What is a Didactic Story?

Benita hates talking to her aunt Chloe, if you could even call what they do talking. Mostly Benita listens. Aunt Chloe has stories — stories about her life — story about her childhood, stories about her marriage, stories about her children, sometimes about work she did, sometimes about people she knew, other times about a trip she took. Always, she ends with this phrase: “And that’s why we [fill in the blank] and you should too.” 

Benita waits for that finishing remark so she can nod and agree. It always comes, all she had to do was wait. And when it does, it punches her in the gut. It doesn’t allow her to enjoy the story, because in the end, she knows that Aunt Chloe isn’t telling a fun story, she’s lecturing. 

You could say that Aunt Chloe’s stories are didactic. 

But is that not good? Why is it bad to tell didactic stories? Shouldn’t you want your listeners to leave with some wisdom like a nice souvenir that they can take with them into the future? Telling didactic stories seem like giving your audience the most bang for their buck — the best use of their time. 

There was a time long ago when didactic stories were popular. Religious sermons, ancient texts, stories that teach ethics such as Aesop’s Fables, are examples of didactic stories that have favourable reputations, because they taught people how to be civil as they learned to live with each other. 

From the stories of Christ to Siddhartha, people have relied on didactic stories to learn how to confront the obstacles of life and participate in a society of many. 

The word didactic itself comes from Ancient Greece, which means “relating to teaching, education, and wisdom.” Ancient Greece, of course, being a key time and place for great philosophical teachers and thinkers, all telling didactic stories to get their ideas across. The importance for the general public to receive moral guidance couldn’t be more important back then when communication and entertainment were not as easily accessible as it is today. 

Yet, Aunt Chloe had a story — one that she thought was worth telling — should she not share her story the way she felt it should be told? What was Benita’s problem? She should be appreciative of a free lesson from someone of experience. Not that Aunt Chloe was Christ or Siddhartha, but she certainly had a point of view. 

Every storyteller has a perspective and it’s from there that they decide which stories are worth telling and which aren’t. Obviously they would want to tell a story that gives their audience the most value. 

But Value is an interesting word, often used to market something that is of quality but is cheaply sold. 

What didactic stories are — are simple answers. Without understanding the complexities of an audience member’s life, it aims to give directions and solutions as though every problem or pursuit can be resolved by obediently following what the story has to offer. Didactic stories make blunt assumptions, just like what Aunt Chloe does when she sees Benita. She assumes that she has the answers for her, even though Benita wasn’t asking. 

Didactic stories come across as preachy, or belittling, or having a hidden agenda. Didactic stories are not open ended. They have a very clear conclusion. Instead of allowing the audience to interpret what the story teaches, a didactic one outright tells them what to know. It is in that rushed method of communicating that the important lessons in the story are actually lost. Didactic stories end up being less effective in encouraging a certain behaviour as compared to telling a truly meaningful story with rich characters and an interesting plot. 

So, what can we do? How do we avoid telling stories like Aunt Chloe? 

First, understand that having a story with a message is not a bad thing. Every story should have a core theme worth sharing, however, one should avoid telling a story with the solitary goal of convincing the audience of an idea or a way of life. 

A good theme doesn’t make a good story. And a good story doesn’t need to do any convincing. By taking the audience through an emotional journey via the senses of the characters, we can actually get them invested in the exploration of the theme. The audience will come to the conclusion on their own or have a thought that opposes the meaning of the story. Either way, the audience is empowered to form their own opinions, even when it’s the storyteller that reaches the ending. And the ending certainly should not be how Aunt Chloe ends it, “And that’s why we [fill in the black], and you should too.” 

Secondly, didactic stories often lack the complexity and characteristics of real life events, and that’s why fairytales — which lessons of morals can come across as didactic — are often catered towards children as opposed to adults, who understand that a little girl being eaten by a wolf or pigs getting their houses blown down is just the beginning of the problem and not the end. Didactic stories, in order to keep their lessons clear, leave out the messiness that is reality. And what happens then is something that is more cliche than convincing. 

Lastly, to avoid telling didactic stories, we must understand that great stories don’t have easy answers. Great stories aren’t recipes or instruction manuals. Great stories are a mirror that forces us to confront the feelings inside ourselves. Great stories ask us what we think about this or that, but never telling us whether it’s right or wrong, for there are no right answers. Every audience member should be able to bring their own history, their own experiences, their own principles and values, and use those as the instruments to come up with their own conclusion

Therefore, a story that avoids being labelled as didactic allows for wondering and contemplation. 

And that is why we shouldn’t write didactic stories, and you shouldn’t either. 

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