Message Meets Story: Finding the Balance

Lately, I’ve been involved in a number of chats about Orson Scott Card, among other authors. These have focused on whether people are willing to buy the author’s books, read the books, or see movies based on the books due to the author’s socio-political activities, which is often tied to the messages present in their work.

I don’t really want to talk about that. Rather, it got me thinking, again, about the balance between story and message.

In short: too much message destroys the story.

Now, I’m not saying that writing, especially fiction, should never have a message. Writing with a message in mind is good and can be very enjoyable. I think about Lois Lowry (The Giver), George Orwell (1984), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Ray Bradbury (both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451). All wrote with definite messages in mind—about euthanasia & eugenics, fascism, human nature, and censorship respectively—and they all worked beautifully.

Unconscious messages, or mingling conscious and unconscious messages, are even better, in my opinion. J.K. Rowling consciously wrote about love, but also included issues of racism, nature-nurture, classism, and a host of other issues. Terry Pratchett routinely consciously discusses issues of technology in society, but also issues of race, class, economics, human nature, and others. J.R.R. Tolkien consciously wrote about good and evil, but he also inadvertently (?) touched on a host of other issues. Even Steven Brust and Karen Traviss (Star Wars: Republic Commandos) consciously or unconsciously bring up a variety of issues involving class, human nature, ethics, and others. They all do a good job of this, though Traviss tends to harp on a few pet issues to an annoying degree.

Letting the message take over and control the narrative, though, causes major problems. Two excellent examples that come to mind are C.S. Lewis (Narnia) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials). Both start out with great stories. The first six Narnia novels are wonderful, The Golden Compass is a thoroughly enjoyable piece (The Subtle Knife, a bit less so, but still good). But, their final books in the series—The Last Battle & The Amber Spyglass respectively—become polemic. They spread their message with a very heavy hand in their respective final texts, and the story and enjoyment (and message) ultimately suffer for it. Basically, both ended up becoming preachy (and Pullman muddled through a very rough re-write of Paradise Lost).

If a writer is consciously including a message, they need to find the right balance between story and message. Personally, I find that being subtle is better. Getting out the “message stick” and beating the reader over the head with it is, ultimately, counter-productive. Harry Turtledove’s commentary about historical research comes to mind as applicable: do 100% of the research, but only show 2-3% of it. It is a tough trick to pull off, but I think it works much better. It is, possibly, even better to let the message come about unconsciously, rather than trying to force it in.

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