I didn’t set out to “write about social issues” when I decided to write a mystery called Death Will Get You Sober about people in recovery. I wanted to pay tribute to the courage and honesty of alcoholics who not only get and stay sober but change their whole lives. I envisioned it as a kind of romp through the church basements of AA, a fun whodunit that would make readers laugh as well as cry. But alcoholism and addictions are indeed social issues as well as personal ones, as are the addictive and abusive relationships I chose to explore in the new book in the series, Death Will Help You Leave Him. I’ve found people filter what they read through the lens of their own personal and/or family experience. And I’m certainly not complaining if my stories make folks do some serious thinking.
In the various panels I’ve been part of on social issues and mysteries, I’ve found all authors of such material, whatever the issue, know that it is crucial not to preach at readers. Writers are told to write about what they know and care passionately about. The challenge is integrating passion and entertainment, writing a story rather than a polemic, and making readers care not only about the issue, but about the characters through whom it is embodied.
What are the benefits of using mysteries to present important issues?
1. Mysteries entertain, making the issues palatable
2. Information filtered through character and story is accessible, not dry or overwhelming
3. Emotions can be stirred
4. Consequences can be dramatized
5. Consciousness is raised: readers who have never thought about your issue will still pick up a mystery
6. Issues add depth to a mystery or other work of fiction and can make it memorable
7. Complexities and ambiguities can be explored in a story with multiple characters, as they can’t in a polemic
What are the challenges to the author?
1. To keep your audience with you: create empathy for your characters and their cause
2. To avoid preachiness: readers don’t want to be scolded, excluded, or patronized; above all, they don’t want to be bored
3. To stay in character: don’t let the authorial voice break in on the narrator’s or point of view character’s voice
4. To do justice to the complexity and in some cases ambiguity of the issue: oversimplification can be a form of preachiness
5. To create rounded characters: characters who are all good or all bad, too abstract, and lack interior life will not promote your cause or serve the story
6. To maintain the pace: don’t sacrifice forward momentum to educating or exhorting the reader
7. To get the facts right and present them sparingly: do your homework, and avoid the dreaded information dump
Here are some rules of thumb for using social issues effectively in the context of a well-paced, well-plotted, character-driven novel:
Show, don’t tell. Let action and dialogue make your points for you.
When the issue conflicts with character or story, choose character or story. Be ready to dump exposition or “political correctness” if you have to.
Revise ruthlessly. Revision is the best-armed enemy of preachiness.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist who has directed alcoholism treatment programs and written and lectured widely about relationships and codependency. Her mystery series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends includes Death Will Help You Leave Him, Death Will Get You Sober, and three published short stories, one an Agatha award finalist. Liz’s website is at www.elizabethzelvin.com. She blogs with Poe’s Deadly Daughters.