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October 03, 2008


Heather Z.

Very well said Shannon. I will definitely be posting more on this as soon as I have had time to mull it over myself. It is a fascinating topic.


A story to me is a written or spoken work that follows events in one or more people's lives.

I love finding questions to ask myself in books, especially the ones that start out, "Would I be strong enough to..." and "What would I do if...".


I agree--very well said. I especially appreciated your comment about showing consequences in a way that isn't didactic but rather realistic. Actions have consequences, whether in real life or in a story, and while a character who is perfect and always makes good choices is boring, a character who does whatever they want and who has no consequence, good or bad, for their actions is hard to identify with. It leaves holes in a story when a character's actions and the plot have little to do with one another. Thank you again for your insightful posts:)

Dr. Sallie N. Cheinsteen

I would say most readers realize that characters in books are human. They make mistakes. We make mistakes. It's reading about them in another world that enlightens us. So as far as authors being responsible for teaching a moral or teaching the reader about a bad mistake, is going too far. Authors are not responsible for that. Mistakes made by characters in books are put there for a purpose. To realize that they (and you) have potential and can become something.
So I suppose if you really wanted to make authors responsible for morals and influencing their readers, then I would say their responsibility is this:
"They are to lay out in great detail or small, that humans are humans. They make mistakes. But it's how they deal with them that makes the difference."


Thank you for clarifying the different between "moral" and "theme." Your last post I did not completely agree with because I was confused on what you were trying to say, but now I understand. So thank you for the enlightening and thought-provoking post.


C.S. Lewis's "On Three Ways of Writing For Children" is one of my favorite essays on writing for young readers.

About morals he says, "Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don't show you any moral, don't put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children's story without a moral, had better do so, that is, if he is going to write children's stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author's mind."

What surprised me about this article, but now I totally agree with, is that he says, "But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle...I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education...but I should lay very long odds against it."

He also defends faerie tales (like Tolkien) and has a great anecdote about prunes!

Miss Erin

Those are my favorite kind of stories: the ones that make me think, make me ask questions, and make me reevaluate who I am and what I believe and WHY I believe it.

Every good story ought to do that in some compacity, imho. That's what makes it so good.

Heather Z.

Representation vs. Endorsement.

We love stories because of the characters in them. We don't read stories for the plots, we read them for the characters, but they must seem real to us. And so chracters must have flaws, defects, just like we have; it is how we relate to them and see them as real and not some arbitrary creation of the author. So we must create characters that sometimes have very serious flaws. In my novel (YA novel, mind you) my main character, a prince, has a very serious drug addiction and has killed three people, albeit by accident. He has to face the consequences of his actions. This is where the themes start to develop from.

I as an author represent all of these things because this is what the story calls for but I by no means endorse them. I think that is the most critical difference: representation vs. endorsement.

In SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, she writes about how this young girl is raped at a party and how she keeps silent through almost the entire story about it. An overeager parent may think "oh no, she is teaching kids to not tell anyone if something terrible happens." But through the characters eyes you learn lessons even though a moral is never forced on you. What that lesson is, of course, completely up to you from where you stand, but it is undeniably there. There are layers to a story, or any good story at least. You can take it as simply or deeply as you want.

I do think we have a "responsibility" to what is said in our story, so long as we do not endorse the characters actions if they are not fit to what we believe. You CAN have a story about rape without endorsing it or any of the character's actions that follow and still be realistic and true to yourself, your audience, and your story. You can have a story of suicide under the same principles (13 Reasons Why - by Jay Asher is an absolutely perfect example of this. The story is told from the point of view of the girl who has ALREADY committed suicide via tapes she recorded and sent to 13 people detailing why she chose to do it. EXTREMELY powerful. And in the end she does commit suicide, but does Asher endorse any of it? By no means). So a theme/moral can come in, through the characters actions and be interpreted in an open dialogue with the reader, and not told in the "Now Timmy -" way. It is a very thought provoking topic.

Does anyone else have any different ideas/views?


"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."--Mark Twain

This was my immediate reaction to your post. Well said.

As a previous commenter said, characters are the center of the book--not the plot, etc. Characters will have flaws (and strengths for that matter).

A good character will leave you thinking, understanding, and willing to learn about other things because of their strengths and weaknesses.


Where can that C.S. Lewis essay be found in book form?


I'm still laughing about your "You see, Timmy" examples.

I like how you say you want to write a story that asks questions rather than forces answers. I felt like the outline of my novel was too predictable. I got the idea initially from a story in the Bible. When I started to shake things up it became less pat and more nuanced. I added in some plot ideas inspired from a Shakespeare play along with some events from historical accounts. It seems like the more sources I draw from, the more complex the characters become and (I hope) more interesting and easy to relate to.

Ok, that went off a bit. I guess I'm just excited about this novel. What I meant to say is that now I feel like it is more a novel that asks questions rather than answers them.

Thanks for writing these posts, Shannon.


C.S. Lewis's essay can be found in two different collections of his works. One is called Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. The other is "On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature." They are both available from Amazon, and I found a copy of one of them at my local library.

I haven't yet read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" that Lewis refers to in his essay, but it's on my list.


I have Tolkien's essay, "On Fairy Stories," in a collection called "The Tolkien Reader." I think it will surprise you; I know it changed the way I think about stories. The collection also includes two wonderful short stories called "Leaf by Niggle" and "Farmer Giles of Ham" (a giant, a dragon, a magic sword, and a very funny talking dog) and poetry.

This moral/theme discussion has been very thought provoking. There are a lot of writers who are drawn to your blog because you write posts like these.

I think it's easy, natural even, for beginning writers to fall into moralizing. We see something important happening in our story (perhaps our character faces the consequences of their choices) and we want to comment or have a character comment instead of letting readers draw their own conclusions. But you are right about letting readers draw their own conclusions. Thanks for blogging!


And what about empathy? Maybe one of the most important things a reader can take away from a story about someone who makes questionable choices is a greater understanding of WHY someone might do that.

Laura Z M

So, I've been thinking this issue over for the past several days. (Not constantly, mind you; I've also been trying to solve the nation's financial crisis and to figure out what to do about a leaky kitchen faucet.)

I'm struck by how different the responsibilities of the author are in fiction from those that I have in the type of writing I typically do (boring academic stuff). My objective is to write so clearly and precisely that the reader understands exactly what I am trying to convey. I leave as little room as possible for personal interpretation. There are no layers. No nuances. The only moral is: You'll be tested on this later. If the reader takes away something other than what I intended, I have failed, because I am dealing primarily with facts. Certainly, I want students to think about why things are the way they are and how they might be better, but my job is to describe how things ARE.

Fiction is a whole other animal. It unnerves me, really, just thinking about it. Any notion I've had that I might like to write fiction someday has evaporated. You ask, Shannon, "Is the author the guardian of not only the story but what the story might teach?" Interesting (and frightening) question. If a book's story is 50% the author's responsibility and 50% the reader's, would the same be true of the book's moral? It seems to me that the moral of any story is a combination of what the storyteller brings to it and what the reader takes from it. Although authors have no control over what conclusions an individual reader chooses to draw from a book, don't authors share SOME responsibility for the consequences of their writing? Or are novelists absolved of all responsibility because they were "just telling a story" or because they didn't intend for readers to emulate their character's actions?

I don't know. And the whole thing scares me to death. I think I'll stick to the boring academic stuff and let those with much thicker skin and braver hearts tackle the stories.

Heather Z.

Wow. I find your statement highly profound Laura Z M. I had never thought of it that way and you say it so clearly. Stories are indeed powerful things, I think we too easily forget how powerful they can be.


Originally I wanted to say that books/stories probably don't influence people's behavior much, but then I thought of some of the stories that come out of Hollywood and the messages they send, and changed my mind. And, come to think of it, lots of books have made me look at the world differently.
BUT, it seems to me that what matters most, what a reader takes away, for good or ill, is the author's world-view (something that pervades the work but hopefully doesn't hit you on the head with a brick) rather than the character's behavior. I can't imagine anyone saying, "Look, this Othello guy killed his wife, so I think I'll do that, too," or even "Character X in this YA novel got falling-down drunk at age thirteen, so that sounds like a good idea." Most of the wisdom I've gotten from books comes down to a new way of looking at the world, or a deeper understanding of human nature, or even a renewed love of language. It doesn't have anything to do with whether the characters behave well -- it has to do with the compassion or humor or style with which the character's actions are described. Maybe.


I too get conflicted on this issue. I do believe that authors should be aware of the themes and/or messages of their story and that some authors don't take this responsibility seriously enough.

However, I was recently talking to a friend who argued that based on a moral viewpoint that she and I share, it should be clear what can and can't be included in a novel. I didn't agree with this, and argued, similar to what you were saying, that in order to write interesting stories you often have to write about less than perfect people.

I also wondered, based on her view, who gets to be the story police? Yes, individuals can judge for themselves, and parents can help judge for their kids, but I definitely don't want to live in a world with (even unofficial) story police.


I don't know about many other readers, but the books that change my life (and I do actually read books with crazy hopes of becoming a kinder, wiser person), are indeed the books with beautiful morals in them.

Five books with passages that will pleasantly haunt me for a lifetime: To Kill a Mockingbird, Middlemarch, Little Women, The Robe, and Jane Eyre, give me more than pleasure--they make me think that if I choose to act as the heroes and heroines of their pages did, I can be succussful at becoming a decent, honest human being.

I definitely believe in reading for pleasure. To me it's the least-fattening, most-accessible, cheapest source of satisfaction there is for a tired, pregnant mother of spastic young children. But I experience joy, not only pleasure, when a gem of a book opens my eyes to a character so worthy of emulation, that I feel like I've gained another mother or father, or cherished, valued friend (Atticus Finch! Caleb, Susan, and Mary Garth from Middlemarch, and Helen Burns from Jane Eyre come to mind...).

These beacons of hope in book form have true principles delicately interwoven throughout their plotlines. And yet, in the eyes of millions of readers over the years, they're not sappy, or trite. They're replications of life with purpose and meaning.

Hords of books are enjoyable and offer means of escape from the drudgery of "Calgon days." But then, there are those few golden tomes that stand out as sanctuaries for the ordinary person to bask in when they feel they've disappointed themselves, and would like to try once more to be better.

After all, don't we all as human beings learn by watching others? Would I potty train my two year-old by showing her a little neighbor boy who turns around and searches the ceiling while he's doing his duty? I don't think so. Maybe I'd ask my own mom to take my daughter to the bathroom to demonstrate a trustworthy example.

If we have correct examples before us, we know after what pattern we should model ourselves, right? And so I find it with my favorite literary characters.

During daily interactions with other people, I might make impatient or unkind comments, stumbling awkwardly, and regretting having wounded another person afterwards. But if I can have a ladylike reminder of a passage from Jane Eyre pop into my head on the cusp of such a regrettable faux-pas...Such as the scene where Jane has made the choice to rip herself away from Mr. Rochester on their by-all-rights-should've-been-wedding-night. All of this, for self-respect and correct conduct, and only to face poverty, starvation, and ridicule among strangers, to whom she continues to act honorably and decently. If Jane shows me this, then maybe I can remember (before I slip up and deeply hurt my disheveled next-door neighbor) to withold judgement from those whom I don't know or understand. Perhaps even treating people instead with the respect I would hope to have shown to me. (And what about Mary and Diana Rivers who find Jane, take her in, and make her their own family when she looks like a filthy street urchin?!) All from a book! Cheesy shmeeezy, I know. But it's just the golden rule that we all need to have bonked over our heads ever other day or so. Some of us are more forgetful than others! (Brain cells wane exponentially during pregnancy.)

If the ideas we record (as writers of words) are the only imprints we leave on this world for generations to come, don't we want to leave the most salient, most powerful thoughts we own?

For who knows when our own mortal candles might be snuffed out, smoke swirling in the wind? With oceans upon oceans of mind-candy books left in our wake. And those few thousand gems of paragonic literaure waiting patiently to be sifted out of the tide of rubbish to enlighten and empower another young mind. In turn, galvanizing an entire generation, upon generation, upon generation...


(Sorry if I'm overcommenting -- obviously I'm enjoying the discussion!)

NerdyEm, I completely agree that literature can show us heroic examples of character. But it's not clear-cut. Dorothea in Middlemarch makes horrific blunders in the name of goodness and heroism, which is precisely what makes her story powerful. As for Jane Eyre, it's wonderful that you find her inspiring. I would argue that you (and I) do so because the author has made her situation dramatic and exciting, and because she does have character flaws and is not a simpering, innocent goody girl. And while Jane behaves admirably, Mr. Rochester behaves very badly indeed. I know many people who've taken away a very different "message" from Jane Eyre -- that Jane was an idiot to fall for that manipulative jerk, or that if she hadn't been so strict and heartless, Rochester might not have lost his sight. So you are, at least in part, providing the moral lesson yourself as a reader.


I too am loving this discussion. For me, it comes down to complexity. Morals are too simple, too pat. When I find that anything in my novel--characters, plot, scenes, sentences--is too predictable, I also find that aspect of the novel to be less genuine, less truthful, less real. Reality is a complex thing, which is why a story that succeeds in expressing real truths will raise questions.

I actually learned this principle of complexity best from a poetry professor I had in grad school. Naively, I had been in the mode of writing poetry when some moral-esque idea would strike me, coupled with an image. This professor helped me to see that you start with JUST the image, and maybe you have ideas, but they need to be complex, surprising ideas, not predictable ones. By helping me revise for the surprising complexities of the image, he transformed my few simple, trite poems into pieces I still treasure. (Still not masterpieces, since I'm no poet, but what I learned from that class has changed my writing forever.)

So, if I have anything to add to this great discussion, it would be that. As writers, I believe we do our job best by searching for complexities that resonate with us. I almost approach writing like the game Scattergories: whatever possibility comes to mind first is the one I automatically reject as too simple and commonplace. I keep thinking up possibilities--for character traits, for sentence wording, for every aspect--until something resonates with me as being complex, surprising, and true.


Laura Z, I think you and I are sharing a brain wave. :) Those are the thoughts that have been running through my brain since I read Shannon's original post, but there are way too many to post here. They'll probably end up on my own blog. :)

But your comments took me back to what sparked Shannon's first post: the reviewer of Breaking Dawn.

I'm not wondering so much about what she said as why she said it. What about the story brought her to these conclusions?

If this review were the only one of its kind, then it would be easy to say that she was pointing blame where she shouldn't be. But I've seen the same kind of reaction from many readers. Therefore, something in the story is provoking this. It may have been unintentional, but it's still there.

Because of this, I think it's the responsibility of the author to look at the story from an objective perspective, and try to see how other people will react. If Author is okay with what she sees, then she's done. If not, then it's her responsibility to change it so she's not inadvertently sending the wrong message.

In the case of Breaking Dawn, I don't think the intention was to say "Don't worry, everything will always work out." I think what SM really wanted to do was make her characters happy. That said, I can see how the story's execution could be interpreted as "it'll always work out." Did SM see this? Dunno. The only person who knows is her. :)


Hi Shannon,
Thanks for another great post.... I'm still absorbing it but I came across this quote and thought I'd pass it on. Cheers.

"Books, inherently, require faith. Faith in an author that he or she will reward the many hours you'll spend in those pages, faith that a good story will be told, a lesson will be learned, a light will be shone upon a dim corner of the world. If you're reading this magazine, with its vast and rich history of literary achievement, you're alive to the pleasures of reading--for school or for no good reason at all. Now you have to give teenagers the benefit of the doubt, that they know what you know, that they do read and will read, that they will keep books alive, as alive as ever--that they will continue to pull the books from the shelves and add to those shelves books of their own."
--Dave Eggers in Esquire magazine.


Great post, I'm still trying to decide what I think about morals versus themes. Honestly though, if the author did not intend readers to come away with a negative moral (if, for example, Meyer did not mean to make girls want to commit suicide after breakups) I really don't think they ought to be blamed for them. Reading is give-and-take, but sadly the blame for foolish behavior tends to fall on the reader.

This is unrelated, but remember the paperback cover of The Goose Girl? The new one? Did that ever come through? Is there a new cover out yet? Let us know!) :-)

TJ Hirst

After I read your last post, I didn't comment because, as a would-be writer (ok a writer, but not, say, like you're a writer)I wondered if I agreed with you.

I've read what you've said in interviews or in other places along the same lines. I've received similar "advice" from mentors or classes. But I just still hold on to this idea: I find so much truth in stories that it possibly be that the author really doesn't know it is there.

Now, with your second post, you've made a clearer distinction for me, and I do agree. This is a struggle I've not found the balance of, yet. I, too, "write to understand," and I wonder if my discovery process is open, thematic truth to the reader or didactic summary as you call it.

It is a relevant question that I continue to ask myself. As I get closer to that answer, I'll probably be more willing to step into life as a "real writer" because writing is powerful stuff, even when it is "just a story."


Shannon you should get a facebook! I guess you probably don't have time though. You probably already know but there is a group called Fans of Shannon Hale on it.


I wondered why I was up to my neck in quicksand. Now I know--those unfinished chores! :)


Hello there,

Just popping in to say that I've found the past few blog entries really fascinating. Personally I don't like it when any book is too preachy about morals, no matter what those morals are. I would rather be trusted to interpret the story my own way, and make my own decisions about it. I completely agree with what you said about a story being "half the story and half the reader." People will take what they want, or what they need, out of it.

I also understand what you said about book reviews. It almost feels like a personal attack when someone lambastes a book I love! In my head I know that's silly, but it's like they're attacking a close friend.

I try to write reviews that express my honest feelings about a book, but I would never get negative and nasty in regard to the author him/herself. Just because I didn't care for a book doesn't mean others wouldn't get a great deal of enjoyment from it.

Anyway... all that said, I have just recently gotten into your booksThe Goose Girl, Enna Burning, Princess Academy and Book of a Thousand Days are the ones I've read so farand I really enjoyed them. I'm looking forward to reading more. So, thank you for sharing your stories with us, and for the effort you put in to make them what you want them to be.

Have a great day!

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