So you’ve been told that your play, poetry, novel, or screenplay has moments that are didactic, and you want to get rid of this! This article will explain what this phrase means, and give you some literary techniques to overcome it. 

What Does Didactic Mean? 

Generally it has a pejorative meaning, especially in relation to creative writing. Pejorative just means negative.

It refers to when a passage of creative writing is obviously designed to teach.

It generally doesn’t refer to exposition. Exposition is when you tell your audience things they need to know about the story or the story world inside the tale.

For instance at the beginning of Star Wars when those big yellow letters appear.

Or when a character speaks in a way that is designed to fill the audience in about the events that have occurred prior to the commencement of the narrative.

Didacticism refers to when a story stops making its point subtly and starts making it too explicitly. This creates an uncomfortable feeling in the audience that they are being taught something or lectured to. 

For instance, if you writing a story about the Irish famine of 1846, you might want your audience to understand how awful that event was, and you might want to blame the British empire for those events.

But if you just wheel a character in who says everything you want to say explicitly, the audience might feel they are being lectured to. So how do you overcome this problem?

Show Don’t Tell to Avoid Didacticism

It’s probably true that most good stories have a moral, or are trying to make a certain point. If fact we require this of most tales in order for us to consider the tale worthwhile.

Take Schindler’s List for instance. It’s such a weighty tale because it makes the case that every human life is precious, and shows how disastrous it can be to stray from this philosophy.

It does this by following the experiences of one character, Oscar Schindler.

By showing us his reality, we see how awful the Nazis were, and we understand that the characters who try to save lives are the real heroes. 

Spielberg showed us Oscar’s journey to make this point, rather than writing it in an essay, or simply telling us, or having a character tell us.

Thematic Argument 

Many writers, like the writer of Looking For Nemo, discuss writing with a ‘thematic argument’ in mind.

The film Whiplash is another example of writing with a thematic argument. That film makes the case that artists must suffer in order to become truly great.

And then it makes the counter argument when we see how evil the teacher who believes this really is.

However in the final moment the film reverses this position again and demonstrates that people can either drop out the race for greatness and become regular citizens, or make the choice to truly suffer and attain greatness.

My point is, it does all this without ever explicitly saying ‘Artists must suffer to become great.’ 

Conclusion

The trick to avoiding didacticism is to have character’s speak language that is natural to them, and not have them say explicitly the points you are trying to make in your story.

Always find ways to dramatize your tale in a way that is compelling, and does not make your arguments explicitly, in order to avoid being accused of didacticism!


Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.