I’m admitting upfront that I’m stealing this topic from J. Scott Bronson. His last post was titled, “There’s Always a Message,” and it struck a chord with me.
Back in my early teenage years, my older sister, then an English major, and I got into a friendly discussion/argument about whether a story could exist on its own without an underlying message.
I was firmly in the camp that yes, of course it could. Not everything is a fable or must end with a moral. Not every writer pens a story just to teach a lesson. Puh-leese. My sister disagreed, saying that every story has something to say and teach. At the time, I was too immature to get what she was saying.
Many, many years later, after my first novel came out, this same sister came to me after reading it. She had a bit of an, “I told you so” grin on her face. I had no idea what she was about to say. What came out stunned me.
“Your book has messages and themes and symbols.”
It . . . what?
She complimented me on how well I’d incorporated a particular theme into the narrative, teaching the reader a certain lesson. “Told ya,” she said.
I never did admit that I hadn’t meant to weave any theme or symbol into the book. After she pointed it out, I looked back and thought, “Cool. That’s actually kinda neat.” But I didn’t put it there on purpose. (That was 2002. I have yet to tell her.)
I was cautioned by a writing teacher to never try to write a story with a message, because instead of telling a good story that happens to teach something, the story will end up being a didactic mess. I heeded that advice . . . until I had a topic I really, really felt needed to be out there. I thought that surely I was the exception. I could tell a great story and get the message across.
Not even close: that manuscript is and forever will be gathering dust on my hard drive. It has a couple of good scenes, but as a whole, it’s a preachy hairball. I immediately turned my attempts back to trying to tell a good story first. If a message comes after, great. That’s gravy. But the story must come first, and I won’t force any “message.”
The irony, of course, is that my sister was right: messages always still come through. The trick is that, at least in the drafting phase, the writer can’t intentionally be pulling the strings on it, or the message won’t work.
I believe when writers try too hard to write something with a message, it’ll fall flat on its face. If they instead focus on characters and their problems and how they find solutions, the writer ends up learning right along with them, and THAT becomes the message. Any time I’ve seen a writer deliberately write something with an underlying message, it’s never been good. But if the message grows out of the story . . . wow.
With my last book, I participated in an extensive blog tour and as a result, was interviewed a lot. I was amazed at how many times I was asked about my “message”: “What do you feel is the most important message in the book?” or, “What message do you hope your readers take away from it?” or, “What messages did you put into the book?”
I wanted to cry out, “I didn’t put in any messages!” But I know that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Looking back, I see several themes (and yes, even symbols) in that novel. But they didn’t happen with a deliberate outline on my part. (In chapter nine, I’ll be sure to show such-and-such, which will emphasize this moral . . .”)
I wasn’t sure how to answer those interview questions beyond saying that I didn’t write the book an intent to put any messages in, but here’s what I learned while writing it.
Is it possible to write a story without a message? Perhaps, although I think it unlikely. A writer’s personal belief system, goals, world view, and more will always come through no matter how hard they try to contain them, and with them come messages of some kind.
Should you try to write a story with a message? In my never-quiet opinion, I say (rather loudly) absolutely not. The message/s should develop organically.
Shoving messages down a reader’s throat has been a big criticism about LDS fiction for a long, long time. It might even be the biggest criticism about the market. (This book is about staying away from drugs. This one is about peer pressure. This one is about temple marriage. And this one . . .)
But there’s a flip-side to the issue. Force-feeding messages is the very reason, in my opinion, that some of the so-called “liberal” LDS fiction has failed in both audiences and sales. Some of it (no, not all) appears to be written with the express purpose of giving a specific, opposing message—a blatant agenda—countering what the bigger LDS presses publish. It might be that Mormons are hypocrites. Mormons are intolerant or judgmental. They’re backward. They’re stuck in their ways. Or something else altogether.
Ironically, I rarely hear such books criticized for their sloppy, didactic writing. Instead, they’re lauded for pushing the envelope, for taking a stand, for being “realistic.”
Why? They’re just as preachy as their conservative counterparts. Isn’t agenda-pushing, regardless of the agenda, poor writing?
It’s as if some of these people abandon putting together a well-crafted story with believable characters and instead shove a liberal lesson down readers’ throats. But that’s okay, because it’s not a conservative message. They’re “open-minded” (whatever that means), so it doesn’t matter if the writing is sub-par and just as didactic as the books they openly criticize—it’s just didactic in the other direction.
As a Whitney Awards judge this year, I’ve come across two excellent examples on each side of this fence. The first was didactic in the extreme. (Message: Nearly all Mormons, including the leadership, are all judgmental, hypocritical bastards.) I got so sick of being hammered with the blatant agenda (I might have sympathized with the characters if the author hadn’t been so obnoxious about pushing the agenda) that I was ready to take a blunt spoon to my eyeballs. Bad, bad writing.
The other was a potential didactic landmine, but the topic was handled skillfully. The characters were real. They were put into heartbreakingly difficult situations. And in the end, they stayed faithful to the gospel even though they had no clear-cut, easy answers.
It was downright refreshing. Kudos to that second book: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back. From what I’ve read, Langford didn’t set out to teach or preach. He set out to explore the “what if” of being a faithful LDS teen who happens to be gay. What would that be like? And you can tell that’s the angle he took, because there’s no preaching–but there is loyalty to the Church.
I hope more writers, from across the conservative/liberal spectrum, will do their best to tell a great story first instead of trying to write an agenda with the story coming second—and that readers will judge books based on the quality of the writing, not on whether their agenda was the one being preached.
Because contrary to what many believe, agenda-pushing isn’t a problem you see only in the books sitting on Deseret and Seagull shelves. It’s a problem lurking pretty much anywhere if readers and writers don’t insist on better.
All of us deserve better.