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View Full Version : Proposition: Message Story is a dismissive and derogatory term.



RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 02:09 AM
This was prompted by another thread and would have been a serious derail there, but the subject has been troubling me for some time.

It seems to me that every time the idea of meaning in a story is brought up, the story is promptly dismissed as a "Message Story." The implication is that it would be some heavy handed sermon or Aesopian fable. Accompanying this dismissal is some variation of the phrase "the story comes first" and the idea that stories exist primarily to entertain. Often there are hints and warnings of political agenda on the part of a writer who would dare put meaning first.

This idea has two problems, one on the writing side, the other on the reading.

For writing, some of us begin the creative process with the meaning of the story. Around that we create world, characters, and plot. As the story evolves the meaning grows and changes and becomes more sophisticated. It is true that if the meaning is a single simplistic sentence then the story is likely to look glaringly preachy.

But by the same token if a story is written to showcase a single character and the others are flat and two dimensional, the story will be bad, and if the story exists to showcase a single event with everything else only window dressing, the story will be uninteresting.

This is simply part of the process by which I and some other writers write. If we are told that we are wrong to start this way, that we need characters or plot first, we're stuck. We simply do not create our stories by those methods. If we are told that our stories will never be any good because they start this way we may become discouraged and never learn to make our stories work.

On the reading side, readers derive meaning from stories. They will attribute a sense of right and wrong to the events of the story. They will judge characters good or bad (or neither). They will formulate a view of the subject matter of the story out of the events and the descriptions. This is part of how humans think. We make the meaningless (like ink on a page or glowing squiggles on a screen) into the meaningful (stories, essays, and posts).

Looking through SYW, there are many critiques based on the meaning of stories. Readers will point out that a character's actions make him or her come across as evil or amoral when the writer was trying for good. They will point out that ideas or actions are fascinating or horrible. They will assert that something is unbelievable or impossible. These are as much moral or message judgments as any Aesop's Fable.

There's also meaning in each POV. Every point of view renders judgments of what it observes, whether it is a narrator decrying the way people live in a city or a character rhapsodizing over the perfection of a kind of coffee, that judgment comes across to the reader conveying meaning.

It is, as I said above, true that meanings can stick out like sore thumbs just as characters, scenery, special effects, and events can. Sometimes this can be made to work but it has fallen out of fashion, so it is more difficult nowadays.

I personally prefer to embed meaning deeper in worlds and stories and let it flow out in the course of the story by implication. But that's a stylistic choice more than anything else.

Filigree
01-31-2014, 02:38 AM
I agree, in the context of SYW entries.

I'm not sure I *care* that much about stories that don't weave some form of deeper meaning into their entertainment (see Terry Pratchett). But it can be done well, and cleverly - or not.

I believe there is still room for the term 'message story' as applied to the more heavy-handed examples often seen in self-published or vanity-published works. Whether political screed, wish-fulfillment, misery memoir, or senior citizen wisdom pieces, these can all come across as little more than vehicles for their message.

lbender
01-31-2014, 02:39 AM
My point of view is simple. There is no right or wrong way to write. Whatever gets the job done is fine. I sit down, start at the beginning and work my way along to the end. Others write outlines or synopses of what they want to happen in each chapter, then follow them religiously.

Some may want to get a message across. Many, including me, just want to tell a story. If, as frequently happens, a message happens to appear during the story, so be it.

I have no problem with anybody's methods. My idea as to what a 'message story' would be is a story built around a message which, in so doing, sounds forced. Can the term be misapplied? Of course. Can it be overused? Of course. Can it be way off base? Of course. So can many other terms when applied incorrectly.

I'm not going to let those kinds of things bother me. There are enough other problems to worry about.

Torgo
01-31-2014, 02:44 AM
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is a fable - it's a moral thought experiment designed to clarify and personalize a particular class of everyday ethical problems. It would, I agree, feel pretty offhand and dismissive to call it a 'Message Story', but it's undeniable that it is a story intended to convey a message (or at least, a question.)

The old adage is that if you want to send a message, the easiest method is Western Union (however dated that adage is - boringly it'd be 'Twitter' or something these days.) But it's far more powerful if you can deliver it the way Le Guin does (or Aesop, or whoever.) Not easy to do by any means, of course.

MookyMcD
01-31-2014, 02:47 AM
I write satire. I don't actually write a story about the message, but the message is the backbone of my narrative. Without the message, it isn't satire.

Rhoda Nightingale
01-31-2014, 03:04 AM
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I've been thinking this same thing since the whole kerfuffle broke out. Glad I'm not the only one.

thothguard51
01-31-2014, 03:20 AM
Does there have to be a message?

Jamesaritchie
01-31-2014, 04:04 AM
I have no problem with message stories, or with having a message in mind before writing the story. Some of my favorite short stories and novels were written just to get a message across.

What I'm against is saying you have to consciously include a message, or reading a message into a story that simply isn't there. More, what really gripes me is when a critic says the writer obviously had this or that in mind while writing the story. I can say from experience that, no, I did not have that in mind. And, frankly, it's stupid, and I'd have to be both drunk and psychotic to ever have that in mind.

Like all things, message stories yield to treatment. Done well enough, they make for wonderful reading.

If you can start with a message, and work that into a story in a way that doesn't beat the reader over the head, or that doesn't come across as a Sunday morning sermon, God bless you and yours. You can do something that I fail at miserably.

I do not, however, agree that POV automatically has meaning, and if a reader reads something like meaning into the POV I use, he's almost certainly dead wrong. I choose POV for very specific reasons, use them in very specific ways, and meaning is definitely not one of them, whatever readers think.

As for critiques, those you describe are exactly why I think critiques from average readers and inexperienced writers are horrible, horrible things. I've seen promising careers brought to a dead stop because of such critiques.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 04:08 AM
Does there have to be a message?

That depends on what you mean by a message Meaning in writing is inevitable. Do you equate meaning and message?

Ken
01-31-2014, 04:28 AM
Putting direct messages in stories is tempting. 9 times out of 10, I'll try and fail because the message disrupts the story. But sometimes it works. It fits right in with the flow. Another thing is that the characters and POV have to lend themselves to messages. Not all do. And if you go ahead anyway you're turning characters into your personal spokespeople. So in a way, all the stars have to align.

ps That's just me as a "writer" though. As a reader I have read and enjoyed a number of stories where the characters have been little more than puppets used to convey the author's views: morality plays, etc.
Definitely out of fashion these days. Shame in a way.

Wilde_at_heart
01-31-2014, 04:47 AM
I think the term crops up when the ordinary reader begins to feel bludgeoned by the message, or it comes at the expense of realistic story, character motivations, etc.

I myself can't stand when characters seem to be there primarily to serve as propagandistic mouthpieces, but then I don't like underdeveloped characters or plot, etc. in any story. I don't read to be lectured about something.

However, in my life I've known a few artists and writers who seem to think it's okay to forsake all sorts of basic story-telling elements because of the 'message' they're wanting to deliver. There comes a point where I think to myself, I already get it, such-and-such is terrible, but would that ever, actually happen?


Does there have to be a message?

I don't think there needs to be.

jimmymc
01-31-2014, 05:06 AM
There are writers... and then there are preachers. Writers I respect, preachers not so much.

ArachnePhobia
01-31-2014, 05:18 AM
The Phantom Tollbooth is my all-time never-to-be-topped favorite book. It's notoriously didactic, and it's perfect.

I think message stories get a bad rap because the best ones aren't always recognized as message stories. The moral is so seamlessly integrated it's as much a part of the world as the plot and characters. In the aforementioned Phantom Tollbooth, the world is set up in a way that when Faintly Macabre gives an impassioned speech about picking the best words for your sentences, it makes perfect sense for her to be saying that, so it doesn't poke the reader's suspension of disbelief in the eye. OTOH, when the Importance of the Message has characters acting inconsistently to further it, or breaks the story world to make itself work... well, the message will be more obvious, but it won't be the kind of attention the author was going for.

Rhoda Nightingale
01-31-2014, 05:23 AM
I think what bothers me about this whole Message Story = Bad thing is A) the backstory behind it (the idea that any story containing certain elements must, by definition, be a "message" story), and B) "message" stories are, by definition, preachy and boring. Neither of which are true.

The fact that the whole argument is coming from sci-fi just completely baffles me. The most didactic cautionary tales I've ever encountered come from that very place. And most of them (not all, but the ones I've read) are pretty awesome. The argument does not hold water.

buirechain
01-31-2014, 06:14 AM
I certain like to read and write stories where the message isn't definitive, but there is a message. The idea being two-fold. First a good story with a message should getting a reader thinking about whatever issue, but not tell a reader what to think. Second, the author's point of view may or may not be 100% clear (though if it's too opaque would it still be a message story?), but the writer admit that their POV may still be fallible and yield to further evidence. They may have thought a lot about an issue, but they can't have thought about everything. Or maybe they are saying something definitive about something, without defining exactly what they're talking about--so their's still wriggle room (i.e. who within a certain group is actually causing a problem).

I was actually thinking recently about a sci-fi story I had read (I'm not 100% sure where it was), that not only decided the idea that nuclear energy is completely and totally safe, but that time will vindicate this viewpoint by the complete absence of nuclear energy incidents.

The funny thing about that story was that it was written only a couple of years before Three Mile Island and less than a decade before Chernobyl.

Then again, I'd bet there are stories that break those two rules and really hit you on the head that I do like.

Siri Kirpal
01-31-2014, 07:57 AM
Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

The world is richer for

A Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov
Horton Hears a Who

and numerous other books whose message is the key to the book.

Just don't run after readers with a sledgehammer.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal

JustSarah
01-31-2014, 08:47 AM
And I think thats part of my hesitance about message stories. How much is exactly to much for the reader? Its still something I'm struggling with.

Like 1984 comes to mind, that could have been helped with being less preachy. Yet War of the worlds is totally fine.

So I'm not really sure.

Roxxsmom
01-31-2014, 09:11 AM
I've been wondering the same thing. There seem to be two assumptions here, that normal stories are completely lacking in message, and that this is a preferable state if it is true. I don't really agree with both.

Having said this, I think there are a couple of ways that message story can be used in the pejorative.

1. A heavy-handed, pedantic, shrill story where the author is clearly cramming a very set agenda down the throats of readers at the expense of any entertainment value or story. I think this is often a straw man, since such novels are probably a tough sell most of the time. I can think of some novels, perhaps, that come close to this (I won't name them out of concern for RYFW)

2. Novels with more subtle themes where it's pretty clear that the writer has certain values about something, but the story is entertaining and not narrowly focused on that issue. Still, readers who vehemently disagree with those values will often complain about the author's political agenda. Or perhaps there's something that simply makes a reader uncomfortable, like a LGBT character who is sympathetic, or a woman or man who is not following a traditional gender role, or someone from an underrepresented demographic. I've had people tell me the only reason for including such things in a story is "political posturing."

Where the line is, may depend on who you are. The movie Avatar, for instance. An anti-military, anti-colonial, anti-American, eco-terrorist anthem, or a beautifully rendered SF adventure and love story with some thought-provoking themes and parallels in the real world?

I do think it interesting, though, that a complete lack of message is the new ideal for novels.

When I was in school, we spent hours in lit classes analyzing the underlying messages, symbolism and themes the authors may (or may not) have had in their books. Some of the books we read (1984 is one example) were very clearly meant to impart messages. I've seen negative reviews given to popular books because they lack, according to the reviewer at least, any serious message.

I think it's interesting that messages in fiction are increasingly demonized at a time some readers and writers are saying they'd like to see more diversity in genre fiction. Where were these people who decry messages in SF when pro military-themed SF was all the rage in the 1980s? Why doesn't anyone ascribe a motive or message to writers who always have very traditional gender roles, or who only have straight characters or whatever?

kuwisdelu
01-31-2014, 09:15 AM
The movie Avatar, for instance. An anti-military, anti-colonial, anti-American, eco-terrorist anthem, or a beautifully rendered SF adventure and love story with some thought-provoking themes and parallels in the real world?

Dances with Wolves rip-off that continues the Hollywood tradition of the all-powerful white male coming in and out-nativing the natives and saving the exotic indigenous tribe while having sexy time with the native girl.

:tongue

MookyMcD
01-31-2014, 09:58 AM
Dances with Wolves rip-off that continues the Hollywood tradition of the all-powerful white male coming in and out-nativing the natives and saving the exotic indigenous tribe while having sexy time with the native girl.

:tongue

IMO, Dances With Wolves was a rip-off of the intro for F-Troop. :D

Here's the big issue I have with it. I made a comment on a (completely unrelated) thread once that if I tried to rip off the idea from The Da Vinci Code, the end product would be a satire about religion and Harvard academics. Even though I wouldn't be trying to write a message book, it would definitely be more of one. It would also be a hell of a lot funnier. Both things being a direct product of my voice as a writer, and most of that "message" coming from the places I would find humor. I'd write it with no intent of delivering a message, but that wouldn't stop it from ending up with one.

DancingMaenid
01-31-2014, 10:07 AM
I think the problem is that sometimes message stories can be preachy, patronizing, or one-dimensional, and when people talk about message stories in a negative light, I think that's mainly what they're referring to. But I've occasionally seen people act like any story about a particular issue or message is doomed to be preachy, which I think is very unfair. There's nothing inherently preachy about wanting to tackle a serious issue, message, or philosophical question through fiction. But when it works well, it's usually because the message doesn't trump the story and characters. The characters are fleshed-out people, not puppets for the author's worldview.

There are some exceptions, of course. Sometimes satire has characters who don't have a lot of depth beyond representing something/someone. But satire is a genre like any other, and people who are good at it know how to pull it off.

Roxxsmom
01-31-2014, 11:33 AM
Dances with Wolves rip-off that continues the Hollywood tradition of the all-powerful white male coming in and out-nativing the natives and saving the exotic indigenous tribe while having sexy time with the native girl.

:tongue

Another definite take on it. It is a retake of the ol' "white guy goes native and saves the tribe" story. :D

As I recall, the girl in Dances With Wolves, though, was actually a white girl who'd been adopted by the Lakota when she was orphaned. Of course, that might have been because a true interracial romance was considered too risky for Hollywood back then...

Aliens and humans, of course, are another matter entirely. Not controversial at all.

I kind of have a hankering to write a fantasy story from the pov of a woman (from a non white culture in my fantasy world) who leaves her home and ends up saving the white people and having a sexy guy from that country falling for her. Actually, I didn't think of it as a reverse of that trope, just a a story, but I actually have had this character and story rattling around in my head for a while.

gothicangel
01-31-2014, 12:03 PM
You say message, I say theme.

Let's take Orwell's 1984, you can take it as having a message about the dangers of a society that allows its government to control and restrict civil liberties. But that's not what it is, its a fiction that debates and conjectures about a futuristic surveillance state (NSA/GCHQ take note.)

Because that's what good 'message' fiction should do: hypothesise and discuss. And that's the problem with writing fiction with a 'message.' The writer is attempting to control the way in which a reader responds to it, and results in becoming 'preachy.' Good fiction should always allow the reader to disagree with the author.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 01:33 PM
Part of my OP was that the idea of message fiction itself is pejorative. Stories carry meaning. Stories convey ideas and judgments. Writers who are choosing what they convey are being condemned.

One implication of the term Message Story is that the story itself is nothing more than a vehicle to preach some simple idea. As if 1984 were a commercial to sell the message Dystopia bad. George not like dystopia.

But 1984 explores the tools of repression as well as examining what humans will go along with, even regard as normal. It also carries lots of smaller bits of meaning. At the end it challenges the concept that love conquers all, declaring implicitly at the end, that fear and pain will break anyone regardless of love.

1984 has stuck with us providing a way of seeing government and repression that has molded points of view and discussions since its publication. It did so, not by conveying a single short brute force message, but by weaving a world of misery and making characters whose lives and actions and points of view arise naturally within and from that miserable existence.

He also deliberately gives us a story of hope crushed and love destroyed, because that story brings forth his meaning in a manner that scars the mind and stays with the reader.

1984 is not a message story, it is a deliberately meaningful story.

Natira
01-31-2014, 03:00 PM
I don't see anything wrong with thinking of a message to build the story around. I personally have thought about the intended lesson to build my story upon. As long as the sole purpose of the story is not to lecture the reader.

ap123
01-31-2014, 03:23 PM
I think I understand what you're saying. The term message story seems to imply that's all it is, a message--and does come across as disparaging.

I don't have any ideas for a better or different term, though.

ClaraBrooks
01-31-2014, 03:24 PM
When you write the first question you should ask yourself is "why are you writing?" This should naturally lead on to "what am I trying to say?" and "What do I want my reader to think when they read this story?" "What messages am I trying to convey?"

The word 'message' is a little heavy-handed but I think it gets across the idea that fiction - good fiction - should really have a sense of purpose that carries it beyond the simple fact of 'I want to entertain'. As a reader, if I sense that an author merely wants to entertain then chances are that s/he will manage the complete opposite, the work will be generic, lifeless and dull. At the end of the day it's the literature - genre fiction or literary - that pushes ideas at me and expresses something interesting about the person that wrote it, that I think are interesting.

I'm no great shakes as a writer but personally when I do start to write a story I can't think of any other way to do it that start at an ideas level and work out from there. Sure, the idea might be in the character or the situation or the "message" but there should be a fundamental point to it or it won't get written. How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 03:35 PM
I think I understand what you're saying. The term message story seems to imply that's all it is, a message--and does come across as disparaging.

I don't have any ideas for a better or different term, though.

I don't see that it needs a term at all. Stories have meanings. Stories have plots. Stories have characters. Stories have settings. Stories have events. One story might focus more on one of these, but that doesn't mean there has to be a special term for any one of these.

ap123
01-31-2014, 03:40 PM
I could go with that. The message is just one aspect, and if it isn't--there's more problems than the heavy-handedness of the message. :)

gothicangel
01-31-2014, 03:41 PM
The word 'message' is a little heavy-handed but I think it gets across the idea that fiction - good fiction - should really have a sense of purpose that carries it beyond the simple fact of 'I want to entertain'. As a reader, if I sense that an author merely wants to entertain then chances are that s/he will manage the complete opposite, the work will be generic, lifeless and dull. At the end of the day it's the literature - genre fiction or literary - that pushes ideas at me and expresses something interesting about the person that wrote it, that I think are interesting.

I'm no great shakes as a writer but personally when I do start to write a story I can't think of any other way to do it that start at an ideas level and work out from there. Sure, the idea might be in the character or the situation or the "message" but there should be a fundamental point to it or it won't get written. How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

But why should it? Some readers (and I think its the majority) only read fiction to be entertained, to find enjoyment in it. There's a lot of fabulous fiction out there that seeks to do just that, without seeking to convey message. I don't think Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall contains any message apart from a theme that 'all power corrupts', and that is one of the best literary novels of the last decade.

I don't write with a message. I write historical fiction because I want to share with the world why I love Roman history, and to do it in a way that is as historically accurate as possible (and which hopefully will surprise people.) Yes, I write to entertain. But I have no interest in inserting a message like 'look how evil imperialism is' or 'look how bloodthirsty the Romans where, aren't we civilised?'

I also advise RYFW, that final sentence is disrespectful to a lot of writers here, and in the publishing world.

KTC
01-31-2014, 03:47 PM
I always have a message. I just don't hold up a sign telling the reader what it is. If the message is blatant and delivered from atop the mountain by an over-zealous preacher - FUCK OFF. Soapboxes ain't my thang. If it is weaved into the story and unseen, YES...of course I welcome it. I'm all for deeper meaning.

Torgo
01-31-2014, 04:04 PM
When you write the first question you should ask yourself is "why are you writing?" This should naturally lead on to "what am I trying to say?" and "What do I want my reader to think when they read this story?" "What messages am I trying to convey?"

The word 'message' is a little heavy-handed but I think it gets across the idea that fiction - good fiction - should really have a sense of purpose that carries it beyond the simple fact of 'I want to entertain'.

As a reader, if I sense that an author merely wants to entertain then chances are that s/he will manage the complete opposite, the work will be generic, lifeless and dull.

Let us apply this to a terrific book, "Right Ho, Jeeves!" by PG Wodehouse. Were Plum to ask himself why he was writing, I suspect it would be because he wanted to entertain. I think he mainly wanted his readers to think, while reading the book, "this is hilarious" and the messages he was trying to convey included "Bertie can be a bit of a silly ass" and "Aunts are scary".

And yet "Right Ho, Jeeves!" is the polar opposite of 'generic, lifeless and dull'.


I'm no great shakes as a writer but personally when I do start to write a story I can't think of any other way to do it that start at an ideas level and work out from there.

Which is your process, yes, and you're entirely justified in believing in it if it works for you. It's not the only thing, though; and as Gothicangel says, please do try not to disparage writers who work differently, or are mainly trying to amuse and entertain, however offhandedly.

Buffysquirrel
01-31-2014, 04:17 PM
How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

Are people not entertained by the Sims? I certainly was, when I had a computer capable of playing it.

Mostly I just write down whatever comes into my head and let the subconscious deal with the deeper meanings. That's its job.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 04:43 PM
Are people not entertained by the Sims? I certainly was, when I had a computer capable of playing it.

Mostly I just write down whatever comes into my head and let the subconscious deal with the deeper meanings. That's its job.

If that's how you write, that's fine. But question, when you edit do you examine how the meaning of something comes across and change it, if it's really not something you wish to say?

If a critiquer says that the story comes across as troubling in some way you didn't see, do you edit accordingly?

beckethm
01-31-2014, 05:12 PM
. How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

Yes, you can, and no, it isn't.

The inspiration for my current WIP came in exactly that way. Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner, I looked at two guests and wondered, "what would it look like if these two people fell in love?" I then proceeded to invent two characters who are almost nothing like the people who inspired the story, and I gave them backstories and problems and a plot. Some slightly messagey ideas might have snuck in as I was doing so, but the core of the story was always the characters. If the result ends up being entertaining enough to sell, I will have done my job.

As for why writing entertaining stories is not like playing The Sims, well, if you're doing it right, characters are more complex than video game pieces. I like to think that every story I write teaches me something new about the human condition. Every character forces me to see the world in a slightly different way, sometimes in ways I don't agree with. I haven't written a story yet that didn't require some amount of research to get details of setting, occupation, and character right. I learn something from every story, and I hope readers do too, even if it's in a subconscious way.

Buffysquirrel
01-31-2014, 05:26 PM
If that's how you write, that's fine. But question, when you edit do you examine how the meaning of something comes across and change it, if it's really not something you wish to say?

If something's wrong for the story, I change it. If I detect a theme, I strengthen it. Usually I write in first person, so what's being said is representative of my characters, not me.


If a critiquer says that the story comes across as troubling in some way you didn't see, do you edit accordingly?

Troubling to whom? I don't mind troubling people if it's right for the story.

Filigree
01-31-2014, 05:28 PM
It would really have to depend on my assessment of the critiquer's specific reasons and underlying motives - their message, as it were.

If I have inadvertently layered in a meaning counter to my intention for the story, and I judge the critique is both valid and valuable? (I'd really try to avoid a debacle like the white reverse-racism message of 'Save the Pearls'.) I might try to rework my message. But I am not backing down for anything less. Certainly not, just to soothe an individual or group's wounded ego for something I believe isn't actually directed at them.

Slight digression, but still on-topic: a couple of years ago there was a major schism in the atheist community, centering around some well-meaning but ill-planned efforts to merge social justice issues with the community' prior emphasis on science and logic. It became a war of messages, and left me and many other onlookers unwilling to engage with either camp.

I appreciate subtle messages in a story. I'm not generally sympathetic toward heavy-handed applications of an author's creed and intent.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 05:44 PM
There seems to be a tendency for people to put in caveats against preaching or heavy handedness. Why is that?
When people talk about writing character driven stories they don't end every post with disclaimers against Mary Sue stories.
When they talk about plot based stories, they don't automatically disclaim forced story telling.

Why do stories with meaning require this promise that one is a good meaning writer.

And besides 1984 is as heavy handed as any book ever written. Guernica is as heavy handed as any painting ever painted. Yeats' Second Coming is as heavy handed as any poem. But these are all great works. A heavy hand has its uses in art.

JustSarah
01-31-2014, 05:53 PM
Here is why I generally don't like the idea of being referred to as a "message" story, is because I pretty much never tell my characters what to think. I let each of mine have their own views, and so communicate a message far deeper than what I could give it myself.

This is why it confuses me when people infer political posturing from the author. If your doing it right, you views should not come into it. IMHO.

Edit: Sorry I did mis-communicate, I did mean this way the right way for me to right.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 05:58 PM
Here is why I generally don't like the idea of being referred to as a "message" story, is because I pretty much never tell my characters what to think. I let each of mine have their own views, and so communicate a message far deeper than what I could give it myself.

This is why it confuses me when people infer political posturing from the author. If your doing it right, you views should not come into it. IMHO.

This is part of the problem. You're assuming that the way you write is the right way to write, rather than the right way for you to write.

As I said in the OP, some of us need to start with meaning, not with characters. Our characters arise from the meaning of the story. They are still fleshed out characters, they still surprise us and take on lives of their own, but they are not the first things in the making of the tale.

I've had a character begin as a throw away in an early scene and grow to be an MC embodying a great deal of the meaning of that book. I was surprised by everything he did and nearly everything he said, but he still arose from and carried forward the meaning of the story.

Phaeal
01-31-2014, 05:59 PM
Any spark that starts you working is good. I've started from something as small as an image or a title. As for meaning (theme, some might say), I generally don't find out what mine is until after I've written a first draft. Then I can strengthen that aspect of the piece in subsequent drafts.

So what if it's the meaning or message or theme or idea that starts the writer writing? The only time I have a problem is a simplistic treatment of theme that bends all the other elements of the story to and beyond the breaking point in theme's service. As in the kind of stories one of Jo March's editors wanted her to write, in which all the bad children were eaten by bears and all the good ones flittered up to heaven with psalms upon their dewy lips.

Not that there's anything wrong with dewy lips....

Buffysquirrel
01-31-2014, 06:09 PM
I wonder if we're all on the same page when using words like 'meaning' or 'message'. In my short story Sundown, frex, the meaning, if you like, was that the central character has lost the ability to tell whether plants, animals and humans are alive or dead. Is there a message in that? I'm not convinced there is.

ETA: That is, he thinks dead things are still alive. Not that he ever thinks alive things are dead. Altho that would also be interesting.

JustSarah
01-31-2014, 06:10 PM
When using theme, something I've wondered. Should theme itself be somewhat treated like a character?

Like in my previous W.I.P I was experimenting with a thematic arc (similar to a character arc), though the writing ended up being a bit awkward. Like I could never imagine saying the things that furthered the thematic arc awkward.

That's not to say it can't be done, I just don't have that skill set.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 06:19 PM
When using theme, something I've wondered. Should theme itself be somewhat treated like a character?

Like in my previous W.I.P I was experimenting with a thematic arc (similar to a character arc), though the writing ended up being a bit awkward. Like I could never imagine saying the things that furthered the thematic arc awkward.

That's not to say it can't be done, I just don't have that skill set.

I tend to embed the meaning in the world (one of the advantages of writing SFF) and treat the world as a character. For other kinds of things one can treat themes as more like weather, something that colors and shades the atmosphere of scenes. It can be pervasive and subtle or focused and visible. It's really a matter of style.

The underlying complaint here is, I think, at least in part a reaction against allegory where character A means one thing, character B means something else and character A beating up character B means that what A represents is better than what B represents.

But even this can be made to work and work brilliantly. I recommend to anyone who hasn't read it the Buddhist allegory entitled The Journey To The West. Everything in it has specific religious meaning, and often direct lessons. But it is a wild romp full of action and containing the character Monkey who is the inspiration for a lot of Anime (including Goku in Dragonball).

Wilde_at_heart
01-31-2014, 06:28 PM
You say message, I say theme.

Let's take Orwell's 1984, you can take it as having a message about the dangers of a society that allows its government to control and restrict civil liberties. But that's not what it is, its a fiction that debates and conjectures about a futuristic surveillance state (NSA/GCHQ take note.)

Because that's what good 'message' fiction should do: hypothesise and discuss. And that's the problem with writing fiction with a 'message.' The writer is attempting to control the way in which a reader responds to it, and results in becoming 'preachy.' Good fiction should always allow the reader to disagree with the author.

Absolutely. It's one thing to have a novel explore particular issues and themes - I'm all for it - but I resent anything that attempts to tell me what particular message I should be taking away from it. Maybe it's a personal preference but I'd prefer to get people to think period rather than tell them what to think.

Sometimes that can backfire as well.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was quite good for the most part, but the ending was pretty heavy-handed and felt quite tacked-on and unnatural. Ironically, while he was trying to show the plight of slaughterhouse workers though the terrible ways some of them would get mangled in the machinery, it had the effect (supposedly) of turning people vegetarian rather than rushing to demand stricter safety standards.

bearilou
01-31-2014, 07:00 PM
Like all things, I suppose, I don't mind it being done...well.

But like all other things with writing, when done poorly, I don't like it.

Sadly, this is the one thing when done poorly that runs the risk of being scoffed at, derided and ridiculed, more than others. Viewed much like someone trying to write with rich imagery and it reads as if the writer is trying too hard to sound erudite and comes off sounding like a buffoon.

And very much in the eye of the beholder.

jaksen
01-31-2014, 07:28 PM
When you write the first question you should ask yourself is "why are you writing?" This should naturally lead on to "what am I trying to say?" and "What do I want my reader to think when they read this story?" "What messages am I trying to convey?"

The word 'message' is a little heavy-handed but I think it gets across the idea that fiction - good fiction - should really have a sense of purpose that carries it beyond the simple fact of 'I want to entertain'. As a reader, if I sense that an author merely wants to entertain then chances are that s/he will manage the complete opposite, the work will be generic, lifeless and dull. At the end of the day it's the literature - genre fiction or literary - that pushes ideas at me and expresses something interesting about the person that wrote it, that I think are interesting.

I'm no great shakes as a writer but personally when I do start to write a story I can't think of any other way to do it that start at an ideas level and work out from there. Sure, the idea might be in the character or the situation or the "message" but there should be a fundamental point to it or it won't get written. How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

Yikes, I've been doing it all wrong! Thanks for the clarification.

Filigree
01-31-2014, 07:42 PM
That's just it - you aren't. There are many ways to tell a story. Not every method is going to work for every kind of story. I've read amazing 'message' books. I've also seen utterly pathetic examples.

MookyMcD
01-31-2014, 07:58 PM
Although this sounds trite and quippy, it occurs to me that the good message books are usually focused on the question or the problem. The bad ones tend to focus on the answer or solution.

lbender
01-31-2014, 08:05 PM
Atlas Shrugged is an example of a message done both well and poorly, IMO. The story itself is great and gets Rand's point across very well. However, there's a part, later in the book, where John Galt gives a speech that lasts what seems like 100 pages, wherein he hammers home the message again and again and again. Still never got through that part and I've read the book multiple times (Forget the movie - not worth the time).

NeuroFizz
01-31-2014, 08:55 PM
I sometimes have a great time with theme/meaning in my stories. That's because no matter what I may see or intend as an underlying theme, the reader interpretations can be all over the place, even diametrically opposite to what I may have seen in the story. And that's because in some stories, the theme is subtle and well-blended within the story, and it gives the readers the opportunity to think it through. Not all stories are like this, but it does illustrate one aspect of theme, even when it is intended, and purposely emerges from the story. And that's not a bad thing because readers will bring different experiences into the stories they read. On the other hand, some stories will have unmistakable themes/meanings, and if they are still well integrated into the story, the stories will still resonate with readers.

In short, if the theme/meaning emerges from the story, or if initially identified, it still blends into that story, I have no problem, even if the theme/meaning is well defined and powerful within the story.

I do have a problem when it seems the story comes across as secondary to the message, and specifically designed to ensure that NO reader will have the slightest chance of slipping into any other interpretation. This is the soapbox approach, with the author spouting from that pulpit to an audience appropriately lined up in regular rows in a singular direction. I object if I feel like the author is trying to put me in one of those rows, with his/her soapbox pulpit the only view it get.

Obviously, there will exceptions, but those exceptions will usually be a result of writing excellence and/or innovation.

buirechain
01-31-2014, 09:11 PM
There seems to be a tendency for people to put in caveats against preaching or heavy handedness. Why is that?
When people talk about writing character driven stories they don't end every post with disclaimers against Mary Sue stories.
When they talk about plot based stories, they don't automatically disclaim forced story telling.

Why do stories with meaning require this promise that one is a good meaning writer.

And besides 1984 is as heavy handed as any book ever written. Guernica is as heavy handed as any painting ever painted. Yeats' Second Coming is as heavy handed as any poem. But these are all great works. A heavy hand has its uses in art.

I don't think I have the best answer, but I want to tackle that question. My thoughts are still pretty unformed though.

First I feel like I've noticed more books with poorly executed morals than books with Mary Sues. And maybe part of the issue is that meaning doesn't seem as central to a novel and a story (as general concept, not any specific example--meaning can be central to a novel, but it doesn't have to even be intentionally included), whereas characters need to be. That means that a novel can get derailed by focusing too much on meaning--I've read novels where I've asked why did they write this as a novel instead of a piece of non-fiction. On the other hand, if a novel features a Mary Sue, that's not going to make it any less a story. (I suppose it would if it was just an extended character study on how great the main character is, but I hope that get written less, and I think it's less likely to get sold and then proclaimed to be a great novel. Ahem).

But the other idea occurs to me, somewhat related to the above, is that if an author tries to write a message story and does a poor job, they may overshoot and produced something that is poorly and uncomfortably done. On the other hand, if a writer set out to create a character driven story and spends a lot of effort developing the characters, I don't think that Mary Sue is likely to result from a poor job. Maybe I'll rephrase that for (hopefully) clarity: a Mary Sue is almost a polar opposite to an ideal well developed character, a poorly executed message is just a step beyond, overdoing this and that, from a well executed message.

Maybe there are other comparison that are closer, but I think that might explain why people aren't warned about Mary Sues in the same way.

I think whether heavy handed is good or not depends on first the definition (which is a whole 'nother question) and second context. Meaning works very well in science fiction, dystopia, and many other genres that don't display contemporary society because no one currently alive is coming under attack. A certain time of subtlety is a built in feature, to a degree. Such, especially, is the power of allegory--which at the same time allows a writer to cast a broader net. Satire cuts the edge off an attack with humor.

I also think it depends on the medium. Visual art demands a very different emotional reaction than novels. Shorter works of writing have less room for subtlety and un-subtlety.

I've been listening to a lot of Pete Seeger songs lately, and many are heavy handed; but with lyrics you don't have time to to get into subtlety, and it's also calling for a different reaction entirely. That said, on of his songs, at least, has a line where he admits that he might or might not be right.

Phaeal
01-31-2014, 09:16 PM
Atlas Shrugged is an example of a message done both well and poorly, IMO. The story itself is great and gets Rand's point across very well. However, there's a part, later in the book, where John Galt gives a speech that lasts what seems like 100 pages, wherein he hammers home the message again and again and again. Still never got through that part and I've read the book multiple times (Forget the movie - not worth the time).

Heh, I have to be in a total mood to read the whole Galt address. Otherwise I read the start and the finish and let it go at that.

Same thing with the War and Peace chapters in which Tolstoy goes all magisterial and pontificatey on his theme of historical tides shoving Napoleon around, etc.

RichardGarfinkle
01-31-2014, 09:46 PM
I don't think I have the best answer, but I want to tackle that question. My thoughts are still pretty unformed though.

First I feel like I've noticed more books with poorly executed morals than books with Mary Sues. And maybe part of the issue is that meaning doesn't seem as central to a novel and a story (as general concept, not any specific example--meaning can be central to a novel, but it doesn't have to even be intentionally included), whereas characters need to be. That means that a novel can get derailed by focusing too much on meaning--I've read novels where I've asked why did they write this as a novel instead of a piece of non-fiction. On the other hand, if a novel features a Mary Sue, that's not going to make it any less a story. (I suppose it would if it was just an extended character study on how great the main character is, but I hope that get written less, and I think it's less likely to get sold and then proclaimed to be a great novel. Ahem).

But the other idea occurs to me, somewhat related to the above, is that if an author tries to write a message story and does a poor job, they may overshoot and produced something that is poorly and uncomfortably done. On the other hand, if a writer set out to create a character driven story and spends a lot of effort developing the characters, I don't think that Mary Sue is likely to result from a poor job. Maybe I'll rephrase that for (hopefully) clarity: a Mary Sue is almost a polar opposite to an ideal well developed character, a poorly executed message is just a step beyond, overdoing this and that, from a well executed message.


I think I disagree with this. A well developed meaning will be as integral to a story as a well developed character. I would argue that a poorly developed meaning, a Mary Sue, and a leaden plot, are all instances of the same writing error: trying to force the story.

A badly meaning idea will warp the events and characters to show the meaning.
A Mary Sue will warp the events, characters, and meaning to make her always right.
A leaden plot will warp the characters and meaning so that the events have to happen regardless of whether they make sense or not.

I do not see the first of these as standing out from the others. It seems the exact same mistake but applied to a different story aspect.

Xelebes
01-31-2014, 10:39 PM
I think what bothers me about this whole Message Story = Bad thing is A) the backstory behind it (the idea that any story containing certain elements must, by definition, be a "message" story), and B) "message" stories are, by definition, preachy and boring. Neither of which are true.

The fact that the whole argument is coming from sci-fi just completely baffles me. The most didactic cautionary tales I've ever encountered come from that very place. And most of them (not all, but the ones I've read) are pretty awesome. The argument does not hold water.

I think much of the most messaging pieces in sci-fi are also the greatest or highest of that writer's repertoire. It is no different than the grandest stories being at a writer's peak while the writer must slog through short, curt and highly restricted at the beginning of their career. Writers who dive into the screeds or the sagas first before "paying their dues" find great difficulty in establishing an audience.

Fruitbat
01-31-2014, 10:49 PM
As others have said, in my opinion it's like so many other things we debate. Later in the discussion, it becomes apparent that we are all defining the thing in question in a slightly different way and perhaps not even disagreeing at all. So, a "message story" that is didactic, obvious, let-me-teach-you-a-life-lesson,-dummies is not the same thing as a "message story" that just, well, contains a deeper meaning than just being for entertainment.

buirechain
02-01-2014, 12:15 AM
I think I disagree with this. A well developed meaning will be as integral to a story as a well developed character. I would argue that a poorly developed meaning, a Mary Sue, and a leaden plot, are all instances of the same writing error: trying to force the story.

A badly meaning idea will warp the events and characters to show the meaning.
A Mary Sue will warp the events, characters, and meaning to make her always right.
A leaden plot will warp the characters and meaning so that the events have to happen regardless of whether they make sense or not.

I do not see the first of these as standing out from the others. It seems the exact same mistake but applied to a different story aspect.

It seems to me that what you're saying is true more from a reader's perspective than from a writer's perspective. At least, my point was that a writer is more likely to end up with a poorly written message when they try to develop a strong message, than they are to end up with a Mary Sue if they try to develop a strong central character.

The difference between a preachy message and a a well laid out message may really be a few extra speeches, a bit more this or that--basically too much of a good thing.

A Mary Sue is isn't an overdone good character in that same way. You don't end up writing a Mary Sue because you add a bit more back story, some extra flaws, etc. Nor are they just a few (N.B. few) flaws short of a good character.

From a writers perspective, I think that it's easier to accidentally end up with a preachy message than it is to end up with a Mary Sue.

Sure, the reader doesn't care how easy it was for the writer to make that error. They don't say--oh this books comes out as too preachy, but that's because they're just being ambitious and maybe the next one will be better. I imagine they're going to be no more likely to read more from the same author than if they dislike a book because of an annoying Mary Sue or a leaden plot.

But the question, as I understood it, is why writers are warned about creating preachy messages more than about creating Mary Sues.

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 12:30 AM
At the risk of derailing a thread a started with the extra sin of linking to my own blog, her's something I wrote a few years ago entitled Mary Sue is The Root of all Evil. (http://richardgarfinkle.com/musings/?p=6)

And I think I still disagree. Most beginning writers tend to make Mary Sues of what they imagine strong characters to be. This is a far more common problem than overdone meanings. Even the best writers have to watch out for creeping Mary Sue ism.

As far as I've seen, preaching stories are far more of a phantom menace than Mary Sue and forced plot stories.

I wonder if the problem may in part be that fewer writers have figured out how to make meaning work in their stories than have figured out how to desparkle Mary Sue and unblock their plotlines.

ETA: Properly done meaning is rarely brought out in speeches. It's not the number of declaiming characters it's the story, world, characters, and plot that reveal the meaning.

Jamesaritchie
02-01-2014, 12:41 AM
When you write the first question you should ask yourself is "why are you writing?" This should naturally lead on to "what am I trying to say?" and "What do I want my reader to think when they read this story?" "What messages am I trying to convey?"

The word 'message' is a little heavy-handed but I think it gets across the idea that fiction - good fiction - should really have a sense of purpose that carries it beyond the simple fact of 'I want to entertain'. As a reader, if I sense that an author merely wants to entertain then chances are that s/he will manage the complete opposite, the work will be generic, lifeless and dull. At the end of the day it's the literature - genre fiction or literary - that pushes ideas at me and expresses something interesting about the person that wrote it, that I think are interesting.

I'm no great shakes as a writer but personally when I do start to write a story I can't think of any other way to do it that start at an ideas level and work out from there. Sure, the idea might be in the character or the situation or the "message" but there should be a fundamental point to it or it won't get written. How earth else do people approach writing - can you approach your fiction writing by just saying "yeah, I want these characters and I want them to do this 'cause it'll be fun?' because if so then writing is probably just a glorified version of playing The Sims.

That's your opinion as a writer and reader, but mine is just the opposite. I find writers who write just to entertain not only usually do entertain, that very often write far more meaningful fiction than those who try to include some message or sense of purpose.

I approach fiction very simply. I decide which genre I want to write, and I firmly believe that "literary" is just one more genre, and I start writing. I throw what I hope is an interesting character into what I hope is an interesting situation, and I let him work his way out of it. . .or not.

I don't want the character to do anything. I just tell the story that arises from having an interesting character in an interesting situation.

Just like real life. In real life, few things start with meaning or message or purpose. We find ourselves in a situation that needs resolved, often through no fault of our own at all. We then do whatever we can to get out of the situation we're in.

For me, this is real life, and this is good fiction. If someone wants to read something more into an event that transpired in my life, one I really had no control over getting into, fine, let them do it.

But I was just trying to survive. To me, this is real life, and this is good fiction.

In all honesty, I usually find far more meaning, far more real "message", far more purpose, and certainly far, far more "This is the kind of person I want to be, this is how I want to live my life" in a story by Louis L'Amour, or Dean Koontz, or Lawrence Block, than in most the literary stories I've read put together, with Hemingway being a strong exception.

I'd much rather be Tell Sackett or Captain Kirk than Holden Caulfield or Harry Rabbit.

Renee J
02-01-2014, 12:43 AM
The question is, does the message pull you out of the story? If not, it's done well. If it does, then it appears unnatural. Sitcoms in the eighties did this. Suddenly in the middle of the show, I felt like I was watching a public service announcement.

Jamesaritchie
02-01-2014, 12:47 AM
Although this sounds trite and quippy, it occurs to me that the good message books are usually focused on the question or the problem. The bad ones tend to focus on the answer or solution.

I think I agree with this. One of my big problems with "message" stories is that the message is too often just the writer's opinion of how something would be, and more often than not, I think his or her opinion is wrong, and often silly.

To me, good fiction does not send a message, it simply asks a question, and trusts the reader to think for himself and come up with an answer. An answer, not THE answer.

Bad writing gives the writer's opinion, provides what the writer thinks is an answer to this or that. Good writing just holds up a mirror that allows us to see ourselves, and simply asks, "Is this how you want to be? If not, what are you going to do about it?"

It never says, "This is how you are, and it's wrong. Listen to me, and I'll tell you what you should be doing."

kuwisdelu
02-01-2014, 01:00 AM
In real life, few things start with meaning or message or purpose.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/143553/Anime/touma-small.jpg

...

But in all seriousness, my experience is the exact opposite.

There are tons of people who lives their lives driven by purpose.

There are many people who believe things happen for a meaning.

I dislike preaching as much as the next person, but some of my favorite fiction is in some way didactic.

And some of it isn't.

(Yeah, I'm that guy who didn't like 1984.)

Rina Evans
02-01-2014, 01:05 AM
I think I agree with this. One of my big problems with "message" stories is that the message is too often just the writer's opinion of how something would be, and more often than not, I think his or her opinion is wrong, and often silly.

To me, good fiction does not send a message, it simply asks a question, and trusts the reader to think for himself and come up with an answer. An answer, not THE answer.

Bad writing gives the writer's opinion, provides what the writer thinks is an answer to this or that. Good writing just holds up a mirror that allows us to see ourselves, and simply asks, "Is this how you want to be? If not, what are you going to do about it?"

It never says, "This is how you are, and it's wrong. Listen to me, and I'll tell you what you should be doing."

What I'm getting from this is that we should just question things endlessly without trying to provide a solution.

kuwisdelu
02-01-2014, 01:07 AM
Bad writing gives the writer's opinion, provides what the writer thinks is an answer to this or that. Good writing just holds up a mirror that allows us to see ourselves, and simply asks, "Is this how you want to be? If not, what are you going to do about it?"

It never says, "This is how you are, and it's wrong. Listen to me, and I'll tell you what you should be doing."

Let's say I'm writing a character and part of the way he changes is that by the end of the story, he has moved on from a failed relationship. Let's say that process makes up a great deal over the internal conflict.

Suddenly, I have a dilemma. If he gets over it, am I giving my opinion that people need to learn how to move on from failed relationships? Is that a message? Should I try to avoid doing that, and just hold up a mirror, and end it without him ever changing, because if I do that, I could be sending a message that what he does is the right choice? Or the wrong choice?

If I don't want to write the kind of "message" story that you don't like, how much should I try to avoid sending a message or giving my opinion? Should my characters never change? Should nothing ever happen?

After all, by deciding on a plot, I'm either giving the reader my opinion of the way the world works, or the way I think it should work. Is that bad?

Buffysquirrel
02-01-2014, 01:16 AM
Suddenly, I have a dilemma. If he gets over it, am I giving my opinion that people need to learn how to move on from failed relationships? Is that a message? Should I try to avoid doing that, and just hold up a mirror, and end it without him ever changing, because if I do that, I could be sending a message that what he does is the right choice? Or the wrong choice?

This feels to me like unfair extension of the argument. Not that James needs me to stand up for him at all. But I think he's talking about the difference between moving on being presented as right for that particular character in that particular situation, and it being presented as being right for all people at all times.

The difference, if you like, between, "She was ditzy and scatty, always putting something down and never being able to find it again' and 'Like all women, she was ditzy and scatty....'

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 01:31 AM
This feels to me like unfair extension of the argument. Not that James needs me to stand up for him at all. But I think he's talking about the difference between moving on being presented as right for that particular character in that particular situation, and it being presented as being right for all people at all times.

The difference, if you like, between, "She was ditzy and scatty, always putting something down and never being able to find it again' and 'Like all women, she was ditzy and scatty....'

That implies that every character is so narrow that nothing can be taken from them except the particulars of that character. There's a vast gap between only this one character and all characters (as in your example of one woman and all women).

There's an intermediate state of similar situations. Nearly every human teaching is based on similarity of situation and context. So one could easily write a story in which interactions with a ditzy character imply a suggestion for how dealing with ditzy people in a certain fashion will work out.

kuwisdelu
02-01-2014, 01:46 AM
The difference, if you like, between, "She was ditzy and scatty, always putting something down and never being able to find it again' and 'Like all women, she was ditzy and scatty....'

Even if I'm writing a didactic story, I'm not going to be so heavy-handed as to write the latter.

And if it fits the voice of my narrator, I might write the latter anyway, even if I don't believe it.

buirechain
02-01-2014, 01:48 AM
At the risk of derailing a thread a started with the extra sin of linking to my own blog, her's something I wrote a few years ago entitled Mary Sue is The Root of all Evil. (http://richardgarfinkle.com/musings/?p=6)

And I think I still disagree. Most beginning writers tend to make Mary Sues of what they imagine strong characters to be. This is a far more common problem than overdone meanings. Even the best writers have to watch out for creeping Mary Sue ism.

As far as I've seen, preaching stories are far more of a phantom menace than Mary Sue and forced plot stories.

I wonder if the problem may in part be that fewer writers have figured out how to make meaning work in their stories than have figured out how to desparkle Mary Sue and unblock their plotlines.

ETA: Properly done meaning is rarely brought out in speeches. It's not the number of declaiming characters it's the story, world, characters, and plot that reveal the meaning.

I get the impression that maybe we're talking at cross purposes. I was ignoring more novice mistakes (I may have hinted at that in an earlier post, but didn't say it out right), the ones that will get someone's work rejected out of hand. Someone with more experience finding stories to publish may be able to speak to this better than I, but a preachy story may be a less immediate reason to reject when an editor is considering stories. I can think of a pro magazine story that I read recently that came off as preachy (but another part of the problem may be that what is preachy to one person isn't preachy to another).

Perhaps the problem is that everyone has to deal with Mary Sues. Not everyone has to deal with problems of meaning. Preachy stories end up being an advanced writers problem because, as many people here have pointed out, you can write a perfectly good story without thinking at all about meaning.

Maybe part of what you're complaining about--that it doesn't show up when people want to write character driven stories--is that the Mary Sue problem is such a well known problem, at least for anyone on a writer's forum, that it almost goes without saying.

That said, I think there's still a difference between Mary Sue and a preachy plot. I think there may be message related story problem that is more akin to Mary Sue. There are stories (much fewer in number), that end up saying something that an author didn't intend, and perhaps something very bad, that the author wouldn't want to be associated with. (Horrible lessons about how to solve life's problems, for instance). I think that's the equivalent novice message error to compare to a Mary Sue. It is, like a Mary Sue, an error that comes from not thinking as much about issues relating to story telling, an error that is more novice.

There are other character errors, being unrelatable, unlikeable for certain reasons, or whatever, that are more akin to the kinds of error that lead to preachy stories.

Maybe the point that I left off, or took for granted, is the assumption that when a thread turns to the errors that are possible when creating a story with a message, or when creating a character driven story, is that we're talking about writing at a level that has moved past some of the novice errors that come from the lack of introspection about one's writing. (Or at least the readers are already cognizant of the possibility for those errors). Creating a strong message, whether it goes over the line or not is a deliberate act. Creating a strong character for a character driven story is also a situation that requires a great deal of consideration of who a character is, whereas a Mary Sue is probably most likely to arise from not thinking about the implications of a character, from not putting in sufficient planning.

Maybe that's actually why I let that assumption go unsaid until now. You opened this up asking about what type of advice is given to people writing character driven stories. I'd be curious to know how the distribution of Mary Sue's occurs between plot driven and character driven stories. I would guess Mary Sue occurs significantly more in plot driven stories. The problems that you talk about a Mary Sue jumping in and magically resolving in your blog post seem to me to be more external and plot related problems. I'm having trouble seeing a Mary Sue having a moral dilemma (but I don't want to dismiss the possibility of a character driven Mary Sue story). If that's proportion is right, maybe that's the kernel of the answer to your question, at least as asked.

ETA - I had meant to finish that off by saying that as I wrote that my thinking developed and that may be visible in what I say and the order I say it.

Jamesaritchie
02-01-2014, 01:51 AM
Let's say I'm writing a character and part of the way he changes is that by the end of the story, he has moved on from a failed relationship. Let's say that process makes up a great deal over the internal conflict.

Suddenly, I have a dilemma. If he gets over it, am I giving my opinion that people need to learn how to move on from failed relationships? Is that a message? Should I try to avoid doing that, and just hold up a mirror, and end it without him ever changing, because if I do that, I could be sending a message that what he does is the right choice? Or the wrong choice?

If I don't want to write the kind of "message" story that you don't like, how much should I try to avoid sending a message or giving my opinion? Should my characters never change? Should nothing ever happen?

After all, by deciding on a plot, I'm either giving the reader my opinion of the way the world works, or the way I think it should work. Is that bad?

To me, a message story is if you're using that story to tell me he's right or wrong, that people should or shouldn't do this or that in a given situation.

It's fine to have characters change. It's fine to have characters do anything, as long as it's something they would do in real life. What I don't like is when the writer tells me that characters SHOULD change, because that change is the right thing to do.

The way the world works isn't a message, it's simply reality, if you get it right. Message is when you tell me how the world SHOULD work, how people SHOULD act, think, and believe.

If you simply put your characters in realistic situations, and have then think, act, and believe in realistic ways, without making judgments, it's something else completely.

Let me, the reader, make the judgments.

As I said, I think every story comes with a message, with a theme, but the good ones come without being judgmental, without the writer telling the reader what is and isn't right or wrong. Instead of telling me that this or that is right or wrong, they ask me whether I think this or that is right or wrong.

All too often, stories written with the intent of sending a message don't ask me anything, but try to tell me everything.

Just hold up a mirror and show me what people really do. Let readers see their own reflections. We can then look at ourselves, and decide for ourselves whether what we're doing is right or wrong.

Kylabelle
02-01-2014, 02:01 AM
Okay, this may not help things at all, but throughout this discussion I have been trying to think of examples of a category I feel is not being well represented here, and I think I just remembered one.

Has any of you read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis? It is a parable, it is entirely purposed to deliver, by means of a story, the message Lewis wishes to convey, about the relationship between the Divine and humans, and at least at the time when I read it (a few years ago) I thought it was beautifully done, moving and powerful.

Which is not to say I am in agreement with it. I am not a Christian. But I have a taste for certain types of preaching, and I do believe the idea of intentional message = poor writing, or poor fiction, dismisses a whole class of books and writers that I personally value.

Everything can be done poorly or done well, and most things are done as well as the doer of them can manage and fall somewhere in that range. I did get the message (ha!) when I was young and first looking at how one writes well, that attempting to put a message into one's work was not considered a good thing.

I really have to say I don't agree with that at all, at this point.

DoNoKharms
02-01-2014, 02:01 AM
I think part of the distinction between the two forms of advice is that one is nigh-universal while the other is specialized and far more difficult. Put differently, I think if you did a survey of 1000 writer and gave them two tasks, "Write a character who is not a Mary Sue" and "Come up with a message and build a story around advocating it without being didactic", far more writers would succeed at the first than the second. I'd like to believe that I'm pretty good at avoiding Mary Sues, but I don't think I'd be able to write a good 'message story' because that's fundamentally not my approach to storytelling.

Being able to not write Mary Sues is, I would say, a prerequisite for good writers of all genres, but being able to build a story around a message is a specialized skill that is quite difficult and speaks to a narrower range of tastes. I think most readers would say they prefer stories not about Mary Sues, but many readers are turned off by stories driven by message. Again, that doesn't mean it's bad, by any means, just like many readers are turned off by romance or violence or stories about the fantastic. It just means it's narrower in application. I think every 'rule' of writing can and has been broken by brilliant writers. But I do think, in terms of skillsets/approaches, the two aren't equivalent.

Jamesaritchie
02-01-2014, 02:03 AM
https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/143553/Anime/touma-small.jpg

...

But in all seriousness, my experience is the exact opposite.

There are tons of people who lives their lives driven by purpose.

There are many people who believe things happen for a purpose.

I dislike preaching as much as the next person, but some of my favorite fiction is in some way didactic.

And some of it isn't.

(Yeah, I'm that guy who didn't like 1984.)

I'm not saying any of the things aren't true, but when we're writing fiction, we're probably going to tell the story of all the things that go wrong in that purpose driven life. A purpose driven life where everything is always hunky dory may make for a great article or memoir, but it's probably going to make lousy fiction.

Fiction is usually about the things that go wrong, that we often have no control over. I don't care how purpose driven your life is, a crisis you didn't count on can come from nowhere, derail all your plans, and put you in a situation you have to deal with. This is where fiction comes in. Who wants to read a novel where everything always goes right for the MC.

If we could controls these things, we'd make sure they never happen.

I can handle the good times just fine. I can cruise along, be purpose driven, and never need anything, so long as nothing goes wrong. For me, fiction, like real life, is handling life when we lose control over events and everything goes to hell in a major way.

As for everything that happens having a purpose. I have no problem with that. I tend to believe this myself. But like everything else, let me decide what that purpose is.

kuwisdelu
02-01-2014, 02:05 AM
a Mary Sue is probably most likely to arise from not thinking about the implications of a character, from not putting in sufficient planning.

I wouldn't agree with that.

A great deal of Mary Sues I've encountered have been planned very intricately. Lots of the authors seem to know everything about them.

A Mary Sue isn't the result of a lack of planning. It's the result of being so in love with your character you can't see their flaws (or lack thereof) and what makes them not work.

That strikes me as exactly the same risk with a "message story" becoming overly preachy.


It's fine to have characters do anything, as long as it's something they would do in real life. What I don't like is when the writer tells me that characters SHOULD change, because that change is the right thing to do.

If you simply put your characters in realistic situations, and have then think, act, and believe in realistic ways, without making judgments, it's something else completely.

But all of those things are judgments in one way or another. I chose to write about this character rather than another. By writing what I think is realistic, I'm giving you my judgment of reality.


The way the world works isn't a message, it's simply reality, if you get it right.

How many people have thought "the world is sending me a message" at least once?


All too often, stories written with the intent of sending a message don't ask me anything, but try to tell me everything.

Then they're simply badly written.

I would think the message of good didactic fiction fits the story in the same way an ending should fit a story. And in that way, you are right: the writer shouldn't come out and try to explicitly tell the reader anything. But finely crafted, pose the question, and construct the story so that their is only one possible answer.

I would agree that you shouldn't try to shoehorn a message in, in the same way you shouldn't shoehorn an ending in. But I would also think it's possible to begin with a message or an ending and write a story that leads naturally to it, without forcing, without "telling". The best way to preach is to make sure the person hasn't any idea they're being preached to.

Jamesaritchie
02-01-2014, 02:20 AM
What I'm getting from this is that we should just question things endlessly without trying to provide a solution.

Exactly. Whether the issue is gay marriage, farm raised chickens, or global warming, and "solution" you give will be one a number of people already agree with, and a number of others think is stupid.

But if you can show me what any of these things is really like, if you can show me the heartache, the suffering, the broken lives, the probable or possible disastrous effects that may happen, you can make me think about the problem without the bias of your solution.

You can make me ask the question "What can I do to change this?

That mirror of stark reality has more power than any biased solution you can offer, and it lets me come up with a solution, rather than arguing with yours.

MookyMcD
02-01-2014, 03:35 AM
What I'm getting from this is that we should just question things endlessly without trying to provide a solution.

To Kill a Mockingbird had a hell of a message. The message wouldn't have been stronger if Scout broke Tim Robinson out of jail. Or, for that matter if Atticus had won the trial. That's why I think the books that try to focus on the solution often trip themselves up. The greatest solution an author can provide is often to show the problem to the reader in an interesting and undeniable way.

Rina Evans
02-01-2014, 03:42 AM
Exactly. Whether the issue is gay marriage, farm raised chickens, or global warming, and "solution" you give will be one a number of people already agree with, and a number of others think is stupid.

But if you can show me what any of these things is really like, if you can show me the heartache, the suffering, the broken lives, the probable or possible disastrous effects that may happen, you can make me think about the problem without the bias of your solution.

You can make me ask the question "What can I do to change this?

That mirror of stark reality has more power than any biased solution you can offer, and it lets me come up with a solution, rather than arguing with yours.

Maybe the writers are writing about their answer to "What can I do to change this?" You can't put a blanket statement like that. A story can be an answer to a question from the writer's perspective, if they want to write it that way.

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 03:47 AM
To Kill a Mockingbird had a hell of a message. The message wouldn't have been stronger if Scout broke Tim Robinson out of jail. Or, for that matter if Atticus had won the trial. That's why I think the books that try to focus on the solution often trip themselves up. The greatest solution an author can provide is often to show the problem to the reader in an interesting and undeniable way.

You bring up an interesting point. I think on the whole you're right, but sometimes interesting things come from putting forth solutions. Shaw's Pygmalion, for example, is a presentation of his view that it was language usage that kept the British lower classes down. He told the story of attempted solution in the course of which he created Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and presented a fascinating character interaction framed by and for the social changes he was interested in.

Kyla brought up C.S.Lewis who gave us quite a lot of meaning-rich books. The most interesting to me was The Screwtape Letters, which contain a great deal of insight into psychology, mixed in with the Christian cheerleading (negatively presented but decidedly there).

DoNoKharms
02-01-2014, 04:42 AM
You bring up an interesting point. I think on the whole you're right, but sometimes interesting things come from putting forth solutions. Shaw's Pygmalion, for example, is a presentation of his view that it was language usage that kept the British lower classes down. He told the story of attempted solution in the course of which he created Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and presented a fascinating character interaction framed by and for the social changes he was interested in.

Kyla brought up C.S.Lewis who gave us quite a lot of meaning-rich books. The most interesting to me was The Screwtape Letters, which contain a great deal of insight into psychology, mixed in with the Christian cheerleading (negatively presented but decidedly there).

This does bring up another reason why I think it's more challenging and discouraged though; there is an added pressure on the writer to not just be a great storyteller but to also have a great solution, and it creates a significant additional element of judgment. For me personally, if a work pushes a solution that is weak or overly simple or even wrong, it signifies ruins my enjoyment even if the work was otherwise strong.

I think there are far more people out there who are good storytellers than people who have meaningful solutions to the world's problems. C.S. Lewis was a great theological philosopher as well as a writer, but I think that's quite rare.

Rhoda Nightingale
02-01-2014, 05:16 AM
I'm still scratching my head over this idea that books when they're "entertaining" are void of meaning. Like...why does everyone else READ? Have I been doing it wrong for thirty years or what?

eleutheria
02-01-2014, 06:55 AM
I've read books that lacked a meaning and suffered for it. Mostly cases where the situation at hand needed a meaning - I don't like books that present a post apocalyptic world in which the question of 'What does humanity do when at its worst?' isn't even asked. Or maybe a better example is the plethora of YA dystopias. So many present a dystopia ... and then totally fall apart in the world building because they lack a meaning under than 'this big massive thing keeps girl and boy apart'. I want at least the question of 'What does this government/style of living say about humanity?' to be asked, to make the reader think, even if an answer isn't presented, or multiple answers are presented.

Of course, I've also read books that suffered for too much meaning, or too much of a message, so all the characters and the plot get in the way of The Big Point.

I think it all comes down to execution, like everything does. And sometimes you just have to hit that sweet spot. :)

gothicangel
02-01-2014, 12:54 PM
To me, good fiction does not send a message, it simply asks a question, and trusts the reader to think for himself and come up with an answer. An answer, not THE answer.



QFT.

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 04:28 PM
A story that raises questions in the reader's mind is a story that carries a great deal of meaning. Creating the story so that it raises the question is the deliberate plscement of meaning into the story.

buirechain
02-01-2014, 07:30 PM
You bring up an interesting point. I think on the whole you're right, but sometimes interesting things come from putting forth solutions. Shaw's Pygmalion, for example, is a presentation of his view that it was language usage that kept the British lower classes down. He told the story of attempted solution in the course of which he created Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and presented a fascinating character interaction framed by and for the social changes he was interested in.

Kyla brought up C.S.Lewis who gave us quite a lot of meaning-rich books. The most interesting to me was The Screwtape Letters, which contain a great deal of insight into psychology, mixed in with the Christian cheerleading (negatively presented but decidedly there).

It seems to me that the commonality among those is that they are all attempted solutions. Trying and failing allows more light to be thrown on the problem. It let's the author be a bit more bald faced in saying that there is a solution, but they don't look like a know-it-all for suggesting that they have THE answer. In effect when Atticus and company fail to save Tom Robinson, or when it comes out that Higgins hasn't managed to make Eliza woman he planned (and when his attempts are morally fraught anyway), the author gets to say that the solution to any of these problems is not as simple as we would think, or as we would like them to be.

Screwtape isn't quite the same because it's such a very different story, but I remember it spent a lot of time talking about the things people can do to be good Christians (or good in general), and how that can be used against them to lead them down a darker path, how they can fail. (Of course, the book also reveals things that the demons might do to a person that could backfire and lead them to Christianity, so C.S. Lewis has it both ways. But because of the side we see it from, Lewis gives an example of how someone might avoid hell, but it is not the only solution, the only way the demons can fail).

So those books propose solutions but because they fail or have flaws, they manage to rise above books that propose a solution as THE solution. The reader is left wondering, how could that solution be made to work? Or what would a more effective solution be?

jaksen
02-01-2014, 07:30 PM
Here's how I feel about message books: I hate them.

It all stems back to childhood when the librarians in my home town would steer us kids to 'the good books' and me, being a girl, to the 'girl books.' I actually remember a librarian steering me and my mother away from the 'scifi' section, which was 'for boys' anyhow, and 'those books never have a good message in them.'

Harrumph! What? Was I living in the early 1900's or what?

So for me story comes first. Always and forever. A story which is interesting with great characters, some vivid description (but not too much) and a setting I can dive into. IF there is a message in there, it better be subtle or part of the damn story because if you hit me over the head with it, I'll nosedive that book into the reject bin in a hurry.

And I think, sometimes, children's literature has more of this than adult literature:

"Okay, Johnny, now what did we learn about hitting others?"

"If you hit someone, run away fast."

I did read Atlas Shrugged, but only got halfway. I love 1984 but the message is so obvious, if there wasn't one there'd almost be no story. But if the story exists for the message alone, I'm gonna toss that puppy as far as I can.

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 07:54 PM
I don't see why the sexism of those librarians should be relevant. It also seems odd to condemn a swathe of stories based on bad children's books. Should all character driven books be condemned because of the one dimensionality of Dick and Jane.

And even if we narrow the field to single message unsubtle tales for young kids, there are works of genius to be found. Consider Dr.Seuss. The Sneetches is a fantastic condemnation of social and racial divides. The Butter Battle Book is a brilliant cold war satire. And both of those are as subtle as a barrage of bricks.

And as regards Pygmalion, Higgins doesn't fail. He succeeds beyond his comprehension. He raises Eliza up beyond his control to become his peer.

And while Screwtape explores failures of Christianity he also paints a portrait of easy success in the form of the Client's girlfriend.

Wilde_at_heart
02-01-2014, 08:44 PM
The question is, does the message pull you out of the story? If not, it's done well. If it does, then it appears unnatural. Sitcoms in the eighties did this. Suddenly in the middle of the show, I felt like I was watching a public service announcement.

It's the old Deus ex Machina that people object to in 'message fiction' as much as anything else, I think. Some people, when trying to get their message across seem to think the reader is an idiot and while some of them probably are, many of the rest of us prefer subtlety.

I was trying to think of an example - in the 70s and 80s there loads of them - but the one that popped into my head this morning was the late-80s TV series Amerika about the Reagan-era boogeyman of Soviet Communism. I found the whole thing absolutely absurd.

The problem is, if someone is too dogmatic about what they're trying to get across, there comes a point where they're only going to appeal to people who already agree with them about something. The old 'preaching to the choir'.

What a lot of people I've known who are very much into 'raising awareness' is that it's not that people don't know, it's that they're not interested. So preaching to them in a ham-fisted way, or talking to them as though they're ignorant or stupid or 'don't know better' isn't going to reach them. How can you make them care? By giving them a good story that gives them something to mull over.

Some 'message stories' (I'm thinking film or TV more than books right now though) are like nagging mums - eventually certain things just make a person's brain tune it out entirely.

RichardGarfinkle
02-01-2014, 08:59 PM
Every single aspect of story telling can be done so badly as to ruin the reader's experience. Sturgeon's Law applies. But just as Sturgeon formed it to challenge the claim that SF was to be condemned because 90% of it was of dubious ability, so meaning in stories should not be condemned because it is badly handled by a number of authors.

JoBird
02-01-2014, 10:42 PM
Like just about everything else, I think it's all in the execution.

In general, I think message, if there at all, should ride shotgun to story, meaning I think story itself should drive the novel.

I'm not a fan of stories that focus (in a one-sided manner) on any polarized topic of the day. I'm okay with those issues being addressed if the author in question is competent enough to argue more than one side effectively, but generally, in my experience, most people think either:

1. They're smarter than they are, or
2. The reader is dumber than they are.

Being strongly passionate about certain convictions doesn't, in my opinion, immediately clue anyone into universal truths. There's almost always another side, and I think executing any kind of "message" into a story requires the ability to legitimately comprehend, and express without misrepresentation, opposing arguments.

Roxxsmom
02-02-2014, 12:05 AM
I'm still scratching my head over this idea that books when they're "entertaining" are void of meaning. Like...why does everyone else READ? Have I been doing it wrong for thirty years or what?

Evidently the teachers of high school and college lit classes, literary critics and book clubs have all been doing it wrong too, since they tend to prefer books that have clear messages, or at least socially significant themes.

Of course a novel or short story with a message should entertain. If it's simply a stump speech, or even a set of well-researched and reasoned arguments for a sociopolitical view, well, isn't that what non fiction is for? But we all have a place where we draw that line perhaps, and we vary in our tolerance for books where it's clear the author is sending a message with which we don't agree. I have at least one friend who likes Atlas Shrugged for the story and had no trouble disregarding/ignoring the Author's personal philosophy.




I'm not a fan of stories that focus (in a one-sided manner) on any polarized topic of the day. I'm okay with those issues being addressed if the author in question is competent enough to argue more than one side effectively, but generally, in my experience, most people think either:

1. They're smarter than they are, or
2. The reader is dumber than they are.



Ha, and I think authors can be wrong in both respects in this way, since readers vary greatly in their level of obtuseness.

I agree with you about books that are only meant to push political messages, but there is that issue with so many things that shouldn't be (in my opinion) but are politicized today. I won't go into details, but I teach a college biology class, and every semester there's that specter of someone claiming a political bias because we focus on what the science actually supports when we cover "polarizing" issues like evolution, vaccination or climate change.

If I write a SF book where evolution is an important aspect of the world building, am I obliged to give equal time to creationists, since this is currently a polarizing issue on the political front? How about a story where one of my characters is gay and that's not portrayed as depraved or sinful or abnormal or harmful in any way? Is that taking a stance on a currently polarizing political issue? How would I present the "other side" in such a story? I'm pretty sure that my world view is going to show in the stories I choose to write and in the way I choose to write them, even if I am not trying to cram things down a reader's throat.

And there are things that were very polarizing and political at other times in history but are (mostly) settled issue today. There was a time when slavery, was a hotly polarized issue with people on "both sides" having sincerely held beliefs about the issue. Same for women's suffrage or "interracial" marriage. But I don't really want to read books that present "both sides" of these issues in a balanced manner, even if they were written at a time when they were polarizing topics. It can be interesting to read from the pov of characters who are not horrible people but who hold views with which I disagree. But that's not the same thing as the author giving these views equal moral weight.

Consider that the books that will stand the test of time are probably the ones that are ahead of their time with regard to the author's position on these kinds of issues.

JoBird
02-02-2014, 12:51 AM
Consider that the books that will stand the test of time are probably the ones that are ahead of their time with regard to the author's position on these kinds of issues.

If someone is a visionary, more power to them. But I think, without the help of a crystal ball, someone being ahead of their time is easier said than done.

Which, I suppose, is sort of my point. Quite a few people seem to have the conviction that they're visionaries, but the number who really are? Unknown, but if I had to guess, I'd say not many at all.

Regarding polarizing issues of the day, I maintain that both sides of the debate generally have a reason for believing what they believe. Rarely, in my opinion, are those reasons entirely irrational.

A good story, to my way of thinking, has three dimensional characters. I believe a lot of message fiction tends to rely heavily on cardboard cutouts and straw men when presenting antagonists, and I think it largely happens because the author in question has a lot of trouble understanding any other position, being so invested in his or her own.

For example, Atlas Shrugged. It's often criticized for not fully exploring the liberal counter arguments to its position. And, even as a professed fiscal conservative, I tend to agree with that criticism.

Roxxsmom
02-02-2014, 02:36 AM
If someone is a visionary, more power to them. But I think, without the help of a crystal ball, someone being ahead of their time is easier said than done.



True, you have to roll the dice. History will either vindicate you or damn (or simply forget) you, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't be true to you principles in your writing.

As a betting person, I think people will be looking back in 50-100 years and shaking their heads about things like "one man, one woman" marriage laws, the same way we now do about segregation. It seems like the overall trend has been towards greater inclusiveness in the past century or so, and I suspect this will continue. But it's possible something could happen to push the pendulum back.

Heck, there could even be some change that takes the vote away from women or makes segregation the law of the land again, but I'm not going to write novels that give equal moral weight to anyone who thinks this would be a good thing.



A good story, to my way of thinking, has three dimensional characters. I believe a lot of message fiction tends to rely heavily on cardboard cutouts and straw men when presenting antagonists, and I think it largely happens because the author in question has a lot of trouble understanding any other position, being so invested in his or her own.

For example, Atlas Shrugged. It's often criticized for not fully exploring the liberal counter arguments to its position. And, as a professed fiscal conservative, I tend to agree with that criticism.

Well, I suspect if she'd tried to, it would have fallen as flat as any attempt I would make to write a novel that seriously considered the position that women shouldn't bother their pretty little heads with politics. Ayn Rand had a passionate belief about the virtues of unregulated capitalism (among other things), and it's something with which I happen to disagree vehemently. But no one can argue that her books were popular and have remained so in spite of their clear bias.

Counter example. The play Angels in America. The author clearly had a position and a message that was and is highly controversial in many circles, but it's still popular and won all kinds of awards. He had interesting characters that were not, I think, cardboard. But not everyone's going to enjoy it.

Again, I'm not saying one should use every, or even most, novel as stumps for these positions. But I suspect your values color your writing in various ways, even if only in terms of the sorts of people and problems you enjoy writing about. I know mine does.

DoNoKharms
02-02-2014, 02:52 AM
Evidently the teachers of high school and college lit classes, literary critics and book clubs have all been doing it wrong too, since they tend to prefer books that have clear messages, or at least socially significant themes.



To be fair, I think this is a major problem in how we teach literature, and why so many teens and adults don't enjoy reading; when books are selected for the message/themes they impart rather than for their entertainment, literary, or narrative value, you transform the act of reading from one of pleasure to one of work, especially because, certainly in my experience, many of the 'message' books chosen were dry, uninteresting, and didactic; they certainly had nothing on the books I read for pleasure. I think a literary education that was more focused on narrative and storytelling, as opposed to 'novel about topical social theme' would result in far more adults and teens reading... which would, in turn, lead to more people reading the books with messages that are impactful.

JoBird
02-02-2014, 04:07 AM
I think part of my disconnect with this conversation is that I'm not sure what everyone means by message story. To me, it means the plot is directly tied into whatever message is being put forward. Or that the story acts as a cautionary tale against something (one side or the other) that's currently polarized in the media.

If the message is that capitalism is the best way to go, then the plot revolves, essentially, around an attack against capitalism.

If the message is that irresponsible humans are responsible for climate change, then perhaps the novel presents it as a cautionary tale by exploring a dystopian ice-world, all the while having the characters bemoaning the short-sightedness of their ancestors. It's that heavy handed bit that nudges the tale into something message oriented.

That's not to say that writers can't make predictions about the future and write it without it being a message tale. There can obviously be an ice-world, where hunger is rampant, where cannibals exist, where people struggle and freeze, where the plot hangs its hat on something like survival as a theme as opposed to openly lecturing modern humans about their ways.

Clearly, message fiction can be done well, and it can sell well. But I suspect that's the exception. In my opinion, most of it comes across as obvious, less groundbreaking than the author may have imagined and, ultimately, lacks the depth of a nuanced tale. So I think if message fiction is going to do well, it's probably going to offer some new insight into whatever it's talking about. As opposed to rehashing the same old arguments, often by misrepresenting one side, and coming down firmly in the favor of the other.

Lending moral weight to character behavior and thought is trickier, in my opinion. For the most part, by and large, I think it's more of a character sympathy issue than a message concern.

For example, I recently read a novel that featured a MC who used to be, before the book started, rich, but was currently living as an honorable pauper. Somewhere along the way, I came to the conclusion that the author of that novel had sympathy for people who turned their back on wealth. But it didn't gain any sympathy with me because I tend to favor people who come from nothing and then find wealth.

But was the moral weight invested in that character's back story a message from the author? I don't think so. It was subtle and designed to flesh out the character and, at least ostensibly, to help the reader sympathize.

Still. I think it can run the danger of turning into nothing more than a lecture, especially if the behavior in question is currently polarized and the author presents opposing moral viewpoints in an overly negative light.

gothicangel
02-02-2014, 01:01 PM
To be fair, I think this is a major problem in how we teach literature, and why so many teens and adults don't enjoy reading; when books are selected for the message/themes they impart rather than for their entertainment, literary, or narrative value, you transform the act of reading from one of pleasure to one of work, especially because, certainly in my experience, many of the 'message' books chosen were dry, uninteresting, and didactic; they certainly had nothing on the books I read for pleasure. I think a literary education that was more focused on narrative and storytelling, as opposed to 'novel about topical social theme' would result in far more adults and teens reading... which would, in turn, lead to more people reading the books with messages that are impactful.

This. I'm an English graduate, and I still love literary theory, but by the end of it I was thinking this is BS. I think the epiphany came during a class on Modern Gothic, and the lecturer was banging on about Freud's psycho-analysis. That's where they lost me.

kuwisdelu
02-02-2014, 01:50 PM
A think a major mistake of pre-graduate English courses is that the teachers tend to allow the students to entertain the assumption that all meaning within a text was intended by the author, that it is the reader's duty to uncover that meaning, and they do little to dispel this notion, and often even encourage it.

I'm a fan of the idea of the "open" text. That a work is not truly completed until it is read, and its meanings are determined by the reader. That there exists what meaning the author intended, what meaning the reader creates through interpretation, and also meaning that the text intends of itself. (Yes, call me crazy, but I believe that works of art, including novels, can be thought of living things, with a will to determine their own meaning. After all, how often have we all come away from a scene and thought that "it was writing itself.")

All of these meanings are valid, as long as the text itself supports them. It does not mean the author intended them, but they do exist. And even if the author intended them, that does not make them any less valid as interpretations. (I love it when people discover ways of reading my writing I hadn't thought of; I don't understand why writers chuckle or discount it when people read meanings into their work that they didn't intend: whether they intended them or not, they are there, and if they are supported by the text itself, that makes them valid ways of reading, regardless of the author's intentions. It should regarded as enlightening, rather than a farce.)

Fortunately, I had several English teachers that supported the idea that the meanings that matter are what the text itself supports, and all such meanings are valid. In many ways, the author doesn't matter.

The role of the author is interesting with regard to social studies (which I do think are also a facet of literary studies). But otherwise, who cares what the author intended? The text is the text, and that's all that matters.

(I gotta love Jorge Luis Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" as a thorough deconstruction of the sort of literary criticism that places too much importance on the role of the author and the construction of a text.)

Roxxsmom
02-03-2014, 03:25 AM
If the message is that irresponsible humans are responsible for climate change, then perhaps the novel presents it as a cautionary tale by exploring a dystopian ice-world, all the while having the characters bemoaning the short-sightedness of their ancestors. It's that heavy handed bit that nudges the tale into something message oriented.

Now see, as a person with scientific background, I wouldn't see this as a message story, but as one where a well-established scientific idea is taken to a possible conclusion. Climate change is not terribly controversial in scientific circles. Yes, the idea has been politicized, and that makes it a hot button issue for some people, but that doesn't mean a story that explores the possible challenges posed by climate change as the scientific community currently understands them, might not be interesting in of itself and people could take whatever message from it they like.

I think we agree about this, really. I wouldn't like a story where the author was clearly shaking his or her finger either (even if I agreed with the message). But I think that line can be blurry at times, and since we live in times when a lot of things have been heavily politicized, everything from the race/gender/orientation of your protagonist, to the conflict that drives the story's main arc, will be seen as shrill and pedantic by at least some readers.

Even little touches can take readers out, if it's related to an issue that is important to them. I was reading a book by an author I enjoy where a problem was resolved by a character spanking an unruly, spoiled child. This knocked me out, because I personally oppose spanking and the whole issue packs a lot of emotional baggage for me. I know some people do and don't approve of it, and parents have hit their kids throughout history, so it would be unrealistic to present a pre-industrial society where no one spanked kids, or only horrible, evil people spanked kids, or one where all spanked kids were irreparably warped. But by showing the consequences of the spanking as clearly good, the author was, in my opinion, taking a position on the issue that I disagree with--that a good spanking is all some troubled kids need.

It wasn't enough to be a deal breaker. It was hardly on the same footing as political propaganda in story form, but it did make me grit my teeth a bit.

I think this might illustrate why people are having trouble narrowing down what is meant by message fiction. Maybe it's a bit like obscenity. It's hard to define in objective terms, but we all know it when we see it.

RichardGarfinkle
02-03-2014, 04:18 AM
The problem with the obscenity analogy is that it's logically equivalent to the No True Scotsman fallacy. That's one of the reasons I objected to the concept of Message Story.

One person's obscenity is another person's romance.
One person's finger wagging Message Story is another person's guiding light.

kuwisdelu
02-03-2014, 04:21 AM
I just want to point out that "Message" fiction need not be political. My favorite didactic fiction is about the importance of loving oneself, trying to communicate with others, and not hiding from world.

JoBird
02-03-2014, 06:09 AM
(SNIP) Climate change is not terribly controversial in scientific circles. I figured Richard Lindzen's position made it controversial in scientific circles, but in fairness, I only half follow the issue, so I'll take your word for it.

(SNIP)
I think we agree about this, really. I agree. I suspect we're a lot closer than not on this topic.

(SNIP)

...because I personally oppose spanking and the whole issue packs a lot of emotional baggage for me. Same here; strongly agree.

(SNIP)

I think this might illustrate why people are having trouble narrowing down what is meant by message fiction. Maybe it's a bit like obscenity. It's hard to define in objective terms, but we all know it when we see it.

I agree that the definition is really hard to pin down. I'm beginning to suspect that Richard is pretty much nailing it in the quote below.


(SNIP)

One person's obscenity is another person's romance.
One person's finger wagging Message Story is another person's guiding light.

So maybe the question becomes: what's best for hard sales? If the definition of what a message story is happens to be subjective, is it possible to figure out what subjective opinion *most* readers have on the subject? Because that seems like it would be relevant, at least to my current thinking.

Roxxsmom
02-03-2014, 08:39 AM
The problem with the obscenity analogy is that it's logically equivalent to the No True Scotsman fallacy. That's one of the reasons I objected to the concept of Message Story.

One person's obscenity is another person's romance.
One person's finger wagging Message Story is another person's guiding light.

No arguments here, which is how I always took the quote about obscenity.

Unfortunately, I do think that "message story" is the latest attempt by some folks to coin a term that can marginalize and mock those who hold positions they don't agree with, and the focus seems to be on people who are trying to encourage more inclusiveness and diversity in characters etc., rather than on every author who has ever written a story with a message.

It brings to mind past successes on that front: secular humanist, feminazi, politically correct, social justice warrior and so on. All are terms that are used to mock reasonable beliefs, approaches or positions by creating a straw man, then tearing it down, rather than engaging the person directly over the reasons for your disagreement. The effect is that you can effectively end a conversation or devalue a person, argument, position or story by labeling it in this manner.

Don't like a story that has themes that are sympathetic to more socially liberal views? Sneeringly call it a message story and avoid any actual discussion about why you don't like the message, let alone why you think the author was too strident or pedantic in their focus on said message at the expense of entertainment value.

This is, I think, the concern Richard had.

MookyMcD
02-03-2014, 08:55 AM
Well, I'll say (admit) that I've read through my own work after letting it sit for a time and thought, "geez, dude, back he hell off." I've definitely crossed the line.

The thing is, for me, the line wasn't about the message, per se. It really was a problem with the clumsy, unnuanced, spoon-fed, poorly executed way I delivered the message.

Which is to say, that aspect of my first draft had all the same problems as every other aspect of my first draft.