*Nonfiction* and *Fiction*
I trained in theater for quite a while, and one of the best pieces of advice I heard in that art also applies to writing:
If you put a lit candle on the front of the stage, nobody will pay attention to anything happening behind it. They’ll all be too busy watching to see if the candle will tip over and set the stage on fire to care about the actual play.
The candle on the stage can stand as a metaphor for almost anything: a controversial example, an offensive word choice, a preachy subplot, etc. It’s something potentially dangerous that can distract from the main point of your book, and that isn’t integral to the story as a whole.
Candles often arise when a serious topic gets shoved into a book as a D-level subplot or to add the illusion of depth. There are certain subjects that, because of their societal or emotional impact, don’t really work as minor topics. If they’re included in a book, readers expect the author to dedicate a certain amount of page time and exploration to them. Topics like this include discrimination, serious trauma, politics, religion, and anything currently serving as a hot-button topic in the news.
If you’re going to include an example of any of these things, most readers will immediately feel some sort of emotional reaction. As the author, you are responsible for giving them a place to channel that emotional reaction in your book. You brought it up; you have to deal with it. If the subject is only included in one chapter and/or doesn’t receive adequate discussion, you’ve left the readers with ambient emotion about the topic and no place to put it. This will upset them, and will make you look like you don’t understand the gravity of the subject.
In bad cases of this effect, what was supposed to be a minor detail in a book becomes the focus that readers talk about. The author’s actual message gets left in the dust. In the worst cases, readers get so frustrated that they drop the book entirely.
Because of the candle on the stage effect, it’s wisest to leave controversy at the door unless you intend to weave it throughout your entire book. Controversial topics are a vital part of writing and deserve a place in our books, but they also deserve adequate discussion time. Don’t light the candle and then just leave it on the stage; give it the attention it deserves.
Have you read a book with a candle on the stage on it? How did you react?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Your book is as long as: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury