>> 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.