Being a Better Writer: Considering Theme and Message

Message. Message is an area of much controversy these days, especially in fiction. There are numerous groups with their own ideas of what “the message” of all fiction should be, all arguing and fighting with one another, not a few of them acting like spoiled, entitled children.

But we’re not going to talk about that today. Well, we will a little, because it’s kind of hard to escape in today’s topic. After all, I want to talk about message, and there’s a whole political battle going over “message” in fiction (note the quotation marks, they are significant). But I don’t want to focus on that. Instead, what I want to talk about is, well, what you see in the title: theme and message.

Let’s face it: Every decent story is going to have a theme behind it. Why? Because any good story, from the simplest to the most complex, is going to have a purpose. Something that it drives towards. It’s going to have an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and a conclusion. And in order for it to have that conclusion, it must have something to conclude.

What does this mean? Well, in a roundabout way, no matter what story you write, what it’s about, or who you put in it, there’s going to be some sort of conclusion. If it doesn’t have one, then you don’t have a story, just a directionless event. And we don’t want that.

So, for our story to fit the requirements of a story, it needs to have a conclusion of some kind. And that means that, even if you’re not a fan of message fiction, your story will have a message of some kind, like it or not.

Right, some of you might be a little confused at the moment, so let me step back and clarify something. Message fiction versus theme and message: what’s the difference?

Let’s talk about message fiction , then, to get it out of the way (and this is tying back into that political battle I mentioned earlier). Message fiction is fiction written primarily to argue a belief or a point of any kind. In other words, it’s a story where the actual story takes a backseat to the idea or point that the author wants to get across. In the modern day and age it’s been lambasted as “checklist fiction” for its appearance of checking boxes … and to be fair it’s a moniker that fits quite well. Message fiction isn’t as interested in telling the reader a fascinating story as it is arguing a point. Character, world, events … all of these are of lesser importance to the author running through and making their case in support of some idea.

Checklist fiction, to go one step further, is when that message is so outright and forward that it is inserted into the story at every possible opportunity to remind the reader, usually breaking the flow. A good comparison would be the person we’ve all spoken to who says one thing with the goal of saying another, like the con-goer who asks a long rambling question of a panel that’s really about promoting their own work. The result is a story that feels as though someone has gone through it with a “checklist,” making sure that there were no possible moments whereby someone could be reminded of the message behind the work that were missed.

And there are people who wholeheartedly believe that this is the direction that fiction needs to move in … provided it supports only the message that they want to get out. I kid you not, dig around online and you can find template advice for making sure your story ‘sends the right message.’ Just a few weeks ago, I encountered someone in a comment thread who posted their bulleted list of things to include when talking about a character that was (and as a quick reminder, I do not advocate this nor agree with it) not white, so that the reader could see how “inclusive” the work was (it came off as outrageously racist, just in case you’re curious, and quickly sank to stereotyping).

So yes, checklist fiction. It’s a real thing. Now, with that said … what’s the difference between simply having a theme/message, and how can we push for that in our work rather than stepping into the alternative? Because, as I said above, all stories reach a conclusion. This conclusion can be as basic and straightforward as “good friends are there as we need them” or as complex as “just because we do our best to do the right thing doesn’t mean everything is going to turn out perfect.” Or even more complex. Our stories reach an end, and with that, they’ve shared a journey for readers to learn from. But how do we keep that while at the same time not falling into the mire that is message fiction?

Well, a lot of it comes from what you want to do with your story and how you’re approaching it. For instance, I doubt that many would argue that many of my own stories don’t carry within them a message or a theme of some kind. Sands, I wouldn’t even try to argue that: It’s clear. Monthly Retreat is about many things, but one of the clear themes that runs through the whole story is that we choose who we are, regardless of our circumstances. Flash Point tackles dealing with self-doubt and the unexpected as well as standing firm in the face of opposition, along with a host of others. But at the same time, I’ve yet to have anyone accuse them, or any of my other works, of being message fiction, even if there is a theme and a message to them.

Why? Because they’re written to tell a story, not to push a message at the reader. Sands, For Glory actively embraced this in its own afterward—the point was to write a story that was full of religious underpinnings without making the tale a thinly-veiled soapbox as so many religious stories become. There’s still a message and a theme there that you can find (as the main character does), but that isn’t all there is to things.

This may seem like a subtle difference, but as writers we should be familiar with the difference a few words can make. Are you going into a story with the intent that you’re going to present a message or a theme? Or are you going into a story with the intent to tell a good story that happens to have a message or theme? Which is more important? What comes first?

Me? I’d argue that the core of writing a story should be first and above all to make it a good story. And that’s where a lot of message fiction (and checklist) fails. The story has become secondary to the message (or, one could argue, invisible altogether in some cases).

And look. I’m not saying that theme and message aren’t important. They are core parts of a story (after all, who here didn’t discuss theme in their high-school English classes?). You have to have a conclusion.

But the difference between a good story and a message fiction is where the author spends their time and attention. Whether they focus on character, plot, and pacing … or whether they’re all about making sure you’re agreeing with them about something or that you understand that they hold X political viewpoint.

So, when you sit down to write a story, what are you making the focal point? Again, it’s all well and fine to have a story that embraces a theme or a message of some kind—again, see what was said about all good stories having a conclusion of some kind. But will that be your most important point? Or will you focus on telling a good story first, before all else?

Part of the reason that this is so vital is that a good story may change what you had assumed the theme would be. When you let the story take priority, you’ll write with the intent of making the story the best it can be, ie letting the characters shine, the plot move forward at a proper pace, etc. You let things flow, move organically.

But if you switch that focus to put the theme in the spotlight, make it the most important thing out there … what happens when your characters or pacing desire a different direction? You come to a crossroads. You can either let your characters take things forward at their own pace, perhaps presenting opposing ideas, views, or concepts, or even moving away from your theme entirely … or you can force them into the mold you’ve got in mind.

Hence why I’m not a big fan of message fiction, and why they’re not very popular: Because that’s the path it has to take in order to make its message work. Characters become caricatures. The plot changes from ‘What’s the right decision here?” to “What will move things towards the message?” Opposing viewpoints are often neutered to prevent the characters from questioning them (or made so blatantly foolish as to be clearly obvious).

For example, there was a zombie book that I read a few years ago that tried a little to hard to make its political message evident. Ridiculously hard, actually. In it, the main character is following the political campaign of a character who is running for president. Up front, it declares that the character is a Republican … but then spends quite a bit of time bringing up political views about them that, as the character (but really author) pointed out, were “at odds” with the rest of the party. The candidate, of course, is showered with devotion in response to their views, and this culminates in a very direct political statement about halfway through the book that declares the candidate should really be a member of the Democratic party, they’re so awesome.

Really? For a book that was supposed to be a zombie murder mystery, it took quite a few left turns (hah!) into political discourse about how superior the Democratic party was. It spent a lot of time on this candidate, how much better their policies were … it got annoying. I ended up giving the book three out of five stars, when the writing could have easily grabbed it a four star. But it was so preachy about “you should support the democratic party” that by about a quarter of the way through it had crossed from merely annoying to very in your face. And you couldn’t escape it, either. If there was a chance for the author to tie things back to red-vs-blue politics … 50% of the time they did.

Now, if you’re a die-hard democrat, you probably loved that message, since it agreed with you. But as someone who doesn’t care for either party, I found the incessant reminders of “how great” the party was both annoying and off-putting given the proposed tone of the story I expected to be reading. Zombies and mystery took a backseat, and the story changed to support the political theme.

Now, the thing is, with the exception of sitting here and discussing extreme examples (checklisting, for example, or themeless stories), I can’t rightfully sit down and say “This. This is how you do this and do it right.” Because every story is going to be a little different. Every story is going to have different characters, motives, pacing … and yes, theme.

Which is why, again, the focal point is what matters. Do you want to tell a good story that has a message? Or do you want to tell a message attached to a story? Picking one over the other will change what you write, and more than you might realize.

Of course, I’m writing for a clear message today: Pick story. That’s what readers want. A good story can come with all kinds of themes but still engage a reader even if they disagree with them, while a story focused on message tends to lose those who disagree with the message because there is little else for them to grab onto.

Pick story. Build something amazing that works with its theme, not is consumed by it.


3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Considering Theme and Message

  1. “Message fiction is fiction written primarily to argue a belief or a point of any kind. In other words, it’s a story where the actual story takes a backseat to the idea or point that the author wants to get across.”

    E.g., “Flutter Brutter”.


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