Being a Better Writer: Theme VS Message

Right! Let’s get this week started! The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and I’m inside looking at it through a window with my hands on a keyboard. All for you guys.

So then, let’s get right to it. Theme versus Message. I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of you clicked this link today just to ask “What is he talking about?” Well, it’s actually pretty simple, though the roots of this article at a few points intertwine with a controversial debate that’s currently echoing up and down the corridors of fiction writing. At it’s core however, it comes down to a very basic principal: Which is your story valuing? The story? Or the message?

Right now there’s a real back-and-forth going on, a discussion over which is more important, and which should be given priority. And in this case, I’m going to warn you beforehand that I am not impartial in this discussion. I take a clear side. Which it is should be pretty clear beforehand.

So, before we get into Theme versus Message, let’s talk about them for a minute. What’s the difference? What’s a “Message” compared to a “Theme?”

At its core, the difference is actually fairly straightforward. Another way to refer to “Theme versus Message” is ‘Story-fiction versus Message-fiction,” and that simpler title sets it up pretty well. Simply put, a message-fiction is one that is written with a clear agenda in mind—a message. If you remember some time ago when I wrote about author soapboxing. Well, a message-fiction is even more outright then that. A message-fiction is written to specifically promote an idea or concept. Everything in the story is there for the sake of discussing the message, promoting it (usually as the only way), and explaining to the reader—quite often directly to them—that they need to support the idea. Everything else—story, characters, plot, the works—is secondary to the importance of “the message.”

On the other hand, you have the story-fiction. The story-fiction is concerned with telling a good story first and foremost. Any “message” that exists in the story must serve the context of the story, weaving into it and being a part of it. From there, you get a theme, and underlying concept or idea that’s woven into the work but is given equal priority to the story itself.

Now, when looking at it that way, it seems like story-fiction—theme—would be the clear choice for most. But the truth is that there’s a lot of appeal to some people for message fiction. Granted, it’s generally a limited audience, that audience being “those who agree with your message,” but there’s an audience all the same. And some authors have made a living writing message fiction—in fact, part of this current debate lies with an undercurrent of aforementioned successful authors who now believe that most all successful fiction works should only be message fiction (provided, of course, that the message said fiction espouses is one that they agree with … see the potential problem here?).

Ultimately? As an author, you can choose to write either (obviously, no one is stopping you). But ultimately, there’s a reason I find myself on one particular side of the fence: message-fiction is weaker.

And I don’t mean that the message itself is flimsy, though as I’ll explain that often becomes the case. I mean that when an author undertakes a message-fiction, what happens is that in order to promote the message, they must cut other elements away. So by the end, what is left is generally a work of fiction, but is not a story.

“Now wait,” some of you might ask. “Isn’t it all just story?” Well, no, and that’s where so many young writers make an early mistake: In assuming that anything fictional that they put down describing events is a story when it is not. Rather, it’s events. A story, on the other hand, is more than just a collection of anecdotes. A story has character, rising action, tension, try/fail cycles. A story has progression of some kind, a series of steps that lead to an inevitable finale that wraps up everything contained therein in a conclusion. Have you ever listened to a professional storyteller? The stories that they share follow their own consistent logic, interweave characters and viewpoints and setting and scene all together into a compelling ride that entertains and delights. There’s a reason that an old colloquialism for storytelling was “spinning a yarn.” Those who tell a story weave together dozens of different threads, events, characters, and moments into one seamless whole. Everything comes together in the end, and there’s a sense of progression, of happening.

Message-fiction, however, generally has to shave away many of these elements, and that’s where it becomes weaker. A story only has so many words, after all, and when an author is concerned about getting a message across they need to make sure that words are trimmed elsewhere. But there’s an even bigger amputation that comes with writing message-fiction: the removal of theme and conflict.

See, when writing a message-fic, the goal is to get the message across. Have you ever read a story with a protagonist who just can’t be stopped? They’re just so golden in every way, and nothing seems to phase them? It’s likely you have, especially if you’ve ever ventured into the realms of fanfiction where junior authors want whichever character is their favorite to shine.

Well, in message-fiction, the message is the golden egg, the root of the entire story. And the author doesn’t want that message stopped—after all, the point of the story is to show you that the message is the proper and correct path to follow—and so it becomes its own character. Worse, one that for all intents and purposes, earns the title “Mary Sue.”

Basically, because the point of the message-fiction is to espouse a personal belief or opinion, and the story won’t do that if there are counterpoints to the message, all counterpoint must be stripped from the narrative. And is conflict. Often in message-fiction the message just runs unopposed, with literally no counterpoint given. All the sympathetic characters agree on it, because it is “correct.” In the event that the author does introduce a counter point of view to the message, it has to be a weak one (usually a simple logical fallacy, ad-hominem, or strawman), sort of like a hero facing down a challenge so slight there’s no way they couldn’t win. Because the point of the message-fiction is the message, anything that puts that at risk defeats the entire point of the work.

And so conflict vanishes or becomes hollow. There cannot be anything to truly challenge the message, because that would mean that people might walk away with the wrong ideas, and so no true challenge is put forth. Can you see why this leads to a weaker story overall?

It has other effects, too. All of the characters either must agree with the message or be part of the opposition (which again, is straw-thin … as well as often enough being a scarecrow). So all of the characters agree on the message, and anyone who doesn’t is generally demonized by the story. Can you see how that would make a story even less appealing to read? There’s a black-and-white mentality behind it, a “with us or against us” element. Not only that, but all the primary characters must be on the same page, and therefore will all act alike in the lines of the message … so character development takes a backseat to the message as well.

Right then, I can hear the question already. What makes this different from a story that has theme? The answer, actually, is pretty simple.

In a story that has theme, the message is not the end-all that the author is trying to push down the throat of the reader. Which means all of those concessions to the message that the writer of a message-fiction must make don’t need to happen. The author can have characters that disagree over the thematic elements, that debate it and come to their own conclusions. The sense of challenge canexist, because the theme of the story is just that: A theme. The subject, an underlying idea or concept. Characters are free to disagree with it. Characters are free to explore different facets of it, create their own conclusions based on it, as well as—and here’s the really important part, so I’ll repeat—as well as the reader.

Another way to put it is that theme is designed to get readers to think. A story with a theme will have the characters learn and grow, some touching on the theme and some not, facing a “foe” who may have only tangential connections with the theme, oppose it, or even agree with the primary characters in many areas to show a counterpoint—any number of things. But along the way the theme will be presented and looked at from a variety of angles and the reader will be allowed to think, debate, and draw their own conclusions based on the story. They even have the option of not drawing any conclusion and just reading the work for fun.

Message-fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t want readers to think anything else other than “I’m right, all others are wrong.” There’s no thought involved—in fact, some message stories go out of their way to remind the reader that alternative thinking or challenging the message of the work is “bad behavior.” It’s a work wherein there is supposed to be no challenge to its assertions, no room for the reader to sit back and propose an alternative. Such voices are not given rise in the work, and they’re not intended to be given rise after it is over.

There’s one other big difference here, though, and it’s one that is, in a way, one of the most important ones. Notice that in a story with theme, the reader can reach the end without making a judgement, thought, or decision on the theme at all? This is because in a story that utilizes theme, message is not the most vital part of the work. The story is.

This is where things grow the most polarizing. A message-fiction is generally written so that if one removes all the elements of the message from it, we find that quite often there is very little left to engage the reader. The core of the work, after all, was driving home the message. Especially in short fiction, there may be so little of the “story” left as to render it unrecognizable. There isn’t a real story. The work was just a vehicle for the author to build a giant soapbox.

Now, take a story written with a theme rather than a message and take the theme out of it, and what do you have? You might be missing some parts, certainly, and there will definitely be spots where character interaction and other elements aren’t as understandable. But do you know what you’ll still have?

A story. Because the theme is not the only thing that makes up a story. The author is relying on a multitude of elements to keep the reader engaged, while a work of message-fiction cannot include many of the elements as they will detract, distract from, or weaken the message. Cut theme from a story and message from a message-fic, and you’ll be left with one that is a still a story, and another that is a pile of words meandering without meaning.

Does this mean you can’t write message-fiction? Well … no. Like I said, there are a few authors who have made successful careers out of it (though be aware that building your success on such a one-note base has a tendency to be quite … tippy). There’s always going to be a crowd of people who will snap up a story that’s written to their specific tastes and opinion.

But it’s a fleeting success. Yes, you’ll attract those who will immediately and already agree with you. But you won’t attract those who ask more of a work than the author’s opinion. Like soapboxing, you can only get away with so much before a reader goes elsewhere, and in the case of message-fiction, that line comes very early on. Those who stay are almost guaranteed to support you—provided you continue to espouse the same views—but those who are looking for a story? They’ll go elsewhere.

The thing is, at the end of the day, when it comes down to a showdown between theme and message, theme wins hands-down. Stories with theme are what stick with people, what resonate. These are the stories that appeal to a wide variety of readers, from those who enjoy sitting back and contemplating the nuances of the story they’ve just read to those who just want a fun story (neither of whom will tend to enjoy a message fic, which offers neither appealing factor). Theme is considered a core component of a story with good reason, and swapping that theme for a message tends to polarize pretty well.

So, Theme versus Message … What can we take away?

First, that you can write both. Message-fiction is an existing thing because—especially in the world of the internet—writing something that coincides and reinforces others already accepted views can be very lucrative. However, if you do this, understand what you’re giving up in turn.

You will not have theme. You will not have story. In the pursuit of message, you will lose character interaction, conflict, and tension. You will be sacrificing a long-term audience for one that is “one note,” one that will only stick around provided that you’re writing exactly what they want. You’re also—though I didn’t mention this above—putting a hard date cut-off on your work: if the message ever becomes passe or falls out of style, so will you.

On the other hand, writing a story with theme is certainly more work, and requires more from you, but you generate something that appeals to a wider range of people and doesn’t fall out of favor even if some of the ideas contained in it do. After all, there’s a story at the root of it. Something for readers to sink their teeth into.

So, which will you write? Which will you read?

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