Story Agendas

The other day I read a reader review of one of my books, a review that summarized the book as “a good story ruined by an agenda.” I had to shake my head at the naiveté/ignorance of the reader.

The plain fact is that all stories have agendas. Those agendas may be conscious or unconscious, or some of both, but all stories reflect their writers in some fashion or another, and thus, reveal either what the writer wants to reveal or reveals what he or she doesn’t want to reveal… or perhaps some of both.

Occasionally, the agenda is direct and simple – just tell a straight-forward story. But that agenda has its own sub-agendas. One thing I’ve learned in life is that everything is more complex than it seems, and some of the greatest lies begin with words like “keep it simple” or “it’s really simple.” An author who tells a direct and simple tale may be entertaining, and that may be the writer’s obvious agenda, but what such an approach also says is that nothing else is really important, despite the fact that, in life, as the old saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.”

Sometimes, stories or novels are incredibly detailed and twisted so much so that most readers will recoil and think, “Nothing in life is this complex.” That’s another agenda or set of agendas, because, while life is complex, those complexities range from fairly simple problems to thornier ones, and very few people’s lives are an ongoing, never-ending maze of incredible complexities.

I’ve seen well-written books where everything seems tied to sex, and others where gender issues and or politics, or both, are clearly part of the writer’s agenda. There are others where there’s little thought, and action and reaction dominate almost every page of the book, suggesting either that the writer is aiming at that market, or that he or she honestly believes that human beings act on impulse and minimal thought… or perhaps both.

I’m not judging authors or agendas. All authors have them, and that range of agendas is exactly why a great number of authors have very different readerships.

I don’t write simple stories, and any reader who thinks I do is missing a great deal. I’m a cynical romantic and idealist who spent too many years in the military, politics, and business to believe that anything is as straight-forward as it seems, even though I’d often like it to be, or that any long-lasting romance is ever simple or without cost.

My overt agenda is to write the best story I can, given the complexities I know and have seen in life, while showing that dreams can be achieved, but only if the cost is far higher than the reader and the characters ever thought possible and that paying that price means learning costly lessons. At least, that’s what I strive for, but I’m also certain that parts of my subconscious slip in other aspects as well. I suspect this is true of other authors as well, at least in the vast majority of books I’ve read.

So when a reader complains about an agenda, what that reader is really complaining about is that the author’s agenda didn’t match the reader’s agenda and expectations.

8 thoughts on “Story Agendas”

  1. Dan Cody says:

    Hello sir, if you wouldn’t mind, could you share the title of the book that the reader was reviewing?

    1. It’s not a secret, but I’d like to wait a few days before mentioning the book by title. Otherwise, everyone fixates on the book, rather than the point of the blog.

  2. JakeB says:

    I can’t resist a quote from Josef Skvorecky’s _The Engineer of Human Souls_, chapter 5: “Every serious novel . . . is a thematic novel. But the thesis is always the same, except in thematic novels.” . . . “The thesis is: Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

  3. Sam says:

    The most commonly repeated overt/straightforward way of presenting an agenda in a story that I can think of is through the actions of the protagonist/hero of the story.

    Whatever problem/challenge the hero is presented with and has to solve it is through their actions and success they prove the correctness of their methodology.

    Many heroes in popular fiction such as super-heroes have a no killing code and stories are written so that those heroes never have to face a no-win scenario where killing or failure are the only options.

    The hero always succeeds because the author wants them to.

    There was a huge backlash against the ending of the 2013 Superman movie – Man of Steel – when Superman snapped the neck of the villain Zod to stop an innocent family of bystanders from being killed. So many people were up in arms saying that Superman would never do that, that Superman would always find a better way. Other people argued that Superman should never be written into that kind of position because it’s not what the character is about.

    Personally I didn’t have a problem with it and the movie made of point of showing Superman was anguished by having to kill someone. He didn’t do it easily or without remorse.

    I have to admit as skeptical as I am about heroes in fiction who don’t kill I also take issue with characters who often seem to go to the opposite extreme. Characters like Jack Bauer from the TV series 24 who kidnaps, tortures and kills people but always for the greater good with a ticking clock in the background for some impending doom. He is justified in his actions because he always succeeds in preventing some catastrophe or other. He never kills the wrong person – although he did torture the wrong person once and was immediately forgiven for it because it was for the greater good (I’m not sure I would be so understanding).

    I often ask myself when reading some of Mr Modesitt’s novels where his protagonists kill tens, hundreds, thousands, millions and even billions of people for the perceived greater good whether their actions would be justified if they didn’t result in the desired outcome? In almost all these stories the protagonist’s judgment of who to kill is almost never shown to be an error of judgment or at least to lead to a disastrous outcome.

    If a person can forsee any possible outcome then decisions about killing for the greater good could very well be justified. But human judgment isn’t perfect and should one person be able to decide the fates of millions even billions of other people? I often feel uncomfortable with the way killing is used in Mr Modesitt’s work to solve problems. I actually appreciate it when his characters are more creative such as when Rhenn forced a corrupt policeman to retire via invalidity by making a tree branch fall on him. It was still violence but as least it wasn’t killing.

    I mean if it’s alright for a character to make themselves invisible and sneak into someone’s office and make them choke on a lump of bread does that make it alright for someone to do the same thing in the real world? To Donald Trump perhaps? A lot of people probably wish they could do just that but does that make it right?

  4. Elena says:

    All good points, but sometimes it feels to me as though a story’s agenda can get in the way of the story itself by being somewhat heavy-handed. On the other hand, most of the examples of that which I can think of are children’s/YA books that I’ve since grown out of, where even though I agree with the message of the story, I find it a bit “in-your-face” and overpowering the story.

  5. Tom says:

    “a good story ruined by an agenda.”
    One readers opinion and I would certainly like to know which book and to read the entire critique. The problem is that the reader and the writer disagree how “the agenda” was presented; or perhaps they disagree on what “the agenda” really was. “The agenda” is used by the reader to show dissatisfaction, the question is did the critic define the problem with the agenda and/or the relationship to the story. The related question I have; is the critic one who has read all or most of the writers prior works – it makes a difference to their understanding of the author methods. Even then, Watson does have difficulty following Holme’s rationals. Interesting discussion of agenda(s).

    1. Tom says:

      I tracked the comment. The critic presented his ‘agenda’ more intrusively in his critique than the author did in the novel. I remember the cool solution to the expected ambush in the story, more than the author’s ‘agenda’.

  6. darcherd says:

    Sometimes even when one agrees with the author’s political agenda, one can object to the heavy-handed, “preachy” means of conveying that political outlook. I’ve had to stop reading Terry Goodkind altogether because even though I basically agree with his libertarian politics, I simply tired of being beaten about the head and shoulders with it, page after page.

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