westerfields Uglies series and James Pattersons' Maximum Ride series both started out with an awesome story, but book by book each one turned into a moral with a story as opposed to a story with a moral. They went so far as to give you The Idiots guide to this message at the end of the books, just in case you didn't catch blatant lacing of guilt for not sharing the authors opinion. Give me a great story and I'll tell you what I got out of it!


I think I know what trilogy you were talking about, and if so, I feel rather the same way.

I love how you put so much emphasis on the reader when writing these editorials, because truly, most of a book is determined by how it affects the reader, not how the writer writes it. Naturally, the writer must present the story in the way that makes the writer happy, but the reader must read it and take what they will out of it in order to give the book meaning.


Really? Are we still on this? With all due respect, I'm surprised that there is quite so much to say about the "relationship" between writers and readers. I think it's silly for me to assume that anyone writing a book is doing it to please me, a reader they've never met...and as a writer, I'd say it's equally silly to assume that any reader of my material owes me any special consideration - they're already giving time and attention, what more do I want? We write. We read. We do all of these things for ourselves. Not because of some "responsibility" we "owe" to other writers / readers. I'm surprised this is not understood.

Granted, Web 2.0 gives us some really wonderful opportunities to join virtual communities and express every single insignificant reaction we feel to everything that crosses our paths. We find like-minded people this way; we feel included. We do this for ourselves as well. (Sometimes we get scary and extreme, but hey, technology always has trade-offs.)

Now, some people don't get it. OK. I have certain thoughts about those people which I won't express here, because it would force you to censor my comments, and no one wants that. But after you explain the obvious a few times, in great detail, isn't it clear that either a)they're never going to get it, or b)they're not reading the explanations in the first place. Either way, isn't it enough, already?

You do your thing(b/c you really do it well!) People will do their thing (often very badly.) And everyone can live happily ever after, or not - just as they choose.

Dr. Sallie N. Cheinsteen

So the author writes for their internal reader. I get that, and agree with you. I also get and agree with the fact that you shouldn't cram a moral down someone's neck. I also think though, that a writer who writes for themselves and really tries to convey the emotions they feel into their writing unconsciously produce a moral. This is not for all writers. But I think a lot of writers have books that have depth in them, and that depth (and the way it is understood) could be considered a moral. Just a thought.


Hear hear!
You've certainly changed my views. I shall never under -regard an author again. Take everything with a grain of salt. I see now that negativity is just spiteful- no one would dare to say bad things to the author's face. How rude! No matter how much I've disliked a book doesn't mean that the author didn't like it too... of course not! It's selfish to assume that the author (or other readers too) don't have any feelings. Books are only windows to the soul! Any book well written will have some view of another person, and one would do well to learn from them!


First of all, I love these posts. And now my thoughts:

Morals in a story primarily reflect the morals of the writer. If they do not, it probably means the writer is adjusting his/her views for the readers, which usually does not make for a very good book.

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it." -Jesse Stuart

Enna Isilee

I concur, plain and simple. For me, when I don't like a book, I stop reading it. That's it. Not every book fits me, and I understand that. Sometimes it makes me sad when one of my favorite authors writes a book that doesn't fit me, but c'est la vie. Eh?

Miss Erin

Thanks for all your "how to be a reader" posts - I am ever so grateful for them. I truly appreciate all the thought and effort you've put into them...and I agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said!


Shannon I always think you're brilliant and articulate, but I also think that there is a definite line between "cramming a moral down someone's throat" and the writing of a story that has, as one part of its creation, deeper message and meaning.

Yes the story comes first, it should or it will be total dreck, but I think great stories can arise from a combination of great story telling and social or moral issues. Somebody mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird earlier, which I think is an excellent example of this.

I hope this isn't too obnoxious to say, but I also think that sometimes saying "Its just a story" or "Its just entertainment" belittles the legitimate concerns that a reader (or that readers parents) might have with a story's content and message. Yeah, you can't make a federal case out of every little thing, but moral and message do matter.

Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

Thanks for the great blog, Shannon, and the wonderful stories.

I'd like to comment that the fuss over Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT series bothers me in part because some of the people seem to be saying that young readers can't tell the difference between a vampire and a regular teenage boy (Bella certainly could). I think Meyer's fans are smarter than that.

I also think readers and writers need to remember that when writers write fiction, they are doing two things: telling stories and writing prose. Those who do both things very well (like you, Shannon) are great, but some do one thing better than the other. I submit that really good storytelling makes up for not-so-good prose writing, and people who condemn writers with great stories and imperfect prose are missing the point of entertaining fiction.

Sorry. I'll get off my soapbox.

I just wanted to thank you again for your stories and your prose. Keep writing, okay?


I was honestly baffled as a kid/teen how some authors could inject so many morals and symbolism into a story. (*cough*Nathanial Hawthorne*cough*) While books can and should be used to teach readers, I first and foremost read for the story and the characters.
I liked what you said about the reader recognizing it as fiction. However, if a hot vampire ever does fall madly in love with me, I'm totally going to turn to Twilight for advice.


we've been studying short stories lately in english class. Pretty much every time our teacher asks what the themes are for one, I'll give an answer and she'll say, "No, you're wrong." I get very taken aback because I know that the theme I mentioned was correct for me. So then I just sit meekly in my desk and listen to what she says it is so maybe I can get it right on the test. This has been very frustrating for me because we've read ten stories and she must have told me I was "wrong" at least 5 times. I think that's a very unfair thing to do and it relates directly to you post today about morals being different for everyone. So thank you for reminding me that it's not just me!


To me there is a huge difference between theme and moral. A theme gives depth to a story, ties it together, and hopefully provokes thought. A moral comes out and says, "This is the lesson you should take away." A theme raises questions; a moral purports to give answers. When I write a story, the theme(s) tends to grow out of the story, often surprising me. Once I notice it, I might add more threads of it, but I don't start out by saying, "I'm going to write a book about loyalty now." I think some very talented authors are able to pull off a decent story despite such intentions -- but never because of them.

Strongbad Fan

*waking up from my dormancy* This great comment brings about a point on writing I've wanted to make. Really good books should have the writer first and foremost thinking, "I want to have a story to tell" and NOT "I want to teach a moral lesson". I feel that it encourages a great dislike for reading when young people are made to read literature that teaches morals without entertainment, whether picture books for elementary level or so called classics in high school level (recalling when I had to read boring Existentialist literature). One thing that does tend to happen is that a book will in some way relfect the writer's viewpoints. Bringing up Harry Potter, people who have actually READ the books (tehe) would know how the books reflect consequences of slavery and race supremecy beliefs. Now, we all know that the books did not begin with JKR thinking, "I want to write some books for children that teach that slavery is bad and I'll do that by having a story where house elves are treated unfairly as servants in the households of wizards and I'll put in a story about a boy wizard for that." No, what JKR was thinking was, "I want to tell a story about a boy who is a wizard who seemed like a nobody but found out he was famous." And then in the process of her writing the book, her personal and political viewpoints appeared, just because the book is the author's and it reflects who the author is. I will quote Katherine Patterson who quoted C.S. Lewis who said, "The book cannot be what the author isn't." Katherine Patterson is one of my favorite writers and her books reflect her Christian beliefs in some way, but never, I'm very sure that never she has intended to teach moral lessons in them. Her books always have the character learning something, growing up in someway, but not needing to accept Christianity, as The Great Gilly Hopkins shows.

Truly good fiction only survives when it is based on good writing and focusing on a story and characters, not style over substance or moral teaching. My mom said she didn't like reading a certain Christian romance book that was preachy and had no good plot or character development. How successful do you think that book was? Books that gain a large fan following are rarely the moralizing kind.

Long rant, I know, hope that makes sense.

shannon hale

mb - thank you for that perfect clarification! Themes are absolutely the authors business and emerge from the story in ways that often surprise us. Themes question, morals try to answer. Good distinction. And nice follow-up, Strongbad Fan


No surprise that a great post would be followed up by great comments! This is such an interesting conversation.

This turned out to be a very timely post for me. In the book I'm writing, I have a couple of sympathetic characters who I think are going to make some choices that would be against my values. I have really struggled with this and wondered if I'm going to end up writing a "bad" book that people will tsk tsk at. I've even thought to myself, "What if teenage girls read what I've written and decide it's ok to [xyz]?" Of course, this is getting WAY ahead of myself, as I'm still in the outline/early writing stage. But this particular issue has really bothered me. Do my "good" characters have to be goody-two shoes? That's just not going to work in this story. It's not the story I want to write. So does that make me an immoral person because I've created these supposedly good characters who are doing things I tell me thirteen-year old not to do?

From what you've written in this post, Shannon, I think you would say no.

Part of me says I shouldn't worry and just write the dang story.


Getting brave enough to actually comment here... (I've really enjoyed all these reader posts, btw.)

On the one hand, I think I like my stories to have some sort of moral center (different from message!), though I agree that it never works if an author starts out that way. On the other, I appreciate stories for the sake of storytelling, and sometimes the journey can be more fulfilling than whatever I take from it in the end. So, I guess you can say I'm torn.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about assuming... I have issues with the Twilight series (not going into them here), but I didn't think my 12 yo was mature enough to deal with it. Wrong assumption. She read them anyway, and took something completely different than I did from them. Goes to show that different readers approach books in different ways, and perhaps I'm just being a bit too uptight. At least in this instance. :)


I think a lesson can be learned from virtually any situation--if you're looking for it.
I'm remembering reading in science how rainbows are made: sunlight strikes water at just the right angle, and you have to be standing in a certain viewpoint to be able to see it at all. Maybe morals are like that, too, being very dependent on the person's standing at that moment. Maybe it's best the author doesn't worry about it at all.

And really, I've never considering mimicking book characters' actions. Just because they did it, doesn't mean I should. Completely different situations, for one thing, and keep in mind, it's fiction. Lessons can be learned from the 'bad' characters as well as the 'good' ones. Frankly, I love a nice, flawed character. You can learn just as well, if not better, from a person's mistakes as you can from their good choices. It seems like the whole moral thing is, for the most part, out of the author's control. That isn't to say that authors aren't allowed to write a book with a moral, or that that book would be horrible. Simply, the whole lesson-learning thing is too complicated to control. Authors ought to be focusing on the story. And that story, like others before have said, can have a moral on its own. (Hopefully this makes some sort of sense. I'm terrible at getting my thoughts down. I digress.)

Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit)

As a writer, I totally agree that writing is not about the moral for me. It's about the characters and their journey. I really want to tell the reader about the characters' lives and struggles, not teach them a moral or lesson. Those are things readers will come away with from any book on their own, if it is powerful enough, and it will rely upon their past experiences and beliefs.

Great topic!


Some great discussion here! I have to agree with jenelcc - that saying "Its just a story" belittles the concerns of a reader. I also believe it belittles the writer.

Sure, writers write because we have a story to tell (and the story should take highest priority). But why are we compelled to tell a particular story? Because it's special, and it means something to us. My stories definitely mean something to me. If you read them carefully, you can find the things I believe in, because I write what I know in my heart.

If I called one of my stories, "just a story," I would feel like I'm insulting it, making it one-dimensional and insignificant. But that's my interpretation of that phrase. :)

I appreciate that you're trying to point out that readers shouldn't put so much responsibility on authors for "making" them think certain things. And I agree. I just think that saying "it's just a story" swings the pendulum too far the other way. Just my opinion. :)


Well, I have to say that I agree that writers are not responsible for the morality that readers take from their books. Many comments pointed out that readers bring a variety of perspectives and opinions to any book and that, because of this , there are many interpretations.

As for interpretations, here's how my interpretation of that Breaking Dawn review differs from yours, Shannon! Perhaps the reviewer isn't really asking about Meyer's intent or morals when she wrote Breaking Dawn. Perhaps she is questioning if the story really merits the ending Meyer gives it. Does the happily-ever-after ending really fit in with the world the author crafts for Bella through the events in the story? It seems questionable, given how strongly people have reacted. If the end does not fit, I can see why readers might feel "betrayed" by the author. It is emotionally unsatisfying to read a book (or watch a film or experience any sort of narrative) in which the author expects the audience to respond in a certain way without earning that response. When readers are outraged that Bella gets a happy ending, it's probably because Meyers did a really good job of setting up the idea in her previous writing that her worldview didn't include happy endings. So it seems out of place to end the story that way. To be honest, I felt that way about the ending to the Harry Potter series. J.K Rowling just didn't work for the ending she gave us. So, maybe in the end, it is not a question of morality, but the ability of the author to have consistency in the ideas and worldviews he or she presents in the story as well as in the story itself. Just some thoughts!

Heather Z.

I suppose then the most important question is - what is the purpose of a story?

You quoted Chesterton not too long ago about in fantasy with all its fantastical elements that (I'm paraphrasing) "apples are gold so that we can remember they are green once more." In a larger sense then, what is the purpose of a story, of any kind? I truly believe stories exist for far more than to merely entertain, as much as they may do that. There is so much that is put into a story from a writer's heart,, their beliefs, their everything, it can and never should be "just a story."

Is there any chance this question will be answered in a follow-up post? I would love to hear what you think on the matter.

(jenelcc, Strongbad Fan, and Tabitha's posts are fantastic. And I loved Kelsey's comment about being able to see rainbows only in a certain light and certain angle. I think that is what morals ought to be - completely up to the reader from where they stand).


You are absolutely right. For goodness' sake, whatever happened to THE STORY? Anyone who is so negatively influenced by a novel needs their head checked. The moral is not what makes a book good or bad.


Loved the parallels you drew with Meyer and Rowling. I feel including morals in a story is certainly the writer's prerogative, but shoving them haphazardly into their story seems cheap to me and an attempt that most readers are likely to shun. I, for one, don't mind a few morals in a story, but I don't go seeking them out, because not all authors have an all-encompassing point. They meant to tell a story and to reduce storytelling to a transference of morals between an author and his/her readers makes writing feel more like a service, instead of what it actually is.

Thanks for being so straightforward with your opinions. :D


I disagree, to a certain degree. I think that, if writing a story, the author shouldn't force the intended moral down the reader's throat, because we all have our opinions and beliefs. The said moral might offend one person, when it might make happy another.
But I think taking morals out of stories is good. W
hat I got out of Twilight: Love is priceless. Don't waste it. Don't chase it. Let it come to you, and then take chances.
What I learned from Harry Potter: You don't have to have a scar or a tragic past to be brave enough to face the future.
I think, in fiction, putting discreet morals into the story somehow ties the fantasy to the reality. It makes us feel like we are connected, similar, to the characters, and then the fiction doesn't seem so impossible after all.


My sister-in-law wasn't enjoying Breaking Dawn as much as she hoped with about 100 pages left to read. When she finished, she said that the way it ended really made it work for her. The whole idea that the bonds of family and friendship are strong enough to overcome evil. I think that's a great theme of the book and perhaps of the series.


I understand the argument that an author alone is responsible for their creation and can do what they darn well please with it.

Part of what happened with Breaking Dawn is the first three books really were filled with questions/themes/morals -- and readers had tons of fun discussing them in bookclubs, with friends, etc. (hopefulyy) Every Twilight reader understands that the reader's perspective and experiences "frames" their understanding of the text (thus the existence of Teams Edward and Jacob).

As someone who gives BD 2/5 stars, I would say this is an experience where I as a reader was given, let's say -- cheesecake on a platter three times in a row. And then in the last book everyone is just -- so excited for more cheesecake. And then we got pizza in a box. Some people just loved whatever was served and however it was served. And some weren't.

Now, it's SMs right to deliver pizza when she darn wants to deliver pizza. This is her fairytale ending to create how she wants. That doesn't mean I gotta like it. And I can criticize her all I want because I can see the potential of actual great literature that was sacrificed for her "pizza".

{{First two books extensively focus on choices and consequences - last book we get her choice with NO consequences. It feels like she betrayed herself. It was just strange. And she could still have had a wonderfully happy ending where Bella lived with the consequences of her choices.))

I only rate books as "great" are ones that have an impact on me. Ones that make me think and evaluate myself. A different BD could have done that.

just my two bits.


p.s. this is a review I recently gave on Goodreads.com for Goose Girl 5/5 stars:

After reading this I think one of the reasons I like it so much is because it has everything that was missing from the twilight series: strong female lead, healthy relationships, good writing and editing, and a really good message (the moral of the story was just subtle enough to not feel like it hit you on the side of the head).


Thank you for discussing the moral of the story. I want to be a writer, and I have a story that has been running around in my head for a while now, but because of personal beliefs, I'm hesitant to write it. If you're telling a story, the characters do not necessarily have to be a reflection of oneself or one's personal belief system, although I think it is next to impossible to write a story without touching upon your own values as part of the whole picture. Your discussion has helped me to come to the conclusion that I need to allow the story to tell itself and see where the characters and story line take me. Thank you!


Great blog entry, and great comments!

Back during the Renaissance, Sir Phillip Sidney wrote an essay called "An Apology for Poetry" and said that the purpose of literature was to "teach and delight". The "teaching" part was what we call "the moral" today, and the notion is still with us. I recently got dinged during a writers' critique by a peer because he felt my story did not teach correct morals.

I didn't agree with him, and I agree that stories with an overt, pushy moral agenda are usually a pain to read. Furthermore, I don't think a successful story has to be a positive illustration of a moral precept. Remember the joke about how, "if you can't be a shining example, you'll have to serve as a horrible warning." There are plenty of stories where the main characters, *if you want to get moralistic about it*, are serving as "horrible warnings", as opposed to shining examples.

This is why I'll never understand people who get up in arms about the "message" in books. What exactly is wrong with illustrating a suicide? The author may well be getting some readers to realise it's not as nice a prospect as perhaps they thought. Why is it that if you depict something nasty, people assume you're nasty too?


I don't really very much enjoy the Twilight books but I guess it's all down to taste.
I don't really search for morals in books. I look for a good story, and very often, good stories come with morals. When it's not done intentionally, it works better. Look at Harry Potter, there are a hundred themes in there. And though I may not like them, the Twilight books do too, I guess. About holding onto what matters to you, standing up for what you believe in and going to extremes for the one you love. They're not exactly morals, but if the book has a meaning, shouldn't those be them? That love matters more than anything.
I read to entertain myself and to learn (oh, I'm such a dork) but sometimes a book does strike me with a moral. Like I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak. It had a wonderful message behind it. But that's not what I read it for, I read it because it looked good and because I love his writing.
Maybe some novels are written with a meaning behind them, and that's fine. Like Little Women. It's hugely moralistic (is that a word?) But others are simply there for the story. And if I take nothing away from a book but a head full of images and some funny quotes, that's fine. It's when I don't take anything away from a book that I start to complain. When it makes no impact on you. Then I'll say "It didn't even have a moral!"
But are morals the most important part of a book? No. Sometimes they're there, sometime they ain't. But what you gonna do about it?

-haven't commented in a long time.


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I am writing on behalf of Ben Wood.
Ben has recently started his own fiction story site called Army of Puppets.

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