Where the story stops and the author doesn’t.
The soapbox is often used as an insult for poorly thought out moments in stories where the message the author wants the audience to come away with shatters the suspension of disbelief. The problem with the soapbox isn’t that it’s used but that it’s often used poorly, bluntly, ploddingly, inhumanly, or not self-aware.
To counter the preconceived notion that the soapbox is a low point in a story, all that must be done is to write the soapbox well. Overly reductionist, but that’s how all writing should be at the end of the day—just write well.
When it comes to writing the soapbox here are some basic approaches you can take to improve your story.
Give the soapbox a place in your story:
Ask yourself, “Does my story as written support the argument in my soapbox?”
Just like a story’s first two acts build up to the climax, so too do the elements of the story support, or contradict, the point of the soapbox. If you want to make a point about poverty, have an impoverished character and follow them around a bit as they live their lives, or have a character who rose out of poverty, or have an impoverished setting.
There’s a moment in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman (an idle rich accountant) has dinner at an expensive restaurant and babbles on how something must be done about all the world’s tragic situations occurring at the time. The comedic irony is we know Bateman doesn’t actually care about the suffering people in the world and that he’s only bringing up the tragedies (discussing them on a less than surface level) in order to show up his companions at dinner with how much more he thinks about the issues than they do.
As a writer, you don’t want to pull a Patrick Bateman with your soapbox. If there’s a cognitive disconnect between what the character is saying and the reality presented, then I’m gonna laugh at it. If the young adult protagonist soapboxes about the importance of nature preservation immediately after an organized, sentient nature rebellion where grizzly bears throw snakes through people’s windows, I’m arguing instead for the legitimate fear of nature and the military plan to achieve unconditional surrender.
The subject matter in a soapbox argument is often taken too seriously by the author. It could be a serious topic no doubt but the author’s overwhelming desire (for them) to be taken seriously can ruin the moment. Just the soapbox speech in a vacuum doesn’t guarantee its “world-changing importance” will come across clearer. Often it’s just dull to have a character (or worse, the author) go on and on about how they feel about a thing.
Where this is done well is in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Halfway through the film is a scene where a hiding Roger gives his earnest belief that a stranger whom he made laugh won’t divulge his whereabouts just because Roger’s a (marginalized) toon, that laughter is the only weapon toons have in an unfair world. It’s a short and symbolic speech about the inequities of a prejudiced system, no rambling, no telling others how they should live while having a hypocraful track record.
It’s great on its own but the groundwork is laid with subtle background worldbuilding of a segregated nightclub that justifies Roger’s point of view. Moreover, the scene and what Roger’s talking about has immediate narrative stakes which when stripped of its symbolic meaning still has a reason to exist in the story. Ever further, in a comedy where the soapbox delivering character is a comedic slapstick actor whom often employs physical humor, he delivers his speech on a box marked soap. It’s not the center of attention, it’s only visible for a few frames but extra layers of icing like that and the effort put into them keep warm in the hearts of the fans and leave them thinking about the soapbox for years.
Trust your story and your characters:
You don’t need to throw all the “hidden” meanings about your point in the face of the audience. Let your carefully planned, well-executed story relay your point for you. Sometimes the symbolic fight between the protagonist and the antagonist over the fate of a city can just be that. We don’t need the bad guy’s speech delivered to a downed hero about how a lust for crime and evil is the natural state of the civilian population only for the hero to rise from the ground and refute those claims with a counter speech and an uppercut.
I’ve said it before (stolen it before from someone more acutely aware than myself), a Tarantino film is two thirds talking and not two thirds action. Have your speech and then execute on the argument with action.
Believe in what you say:
Soapboxes aren’t all corny and outdated. You don’t have to ironically callout that you’re doing a soapbox and explain they are stupid and probably don’t have much impact in the grand scheme of things. But if you do ironically call out your own soapbox as stupid, why did you put it in the story in the first place? You must believe in it to some degree.
You don’t have to feel ashamed about expressing your view in a story. Exercise some self-restraint on your ego so you don’t blow horn the story down. Say what you feel is important enough to write in a book or screenplay or what-have-you and entertain while you do it.
If you’re still subconscious about throwing too much of yourself in the story, you can take whatever you wanted to soapbox about and put it in an afterword. Don’t remove it all from the story but have a separate place to be direct about what you want to say.
Stan Lee did this to great effect in his Stan’s Soapbox segments, I recommend you go read some of them.
You don’t have to make reference to the story and say how symbol A relates to real world parallel B, you can just talk openly about what you feel. Yes I talk about my works in this manner all the time, but I always maintain you’re free (and perhaps correct) to disagree with me.
Research your point:
We’ve all had conversations with a proud person whom is frustratingly ignorant on the topic at hand. (I take up that character with insatiable vigor as a goof and relish it.) What’s worse than a conversation with that person is a one-sided conversation with them. Don’t just agree with yourself or strawman a pathetic counterargument.
If you have the time to write down a conversation and review it and make adjustments, then first take the time to learn about what you’re trying to say. There are several thousands of hours of philosophy lectures freely available on the internet. There might be a real-world example of the situation you’re inadvertently portraying in your story. There’s no excuse for not executing a single search.
When you do the research, you might change your opinion on the topic, you might have more arguments for your stance, you’ll definitely have more detailed thoughts for how the groundwork should be laid out to support what you’re saying. Gather some facts to counter the obvious doubts the audience will have about your point. Not necessarily the stubborn people but the regular individuals who aren’t convinced by a one sentence encapsulation of your argument. If everyone was convinced by the mere reiteration of a central point then we’d all be in cults.
Ethos, Pathos, Logos. Listen to some famous speeches. I Have A Dream is just a soapbox and one I wish I could begin to glimpse.
Recite the soapbox:
Practice the speech yourself on tape. See what sounds good and what needs some tweaking. Add specific punctuation in the text reflecting how it sounded in the open air. Put a mirror in front of yourself and find out if you can look at yourself delivering the lines.
Write an essay:
This is something I learned from standup comedy. A lot of comics first write their bits out as essays to justify their mode of thought and then add the jokes later and work on the timing and delivery on stage.
The parallel to prose writing is fairly similar. If you don’t understand what you’re trying to say, how can you write a story around it? This isn’t to say you can’t find the voice when you’re halfway through the story but all the groundwork and the small details depend on your firm grasp of the material.
The essay can translate to a bare outline for the story by simply placing the protagonist as the pro for the argument and the antagonist as the against. Real-world examples could then become the basic beats of the story.
This is also helpful because the main argument of your story can be stated without it coming out the mouths of your precious characters whom you love and whom blind you with that attachment. The essay isn’t your baby like your story is and you can more easily find the flaws in your argument.