Story vs Message

A pet hate of mine is being preached at in a story, whether in a film, TV programme or a book.

Most authors hold strong views about one subject or another, and invariably write stories about issues that are important to them. I am no exception. How then to ensure said stories are not heavy handed and preachy?

The answer is simple: never consciously design a story to deliver a message. Instead, just write a good story full stop. Whatever your views, they will be inherent in the material even if it isn’t directly about the issues you are passionate about.

One of the many reasons I love The Lord of the Rings is that at no point did Tolkien intend the story to have any message whatsoever. However it is clear (and he acknowledged this in retrospect) that it touches very effectively on everything that was important to him: the destruction of the countryside, the unchecked march of technology, the horrors of war (of which he had personal experience), and most obviously his Christian faith – not just the external battle between good and evil but the battle to overcome evil in oneself.

With my own work, I try not to have a conscious axe to grind, so that what is important to me hopefully emerges in far more interesting and convincing ways. That isn’t to say I don’t have a premise. For example, the premise of Uncle Flynn concerns overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. But first and foremost I set out to write an exciting adventure story about a boy on a treasure hunt, not preach a sermon.

In a similar way, George goes to Mars is about becoming a responsible leader, but at no point did I want that message smashed over the reader’s head. Instead I just intended to write a really exciting and fun science-fiction adventure. It was interesting to see various other issues that are important to me manifest themselves in this book as it developed, albeit often in heavily disguised form. For example, the oppression of women by religious fundamentalists is a theme that crops up later in the novel. There are moments of political satire too, in both George goes to Mars and Uncle Flynn. Rather than address these subjects in a heavy, serious tome, hopefully they are more effectively touched on here, as (hopefully) amusing asides.

Obviously readers will decide how successful I was in both of the above cases.

It is widely held wisdom that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The most serious message will be met by a more receptive reader if it is entertainingly presented. To that I would add that it is better still if you don’t even try to present a message. Instead allow the message to be inherent in a great story.

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One Response to Story vs Message

  1. republibot3 says:

    I generally don’t like things with a clear cut agenda. I’ve read a lot of things that do have one, and enjoyed many, but the books that haunt me most, I find, are ones with an uncertain allegory. It means something, but the author might not know what, might have to work for it, might get it wrong. The fact that it means something is enough to give it heft, even if the meaning is completely lost on the reader (for instance, what did The Martian Chronicles MEAN? What does the whale represent in Moby Dick? Tell me any interp you want, and I can find a hundred scholars to tell you you’re wrong.)

    That said, I’m basically a short story guy, and I have written a good deal of stories with a point or moral in mind. I don’t believe I’ve ever done this to preach. I generally do it to ask a question, which is kind of my job as an SF author. I don’t know the answers, though I suspect some. Only some. I just like asking the questions and getting others to discuss them, if that makes sense.

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