Making a difference or sharing a message is something many authors strive to do. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it exactly, but putting the message before the story is almost guaranteed to put readers off.
It’s not an easy topic to talk about or define. I mean, there are the obvious ways that writing can make a difference. Perhaps you’re writing a piece on politics, or an environmental issue, or you’re creating a parody piece on a certain world leader to highlight how absurd their actions are. But what if you’re writing fiction, or for children, or young adults. How can your words make a difference, especially in a world where it can feel as though we are shouting into a void?
I may be a little biased, but I still believe that the written word is one of the best ways to get your message across, and sometimes fiction is the best medium for a message. This is especially true if the topic you’re writing on is one that has already been explored from every angle by contemporary media. At what point do we start tuning out messages about the new rise of fascism and how plastic is taking over our oceans, and terrorism is destroying the world order we once knew, especially if it doesn’t affect us directly? Fiction is a way to cut through that noise.
Now, I realise this might sound like me saying that you should sneak hidden, or perhaps subliminal, messages into your text. That’s not what I’m saying at all, and it’s true that any messages within your book need to serve the story. If it’s all message and no story, your reader will feel as though they are being slapped in the face with the wet fish that is your message, and I don’t know about you, but when I’m being accosted by a slimy sea creature, I run in the opposite direction. Basically, you’re never going to engage your reader if the message overpowers the story.
So how do you balance message and story? My advice is to find other works of fiction with in-built messages and see how the masters do it. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood springs to mind, as it has recently been adapted for television, and is commonly used as an archetype of what we don’t want our world to turn into. Atwood’s premise is based on a version of our world taken to the extreme. The setting is a highly patriarchal political system based on the literal word of the Bible.
But Atwood doesn’t just tell you about this world and how horrible it is, she shows you, making you sympathise with the protagonist who is a victim of the new world order. She could have written this book from the point of view of the male leaders who enslave women for what they would call “the greater good” and it would have been a very different story. In this instance, a skilled author such as Atwood may have been able to persuade you to see the sense in such as system, convincing you that is was necessary for the survival of the human race. Instead, she shows what it’s like on the ground, and how the common people suffer for the harsh realities of this new world. This serves both the story, and Atwood’s warning that political and religious extremism leads to suffering. The main thing is that it doesn’t detract or distract from the story, instead providing the tension required to make us want to continue reading. The two work in tandem.
A further example would be C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. This beloved book, and its sequels and prequel, are delightful stories following the adventures of various children in the magical world of Narnia. On the surface they are just that, but Lewis had a further intention in writing these books. It’s difficult to miss the parallels between the beginning of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, and the creation story outlined in the Book of Genesis. Likewise, Aslan is a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself and is resurrected for the good of his people. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that in their world “I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” — a reference to Christ in the ‘real world’. I would suggest that this is perhaps a little heavy handed, and that the places where Lewis weaves in Christian themes in a less obvious manner, emphasising ideas of kindness and acceptance, are more effective.
As a child, I certainly didn’t make these connections while reading Narnia, partly because I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but also because they were jolly good stories. That said, I do remember being most disgruntled that Susan, my favourite character, was not allowed back into Narnia in the final book because she was “in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” I put this down to 1950s sexism, and something that would never make it through a publisher today (I hope). All this is to say that it was the story and the overall themes in Narnia that engaged me, not the Christian undertones that are an important, yet secondary, part of what Lewis was doing with his writing. This also allows the Narnia books to be enjoyable, regardless of your beliefs.
An instance where the message is important and serves the story is in Belinda Mellor’s Silvana, a book published by CP Books. This is a book where an environmental and conservation-oriented message is woven into the plot, but it never feels forced. The message, or theme, is hidden within the story, and doesn’t feel preachy. Mellor shows you how the woodland is important to the people of the story, rather than telling you.
From experience, I’ve found that the theme or ‘message’ in a story often comes hand-in-hand with the central idea, or the traits of a central character. It certainly isn’t something you should force though. Look at your message as a theme, and think about ways of showing the benefits or downsides to it. You could tell the audience that the traits of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ have negative consequences, or you could spend an entire novel exploring those themes through engaging characters and unexpected plot twists. Messages can be included in a story, but they can’t be all that a story is. What readers want, above all, is a great story, and if it can teach them something positive along the way, that’s all the better.