Sidebar: Send a message, not a sermon

>> Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Agents and publishers frequently express concern about stories sent them with a distinct message, noting such stories are frequently heavy-handed with the story subverted by the need to make the message plain. Stories completely focused on such messages are often preachy, condescending and, much worse, boring and pompous. The stories, twisted to suit the message, come off contrived and clumsy.

This not only makes a crappy story, it does a rotten job of sending a message. Anyone with kids can tell you beating a kid over the head with a message is no way to get them to learn. Example is, and will always be, the best way of communicating behavior and life lessons, as many a parent has learned the hard way. Do as I say and not as I do–you're dreaming if you think that's any way to raise a child. But, if a child understands why something is, if they see the effects of what you do, that can make an impression they don't even consciously recognize. Which is why so many adults discover they're channeling their parents when they deal with their own children–to their chagrin.

But, as I said last time, I don't think a story sans message is even feasible. I don't think you can have challenging situations and characters that grow and react to those situations without sending messages: what are good things to do, what are bad things to do, how those reactions reflect on you, what society does as opposed to what it should do. Sometimes the stories speak of a situation that needs changing by shining light on the parts people in the "clean world" don't like to believe actually exist. These are the ones that most easily can slip into sermon. However, that same subject can be just as clearly portrayed as a backdrop on a story, having repercussions naturally through the story without subverting it or being the focus. The message comes through as thoroughly, if not more thoroughly, because it feels true, it feels real instead of contrived. It doesn't subvert the story which can be as positive or negative as one's heart desires.

However, even stories with no axe to grind whatsoever still have something to say, a natural fallout of characters that grow. The messages might not be uplifting: "sometimes bad things happen no matter what you do," "some people can't be trusted," "people are stupid," etc. Sometimes, they're light: "live a little" or "sometimes love is enough." But even fluff can have something important to say, can say it unmistakably without getting weighed down or even precluding entertainment. The less the reader notices the message, the more effective it likely it might be, because that often means the reader has identified with the message so absolutely they already agree or they've just absorbed it as natural.

As soon as your message starts to make the story unnatural, you're doing the neither the message nor the story any good. In the interest of stopping with the dead horse beating, let me give you some examples from my own works.

Curse of the Jenri: Badass Amazon-like women (Jenri) excel in magic and armed combat and marry men outside their tribe because they can't have male children. Tander, happy-go-lucky mercenary, and Layla, serious top level Jenri, are married. Tander has to embrace his "shameful" magical talents and ally himself with others in order to rescue his wife and others from top level magic-wielders (tolerance, using one's potential fully, learning responsibility). Layla's prideful self-sufficiency nearly gets herself and others killed because she keeps her problems hidden. Flashbacks to Jenri show how an oppressive and abusive environments can warp one's character, drive one to do what one would never do otherwise, but also how kindness can promote healing. With my badass Jenri, feminism is a rather natural fallout. Most of this is not specifically driven but falls naturally out of the story. I don't know how, in fact, I could tell the story without saying all these things that I believe. I don't have to state them directly (though I sometimes do via one character or another). The story tells it for me.

Beast Within - Xander (dragon), and his secret group of shapeshifters, is stranded with a large group of refugee children on a remote planet with no hope of escape. The planet might kill them if they don't use all their shapeshifter talents. The humans might kill them if they find out they're shapeshifters (as many humans consider shapeshifters and those with psionic talents "demons"). Fear of that makes the shapeshifters willing to kill to protect their secret. Xander is the leader (though not the oldest) because he is the strongest in his animal form, but he fears his perceived "weakness" and his other form because of his father's abuse. He must embrace his strengths and overcome his own fears of his other self in order to have his group (and the humans) survive. He must also stand firm on doing the right thing rather than succumb to fear or lose his humanity and precious abilities. This is a story all about what one is vs. who one is. Xander (who begins the story with a great deal to be proud of if only he knew it) must learn to appreciate his own abilities and those realizations and what the behavior of both shapeshifters and humans do (and their prejudices) are what propels the story forward.

Tarot Queen - smart precognitive has spent centuries locked up in a little house, not really living. Enter the demon, Dante, whom she wishes to free from his demon possession so she can become his lover. She must leave her safe but boring life behind and discovers reality's a lot more challenging than she thought, but also that she can do a great deal more than she ever imagined if she doesn't stand in her own way. Dante, long cynical and uncaring, having lived a (really long) life where everything came too easily, realizes that loving something precious is its own reward, and more than a little frightening because most things are more fragile than he is. What he/she is vs. who he/she is is also a big player in this story.

Catspaw - Hotheaded shapeshifter (Laren) with a chip on his shoulder finds himself thrust into leadership when Xander (the star of Beast Within) falls deathly ill. Only by keeping a rein on his temper will he be able to think his way through the dogpile of catastrophes that fall naturally from Xander's illness. In doing so, Laren finds he understands more about his fosterbrother (Xander) than he ever did before and discovers the world isn't nearly so black and white as he'd often thought, especially as he finds himself drawn to a human. Hard to hate them when you love one. Who vs. what (from the other side) again.

Saving Tessa - Rich, intelligent and self-sufficient, Dylan's life revolves around his best friend/girlfriend, Tessa. Without her, his life would be an endless succession of work that neither inspires nor challenges him. Tessa does both. When she is stolen to coerce him, he must come to grips with his own limitations and trust Tessa's own abilities to take care of herself. In many ways, this is a character study for Dylan, because no one can do everything themselves. Everyone has something to lose. This isn't a big overarching theme story, but more a study in a relationship where we learn more about what makes a healthy relationship than just "love." Or that could just me be.

One thing you want to avoid, besides the heavy hand of preachiness, is building a story where the message you're sending isn't the one you thought it was. I think Frankenstein is a good example of this. In my opinion, Mary Shelly seemed to be saying that the "monster" was inherently evil because he was an unnatural creature that man should not have created. But, when I read the story, the monster doesn't seem evil at all, but a creature, abandoned and reviled for no other reason that what he is, who is driven to desperation to obtain even a chance of happiness, only to have that happiness thwarted time and again, whether he uses exemplary methods or violence.

Let's not forget the far-too-common message many modern romances send that rape's acceptable if the guy really loves you ('cause nothing says "I love you," like violent rape). I'll stop there or I'll be beating dead horses again. Oy!

The point I'm trying to make is that a writer should understand what messages fall out of the story. He shouldn't bludgeon the story to produce the message he wants, but he might want to rethink the story if the messages he's making aren't ones he wants to send.


  • Jeff King

    Great advice (as always) I loved your examples.

  • Relax Max

    I see. Well, humbly, I don't think one can write something and have a wrong (unintended) message come out. How would one do that? Can you give a real example of a story with a message that the author didn't intend?

    Maybe a story could be written where a reader (because of his own personal values and baggage) read something into it that wasn't there, but that's not the author's fault.

    I liked the dead horse part a lot, though.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Max, I gave you an example (two in fact).

    Frankenstein (and I explained why). Mary Shelley was part of the romantic crowd, along with her husband, those that advocated nature and against science. Many times in the book, characters around the "monster" and the narrator pointed out the inherent evil in creating the creature and that his behavior manifested that evil. But that's not what happened - he was no more inherently evil than any other self-aware creature left abandoned, reviled for nothing more than his appearance which he could do nothing about). In fact, so far from evil, he worked mightily to do good, hid himself from sight while rewarding the people unknowingly sheltering him with good anonymous deeds. In the end, all he asks is not to be left alone, for someone like himself. Frankenstein (the "scientist") agrees (though coerced), then murders the nascent companion in front of the creature.

    Most even enlightened people would find that enough to send them over the edge. Frankenstein is effectively the monster's parent, yet he has abandoned him, reviled him, tried to kill him, tormented him in nearly every conceivable way. Guess who the evil guy is?

    Sadly, even at the end, Mary describes Frankenstein as misguided, rather than the intolerant bastard she actually wrote him to be.

    As for my other example, if you went to the writers of many modern romances (and some not so modern) and asked if rape was romantic, they'd say, "Of course not." They just don't think, if the "hero" brutally forces an (invariable virginal) girl to have sex while he's in the throes of a jealous rage (the usual excuse) that's really rape.

    People often think they're sending a message, not realizing that what they think they're saying and what they really are saying are at odds. Politicians are a good example of it. Ironically, in fiction, if you write good characters, you're even more prone to sending a message you hadn't expected, as Shelley probably never even realized.

  • The Mother

    It's a fine line.

    Fiction is, however, the way you change the world. Remember how "The DaVinci Code" made many people actually question the validity of the text for the first time?

  • Relax Max

    I know you gave examples of your opinions. But what you personally took away from Frankenstein is not Mary Shelly's fault. You totally own your opinion. And so did the readers of her day. It doesn't mean she inadvertently included some unintended message. A writer writes what he or she means. A reader interprets. Don't blame Mary for what you think the book is about.

    Same with romance novels or anything else. What you get from the book is your own baggage, not the author's. Would you have an author psychoanalyze each and every nuance for possibilities of misunderstanding by millions of readers?

    I think your opinions on these books and what they mean to you are very interesting and food for thought. But let's not be blaming authors for your personal perceptions of meanings. No messages are being "sent" - only perceived by certain readers to have been sent. Please rethink your stance on this.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Relax Max, I respectfully disagree with you. A writer is responsible not only for what they meant to say, but what they actually say. Only a novel kept in a drawer belongs to the author alone. Once you've shared your work with a reader, they become part of the equation. One could make the argument that, without the reader, the novel has no purpose. A novel should communicate; that can't be done without both sides.

    If, as a writer, I have a message, but the actions and characters in my novel are at odds with that message, I'm responsible for communicating it poorly, at best sending a mixed message. I deserve to have people read things I never intended in my book if I've written such things into it, even inadvertently.

    Much like any politician, talking the talk of responsibility or commitment to family who betrays trust in either case when no one's looking and gets caught. Someone is not "true" because they say they are, but because they are--or they're not.

    A novel says what it says not just by stating but by demonstrating it with word and deed. If the word and deed are at odds with the statements, well, which one do you think the reader will give credence to? As a writer, I feel it's necessary for me to be cognizant of what the implications are in the characterizations and actions in the novel, be confident I understand them fully enough that they communicate what I want to communicate.

    Some will, almost undoubtedly, see what I never intended. To some extent, that can't entirely be helped. As you implied, people bring their own perceptions. But that doesn't mean I'm not responsible for the message they received. I'm part of the communication equation, too. If I can't impart what I want to impart to the majority of my readers, I need to go back and figure out who I failed in my communication.

    You don't have to agree with me, but, believe it or not, I've given this a great deal of thought already. And I truly believe this to be so.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Note also, Relax Max, that this blog is entirely my opinions, on what's important in writing and what I think about writing.

    As an unpublished novelist, it would be wise not to confuse my opinions with authority.

  • Relax Max

    Being published won't make you an authority if you aren't already (I don't think). I think if you study your craft enough or learn how to do something well enough, then you are an authority. But an authority (learned in one's craft) doesn't have to be right about every little thing. Especially about something as subjective as writing.

    Certainly you will find intentional messages, both passive and preaching, in some novels. Sticking only with the "classics," Charles Dickens always had a message, sometimes subtle, woven though his orphan novels. On the other hand, people like Anna Sewell and Harriet Beecher Stowe beat you over the head with their "messages." But some are only stories. Where is the extra message in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island? Or in Washington Irving's yarns? And Mary Shelly was only trying to tell a story too, simply for entertainment value. In your heart, you know that's true. Messages are not mandatory. And messages that are not there but perceived to be there by a reader are not (I still say) the author's responsibility. Books would never get sold if they were as generic and neutral as you seem to want them to be. Who would want to read them? You make writing too hard with too many rules sometimes.

  • Stephanie Barr

    RM, you crack me up. Where, exactly, did I say I wanted stories to be generic or neutral? (I can't answer the question on Treasure Island, since I never read it and it would depend on which Irving tale. They always had something to say to me - though not necessarily something heavy handed or profound).

    Mary Shelley was actually pretty preachy in her novel, though it's not surprising given that she and her husband were spearheads for the Romantic movement. You've read it, right?

    I'm not an advocate for no message stories. As I explicitly said, I don't think you can actually write a decent story without advocating something. Nor am I dictating what kind of message to send, just that you want to be careful that the story you think you're writing is saying what you think it's saying.

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