Monday, December 7, 2009

Does your story carry a message?

Does your story have a message? You know, a meaning hidden inside it, something to say about life, the universe and everything?

Hey, I'm not telling you it needs one. There's something really annoying about a preachy story, isn't there? The funny thing is, though, your story may have a message even if you don't intend it to. Message is one of those things that sneaks in sometimes, hidden in the parallels between the plot for the humans and the plot for the aliens, or in small mentions here and there throughout the story.

Really it's a sort of "show-versus-tell" issue. Don't stick your message in my face, but if you can weave it in, I might appreciate it...

In any case, message is a good thing to watch out for, because patterns often form in a story when the author isn't really thinking about them consciously. If you can keep an eye out for them, though, you can very likely make them stronger and more effective, or adjust them to keep them from getting too preachy, etc. Here are some things which may contribute to a message (in rough order from most to least preachy):

1. The narrator delivering the message directly. (This is "moral of the story" type stuff).
2. A character delivering the message to another character.
3. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which relates to the main conflict and its resolution.
4. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which is peripheral to the main conflict.
5. A character behaving in a principled way throughout the story (not necessarily related to the main conflict).
6. Evidence for a message appearing in concentrated form in descriptions of scene or setting.
7. Evidence for a message appearing in dilute form (here and there) in the narrative.

As far as 6 and 7 go, "evidence" can be as little as a word here, a word there - an association between an emotional state and a location, etc. What makes it a pattern is that it recurs. I like to use a version of the "rule of three" to help me decide whether I'm creating a pattern. If a word or phrase or association occurs once, it will become part of the subconscious background as people continue reading forward. If it occurs twice, they will typically notice that it is there. If it occurs three times, it means something. If you think about it mathematically, this is how we used to plot lines. Find one point on the line. Okay, now plot another point on the line. Great - it looks like a line, but let's just check to make sure that our conclusion is correct by plotting one last point on the line. Three points and we're sure.

Once you have your eye out for this, you can start to use it. The rule of three for humor basically says that two points set up an expectation, and the third is your punch line where you break the expectation or twist it in a funny way. You can decide whether you want it to mean something that the boy sits and thinks in his father's chair. If you don't want the pattern, you can break it before you get to three. If you see something twice and you want readers to be able to carry some kind of evidence forward, then you can do it one more time.

People look for meaning subconsciously. It's just something that human beings do. Use this to your advantage if you can.

At this point I'd like to turn the topic in a slightly different, but related, direction. Have you ever asked yourself whether every scene in a story has to mean something?

I was talking with my son about this yesterday, because he was playing a video game, walked into a "room" and then left it without looking for anything. I said to him, "Niall, don't you think that room was there for a reason? Why did you walk out of it without looking for some way that it might challenge or help you?"

The way I think about stories, I feel that every scene has to be "doing" something. This is particularly true for short stories, where you have very few words to carry your plot and character arcs, message, etc. In fact, I prefer it if every single sentence is "doing" something!

I often notice in a quest story if an event seems not to be doing anything for the characters or their story - it makes me impatient. I'll also notice if a similar scene happens twice over in a story. If you're setting up a pattern, like a pattern of three tests the hero/heroine has to pass, that's fine. But if I feel déjà vu, and there isn't a pattern, I start to wonder what the point is.

I have a friend who tells me that life isn't patterned, and that lots of stuff happens that doesn't mean anything. It's true - the events in our life don't come to us in a pattern. However, when we relate them, we turn them into patterns, and stories. We look for evidence in the chaos to tell us that we're learning or progressing in some way. There is even a form of therapy that centers around creating narratives to get control over traumatic experiences. So in a way, if you're using your scenes deliberately to defeat the idea of pattern, that's a different kind of message - a deliberate meaning about chaos and the unpredictability of life.

It doesn't necessarily matter what the meaning or the message is. It may be buried deep. But if you can keep your eye out for it, you can make it work for you, and not the other way around.

It's something to think about.


  1. A great post! Patterns and messages are useful tools and potentially painful downfalls. Thanks!

  2. Deb,
    I was inspired to this post by a friend who is studying how young people learn to identify patterns and literary meanings in the context of college writing. It's fascinating.