When (and How) to Write Parables
Written by
Kristin Hackler
July 2019
Written by
Kristin Hackler
July 2019

Parables are a tricky thing.

If I had my druthers, every book I ghostwrote would be some form of parable because, well, who doesn't love to write parables? But they don't work for every author you're writing for and they certainly don't work for every concept you're trying to convey.

Take a dentist I worked with, who had a great idea for a book on painless dentistry. She was certain she wanted to do a parable about a fictional dentist who worked with all these different kinds of patients suffering from varying degrees of dental phobia. The idea was sound - she had seven specific types of patients already in mind, with solutions for each ranging from mood-setting environments to ancient relaxation techniques to mild medical sedation. Where we ran into a problem, however, was in conveying extensive authoritative medical research and conclusions in parable style. The literary form just couldn’t hold that kind of weight.

That didn't keep me from trying, of course. But the more I tried to work detailed research into the casual, somewhat one-sided conversations that take place between dentist and chair-bound patient, the harder it was to make everything sound natural. For a while, I tried to work the heavier medical details into footnotes, but even though longer footnotes are trending these days they were often longer than the actual text on the page...and who wants to read a book that is largely in 8 point font?

We wound up compromising. Reverting to a first-person form, we turned the seven people from the parable into composite characters (that is, we mixed the characteristics of several real-life patients into one fictional person so no one is easily identifiable  - much like my own author examples) and had them visit her in her office over the course of a week, where she talked to them about the medical research behind treating their condition to her heart's content. The footnotes receded from their alpine heights to gentle, manageable hillocks, and the book struck a comfortable balance between fiction and fact.

When it comes to heavy, technically driven books that rely on a wealth of research, or even a moderate amount of technical detail for that matter, the parable just doesn't work. Its light, almost fairytale-like quality simply can't support the authoritative and academic nature needed to drive home what the author needs to convey.

Where it DOES work, however, is with high concepts. That knowledge distilled after years or even decades of being entrenched in a specific field where change is constant and deeper truths are the only solid ground to stand on. They are the "rulebooks" written by retiring CEOs to their successors, that are less about where they kept the spare stapler and more about why honesty, for instance, should be recognized and nurtured and exemplified by leadership. These are the ten-thousand-hour carbon experiences, compressed by time and pressure into precious knowledge that today's generation can bank on.

This is where parables shine - when you can show the reader the path, lay bare the challenges, and, though carefully placed clues along the way, guide them to a treasure chest of knowledge.

Don't Start Without a Parable Map

Before I take off like a giddy, unbounded wood nymph into the infinite foliage of fiction, I have to check myself. It's so easy to get lost on the path of an exciting story, losing bits and pieces of the original purpose along the way until there's not enough left to find my way back. It hurts to erase that many words and lose that much time, and just as painful to get that confused, "I'm not sure what's going on here and I don't like it..." email from the author.

A Parable Map doesn't have to be as detailed as a book outline (you're doing those, too, right?). It can be as simple as the five main concepts that the author wants to get across, and five or six supporting facts or rules under each that the reader needs to understand through the course of the story. For example, if the author is trying to convey the need for empathy, one of the bullet points may be to "think about what the other person wants, not what you would want." This bullet point would then become an important thread in the story, and the main character would need to find herself in a circumstance where this is an important and possibly very hard thing for her to learn. If you build the core of your parable around these major and minor key points, then it becomes much harder for your main character to stray (though it still happens, even to the best of us. We all wind up suffering under the lashing clack of "delete"). 

Parables are thrilling to write. They can be as fantastical or ordinary as we want them to be, made even more exciting by the fact that we have to forge them within specific boundaries. Because as those of us who played with cardboard as children know, there are an infinite number of ways to play inside a box.

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