A message is not a story

As an independent editor/beta reader, I see a lot of writers fall into the message trap – they have something they want to say, something they feel is important, and they’re very passionate about it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – in fact, even if you’re a pantser (vs a plotter), you should be able to articulate what the core of your story is about. There may be more than one theme or message or question that you’re exploring, or there may be just one central message or theme.

The problem I see, especially with newer writers, is that they sometimes focus on the message instead of the story.

Here’s what this looks like in a manuscript:

  • A lot of data dumping. Often when writing teachers talk about this, they mean the tendency to give too much backstory or going on too long about the setting. It can also mean spending pages philosophizing, or beating your reader over the head with they point you’re trying to make. Your message should never interrupt your plot.
  • Repetition. When people are really passionate about a message, they tend to repeat it. Sometimes they use the same phrases over and over, but sometimes I see this emerging as variations on a theme – essentially, similar situations keep happening over and over. Similar conversations keep being had.
  • Too many internal monologues. Characters spend way too much time reflecting on what’s happening because the writer is focusing on broadcasting the message rather than on moving the story along.
  • Dialogue that over-explains. Characters tend to over-explain situations or events, and dialogue becomes clunky and unrealistic. Alternately, characters tend to become preachy or monologue over something. You can have characters do this, but do it sporadically and make sure it’s true to that character’s nature and helps move your plot forward.

Here’s an example of how to write with a message while still having a strong plot

I’m co-authoring a novel in which the core message is related to environmentalism, and the how humans have wreaked havoc on the planet. Not once in our story do we ever specifically call out humans for the destruction they’ve done to the environment, or even use the word “environmentalism”. We’re getting that message out more subtly.

This novel has a supernatural element to it, which represents the “natural” world. It has a main character who is half-supernatural, half-human, representing the conflict between the “natural” and the “civilized”.

Here are things we’re doing to highlight our core message without being overly explicit:

  • Juxtaposition. We’re making sure that the setting of the supernatural world is well-described, along with the struggles that world and those beings are facing due to the rising human population. We also have deep descriptions of cities and various technologies. We’re making sure that all settings have both positive and negative elements, so as not to set up a black and white dynamic, because that’s boring. Complexity is what’s interesting. Your story doesn’t live in the black and white, it lives in the gray.
  • Conflict. There are all sorts of conflicts in this book – child vs parent, man vs nature, man vs himself, rural vs urban, social expectations vs internal desires, loyalty to humans vs loyalty to supernatural, loyalty to a group vs loyalty to an individual, permanence vs impermanence, changing vs staying the same. We’ve layered it so that there are going to be multiple conflicts occurring at the same time.
  • Have well-developed characters. We’re not making all humans bad and all supernatural beings good – that would be extremely boring. Well-developed characters are complex and nuanced. Good people do bad things or have major flaws. Bad people have redeeming qualities, or can be sympathetic. Sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason. Resist the urge to create a villain who’s too evil, or a hero who’s too flawless.
  • Focus on the story. If the plot is strong and the characters well-developed and compelling, the message should emerge. You don’t necessarily need to tell people in any direct way what the message is. Trust yourself as a storyteller, and trust that your readers will get you. And if they don’t…that’s okay. Just make sure they walk away feeling like they read a good story.

Your message isn’t your story – your message is what drives your story, or underlies your story, or surrounds your story. It can be overt – but don’t feel like it has to be.

Example: I want to get the message across that consent in sexual situations is non-negotiable, but instead of talking about it, I just show it through character interactions, and without making it a big deal. Characters ask before they touch each other, stop when someone says stop, and one character discontinues pursuing another when they realize the object of their desire isn’t interested, even though they’re deeply disappointed. In another case, characters are thrown into a marriage for political reasons; neither wants to be married, but one is okay with the idea, while the other isn’t. The one who is okay with it gives the one who isn’t time and space to adjust to the idea of being married rather than forcing them into a conjugal relationship immediately.

The wrap up – It’s good to have a message. It’s good to feel passionately about a topic or an idea, and to want that to come across in your writing. It’s good to use a story as a way of teaching people about something, or presenting different sides of an issue, or different ways of experiencing something. Just don’t let the message supersede the story.

Think of it this way: Your story is the plant – your message is the flower that blooms as the plant grows. Grow the plant, and trust that the flower will emerge.

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