1. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    No message?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Wreybies, Jul 9, 2013.

    There seems to be a rather overwhelming agreement here in this forum (at least from those who have voiced an opinion) that a writer should not try to push a message in his/her work. I'm finding this difficult to reconcile with the fact that the great works of any genre and those works that have come to us from ancient times all have very strong messages the writer is clearly trying to "say" to the reader. I've heard from preachy to propaganda in responses here in our little community.

    Is it just semantics? Are we simply meaning different things when we say don't try to push a message? That I can understand, but if people are meaning a proscription against the level of "sell" in works like LotR, Dune, Oedipus Rex, etc., then I'm at a loss for understanding.


    The floor is open. :)
     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think the sentiment is more in the "how" than the "what". All writing should say something. Most of the advice of this sort that I've seen on this site is to refrain from preaching directly to the reader, or from making the dialogue so polemic as to amount to the same thing. My favorite example of this is the Advise and Consent series by Allan Drury. The first novel, which won a Pulitzer prize, was unquestionably from a particular point of view, but it was still a well-crafted novel and did not preach. But each succeeding volume in the series was increasingly polemic and increasingly pedantic, to the point where the characters were rendered secondary to the message (which itself became more hysterical).

    BTW, kudos for being able to mention Dune and Oedipus Rex in the same sentence.
     
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  3. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    Just don't demand that your readers get what you are saying. Make them work for it. Hemingway let his readers do the thinking, but he definitely sent them in the direction he wanted them to go. Tolstoy, George Orwell (1984 and Animal Farm pretty well were LADEN with message), you get the idea :)
     
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    [MENTION=53398]JetBlackGT[/MENTION] & [MENTION=18415]EdFromNY[/MENTION]

    The three of us are on the same page, then. It would be a lampoon, in my opinion, to have the reader sit as a silent participant in a conversation had by the players in a book wherein they extoll a particular idea to the reader. All of this thinly and perfunctorily veiled in a token, throw-away storyline. I take this as a given.

    But it seems there is a suspicious attitude concerning anything that even smells theme-ie here in the forum. Like, no, you shouldn't say anything, it's all just fun and hijinks, the end.

    Maybe it is just a matter of semantics, after all. Don't know.
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    [MENTION=3885]Wreybies[/MENTION] - I think there are always some who believe that writing, or film or television, should be "entertainment", bereft of any intellectual baggage. Of these, television has given itself over that mindset most completely, and I rarely need all my fingers to count the number of films worth seeing in any given year. So, the written word remains my refuge. Judging by the postings I see in the threads about who is reading (or has read) what, I'd say that serious written fiction is alive and well.
     
  6. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I haven't read the posts referred to in this thread, but I'll jump in regardless. I've always preferred works that do have an underlying message, even an undertow that pulls you towards a certain opinion, even if I don't agree with it. That's why some of my and KaTrian's stories have these messages, some even fairly blatant if it fits the story. For instance, there's one about a girl who lives in a country similar to ours where carrying weapons for self-defense is highly illegal. She gets assaulted on the street by a group of drunken men looking to have fun at her expense, and after the incident, she consciously breaks the law when she purchases an unregistered gun and starts carrying it and naturally then ends up being a villain in the eyes of the society she lives in.

    The message is right there, in the reader's face, because we feel it serves the story, so I don't think these messages always need to be hidden deep, but just like with everything, there's a way to do it badly and a way to do it well, even with more obvious messages. That's why I think an obvious message isn't necessarily a bad thing or a sign of bad writing, but it can be, just like a story can be overly cryptic with its message or it can be done well and have the reader think for themselves to figure out the meaning under the surface.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't see that there is any total consensus here about any aspect of writing... no matter what pov is put forth, you'll always find some who disagree with it...

    and those who belong to writing forums are not all writing mavens who speak for the larger literary world, anyway... they're mostly newish writers who are looking for advice/info/help to become better writers... so, even if there should be a consensus here on some aspect of the art, that wouldn't mean it was the accepted view of those who practice and critique it on a professional level, 'out there'...
     
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  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's the idea of telling a story of a character who is affected by some social more or policy versus telling a story specifically to show why the more or policy is bad. That is, setting out at the onset to tell a story that illustrates some problem. That is what I have heard will quickly lead to writing a bad story. "I want to write a story that shows why our immigration policy is bad," versus "I want to write the story of Maria, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala, but is now being deported." You still have the danger of writing a polemic in the latter, but you're guaranteed to do so with the former.

    The message should really be a by-product of the story, rather than the main goal.

    I don't know. Maybe it's hard to distinguish these two. Just my $0.02.
     
  9. Anthony Martin
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    Anthony Martin Active Member

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    It's the very difference between good and great writers, no? The ability to write crisp prose, weave together a story and further our understanding of the human condition in some way without being too platitudinous is rare, in my opinion, and another example of the "show don't tell" maxim.
     
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  10. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure I've seen any tendency toward 'forbidding' messages or themes in writing. I have seen people (and I'm one of them) who advises against preaching or indoctrination, mainly because readers don't tend to like that in fiction. Getting the message across without a sledgehammer generally works better. At the same time, there's absolutely no reason a story has to have a message or a theme - why can't it be written purely for entertainment?
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    > But it seems there is a suspicious attitude concerning anything that
    > even smells theme-ie here in the forum. Like, no, you shouldn't say
    > anything, it's all just fun and hijinks, the end.

    I'm extremely anti-theme in the sense that I don't believe in _planning_ the theme. I'm against having it foremost in your mind when you come up with the idea for your novel, or when you outline (if you're the outlining type), and fervantly against allowing theme to be the deciding factor when you run into cases where the most natural plot progression seems to communicate something _other_ than your theme.

    (Simplistic examples of thoughts that cause theme to damage your story: "No matter how I write it, Joe gets away with the theft, but that runs counter to my crime-doesn't-pay theme, so I need to find a way for him to get caught." or "My theme is that religion drives people to do negative things, but my pastor actually _would_ be kind and helpful in that situation; how do I fix that?")

    But that doesn't mean that the work won't have themes. People have strongly-held beliefs, and in the complex world of a story, those beliefs are going to come out. I certainly don't suggest scrubbing them out.

    But I do suggest being careful _not_ to scrub out those elements that seem to run counter to your emerging theme, because if you do so, odds are that you're going to end up with a simplistic, preachy story. If your theme is that X is evil and you find that you have a character that practices X and is also a good guy, don't eliminate that or scrub it out--explore it. Discover the complexities of your feelings about and understanding of X that are being revealed by that contradiction. You'll write a better story and there's a very good chance that you'll also be offering more of value related to your theme--even if what you're offering isn't as clear-cut as you'd hoped.
     
  12. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Ditto this! :p

    I agree with what some others have said, I've not seen a consensus here to that end, and I don't think their should be in the first place. I certainly don't think you shouldn't have a higher goal, or higher message you want to get across, just so long as it doesn't badly affect the way you write the story. In fact, you earn my praise and kudos if you can do this well, as it's the hardest part about writing I find: balancing the fun with the seriousness.
     
  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    But is having an idea of the message one wishes to send automatically polemic? If I start with the premiss of "I want to write a story about the universality of difficulties faced by both sides of any culture clash." is that a recipe for a polemic?
     
  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    The law of averages is against me, then! :D Every time I have brought this up in other discussions, my respondent has been theme/message opposed.
     
  15. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think Stephen King's fossil metaphor applies here. If a writer struggles to uncover and put together his fossil (the story), it's up to the readers to speculate as to what organism that fossil might have been. This is why I prefer ambiguous works, because like extinct creatures, truth itself is complex and elusive, and the best you can do is have as much (pertinent) information as you can to form an intelligent hypothesis.

    IMO, a story that force feeds messages is only slightly better than vampire teen fantasy in terms of provoking thought.
     
  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Reading and analyzing a text is a subjective experience. So what message a reader takes away from a book is going to be based on his individual experiences and beliefs. I've heard some people say that Dostoevsky's novels are filled with religious propaganda and dislike him and his works for that reason. Other people don't seem to care as much. It all depends on the reader.
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. To someone with a skewed viewpoint - that is, with feet firmly planted on one side of the clash - it could appear to be simply because the other side is given "equal time". But that's the perception of the reader, which the writer cannot control. OTOH, if someone writes a story that clearly takes one side of the clash, then, yes, that would be polemic. But even then it doesn't have to be "preachy". I'll go back to Drury again (in case anyone wonders, I often cite him because he had the ability to write really good novels but usually didn't because he was too busy preaching), one of his later novels, Anna Hastings, in which a woman's kids go down the drain because she is a (liberal) Washington journalist. Even people I knew who shared his world view found this one impossible to swallow.
     
  18. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    I wouldn't try to push it directly, but having a meaning and a message is fine. It is similar to purpose.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    My novel has strong social messages. They're integral to the story.
     
  20. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know that I would call that premise a "message"; I'd need more details to be sure one way or another. And I'm muddying the waters myself by talking about "theme" when you were first talking about "message". To me, "theme" may be a specific message (likely to be preachy), or it may just mean that particular concepts are explored in the story (less likely to be preachy). I'm primarily referring to the "message" interpretation when I recommend against themes in planning. (Though even with the other interpretation, there's the danger of eliminating elements that don't specifically address the theme but are still important to the story.)

    To me, a "message" intends to communicate a specific thing. For example, if you said, "I want to write a story demonstrating that in a meeting of two cultures, the only way to achieve a peaceful coexistence is for the minority culture to adopt the public traditions of the majority culture," that would be a message, a very specific opinion, and I think that it would be extremely likely to be a preachy, shallow story.

    If you said, "I want to write a story exploring the meeting of two cultures," that wouldn't be a message, IMO; it would be somewhere between a "theme" and a mere decision about setting and situation.

    When you add "universality of difficulties" then you're getting closer to a message--you're pre-demanding that your story present difficulties. If you find that your characters from two different cultures are getting along beautifully, negotiating their potential conflicts, you may not explore that interesting phenomeonon. You may feel pressure to insert a difficulty, to blunt their coping abilities, to alter their personalities to produce the effect that you anticipated. Without that pressure, that relationship might have been a fascinating core of a story different from the one that you'd intended to write. With it, it might be a much less valuable, less complex story.

    You see that I say "might". I'm sure that it's possible to deliberately set out to communicate a very specific message, and to be successful at it. I just think that the odds are against it.
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My stories are always well planned. I know where they're going.

    They're not alive. I don't have to feed them. They do what they are meant to do in my stories. I am not a character first, create a story for that character writer. I have a clear idea of the story I want to tell, a script, so to speak. I cast the parts once the script is in an outline form.

    Any story ever written might have been an infinite number of other stories had the author made this or that choice differently. I cannot see how a story that has planning and direction would lead or even tend to lead to something less complex or less valuable, the last term being such a subjective one as to be meaningless.

    Well, I think much of this comes from having very different writing processes, hence our opinions on the matter are going to be subjectively prejudiced to our respective process. From what you have mentioned in this post, it seems clear that you form a person or people about whom you want to create a story. I start with the story first. My characters become who they become, flesh out and fill in, because of the pressures and stresses they face in the story I outline.
     
  22. nhope
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    nhope Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Good writing should have an impact on the reader but that must come from the characters and not the author. The reader absorbs the story and interprets the meaning in a way that benefits him, and that is entirely dependent on his mood and personal situation at the time. You want him to either love the story or hate it, but not be indifferent.

    The author starts out with a personal premise, or motivation, and tries to prove or disprove that throughout the story. The reader can choose to agree or not but that doesn't matter. What matters is does it make the reader see/feel/think/observe people or situations differently than he did before he read the story, even if only for a slice of time.

    That imprint can be called a message or a moral or a lesson or an epiphany, so maybe it is semantics but moreso, maybe it's what you need it to be as the author.
     
  23. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    If you must have a message, the main character needs to learn it at the same time as the audience. Me thinks. But I've been known to be wrong before. ;-)
     
  24. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    This is how I feel about it too. Books should speak they shouldn't cram ideas down a person's throat. :p


    I think it's semantics. People tend to get their words mixed up.
     
  25. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    This of course brings up another great and challenging question. All of the "shut your brain off" stuff that passes for entertainment, especially in television and film, may inadvertently be pushing a message that we don't particularly like. Things meant to be meaningless, like reality TV, may garner meaning despite trying to shake it off at Every. Little. Moment.
     

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