What Should A Story’s Agenda Be?

Rather than being driven by specific agendas, stories should seek to be bold, daring, and most importantly, authentic.
on Jun 20, 2017 · 4 comments

It seems everyone has an agenda these days.

Sadly, this mentality far too often bleeds into the creative realm. I’ve been part of or seen several conversations recently where this trend was noted. Exhibit A is the controversy that plagued the Hugo Awards in 2016.

These issues raise several questions for writers.

What is the purpose of a story?

How can writers create a strong narrative when pressures to fit within certain expectations mount?

Is creative license and freedom slowly dying to the drumbeat of popular demand and an increasingly politicized climate?

Can authors just tell a good story, or will such an approach spell future doom?

What a Story Shouldn’t Be

In art, do you ever notice those details that don’t seem to match up? A song drifting too far toward a peppy beat for the lyrics? A movie scene where melodrama rules when plain drama would suffice? The feeling a character doesn’t quite belong in a novel?

Maybe that’s nothing more than poor execution, but it could also be the result of shoehorning a certain message, theme, character arc, or anything else into the story. Simply for the sake of pushing a specific agenda or checking off someone else’s set of boxes.

Unfortunately, such a mindset plagues Christian as well as secular publishing. One end pushes for diverse characters, increased sexuality, or whatever the soup-of-the-week selection happens to be.

The other end is equally at fault, though for different reasons. Driving a moralistic message into the narrative. Insisting upon a conversation experience. Slipping a religious undertone into every passage.

While we can argue that some agendas are less harmful than others, the fact remains that such purposeful confining of a story shouldn’t even be on the radar.

What a Story Should Be

A story should have an agenda. One so simple it makes 1+1 look complicated. At the end of the day, a story’s primary goal should be to entertain the reader. That simplicity comes with many layers of increasing complexity, because a story that grips and compels has many parts.

Rather than one individual pet peeve or agenda being the emphasis, however, each should contribute its part to making the whole work shine.

Let the story flow naturally, every aspect strengthening the rest, growing out of the nurtured soil of a darn good tale. From there, the meaning will arise.

That doesn’t mean themes, messages, and implications are pointless. The difference lies in the approach. It’s one thing to say, “Let me write a story as a means of trumpeting my soap box issue.” It’s quite another to say, “What is this story about?” and then write a plot, characters, theme, and world genuinely reflecting that.

Authenticity, Not Agenda

A story, if nothing else, must be authentic. Not gagged and disfigured by this demand or that agenda until it becomes but a shadow of its potential glory.

Let us not intentionally write a story focusing on a certain underprivileged group merely for the sake of appeasing people. If that’s the story burning on your heart, and you want to share it, that’s perfectly fine.

Write those stories that refuse to let you go, and let them be diverse and different, compelling and challenging.

But most of all, make them authentic.

Do you think stories suffer too much from an agenda-driven approach? What can be done to counteract the trend?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.
  1. Fricken love this post. I literally just got done pre-writing a blog post for next week on this exact topic. Great post, as usual, Zachary! I totally agree with all your points.

  2. Lisa says:

    Excellent. Completely agree. I have copied this quote from Ursula Le Guinn into my journal, and think about it often: “My job is to keep the meaning completely embedded in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.”

    • notleia says:

      Tangent: I picked up some of UKLG’s short stories from the library and realized we need to spend a lot more time talking about UKLG around here. She worldbuilds like a house on fire and plays with perspective like whoa.

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