He had submitted a set of lyrics to the committee for a song that he hoped the chorus might sing in an upcoming Pride concert. In order for us to have performed the song, the chorus would have had to hire a composer to come up with music to accompany the lyrics, and an arranger to convert that melody into four-part harmony and some sort of accompaniment. As it happened, two years previously when those lyrics had been submitted, I had also been on the committee, serving as the secretary of the committee, and I remembered the meeting where we had evaluated music suggestions that had been submitted for consideration. And I remember reading the lyrics and being underwhelmed—it wasn’t just that it was rather trite poetry of the kind you might expect someone’s grandparent to stick up on the wall somewhere, but it had ended on a defeatist note about staying in the closet rather than being out.
So it had been one of the pieces eliminated early by the committee. We had a very limited budget to hire composers/arrangers, and we all agreed this thing wasn’t worth it.
I was a bit stunned to be sitting there, listening to this guy who had decided to use my recent bereavement as an excuse to bring out this ax to grind, and was trying to figure out how I could possibly respond, when he made the comment that crystalized the real problem. He said, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like when you just really, deeply, sincerely wish to have had your music published, but you never got to go to school to learn music theory or how to arrange music because your family couldn’t afford it. I don’t know if you know how much it hurts that someone who knows how to do that won’t turn the words you’ve written into a song for you.”
He didn’t say that he sincerely wished to make music. No, what he said was that he sincerely wished to have music that someone else made but that he could take credit for produced.
I understand the frustration of not being able to do the whole package. I’m not very good at the art side of things, so if I go the indy publishing route, I’m going to have a difficult (and expensive) time getting good cover art for my books. While arranging is a different skill set than writing music or creating lyrics, it’s something you can learn without having majored in music in university. And particularly when one is in their fifties (as this guy was) and had supposedly been trying to become a songwriter for decades, how can he think it’s okay not to have ever even learned how to read music (yes, he was the kind of chorus member who could only learn the part if someone who could read music sang the melody in his ear).
Some would say I don’t have proper sympathy because I took band and orchestra and various vocal classes in high school, and for one year my major in college was music education (I changed majors a lot: math ed, music ed, communications, journalism, then back to math without the ed part…). But the reason I was in so many different musical groups playing so many different instruments back in the day wasn’t because my family paid for lessons for each of those instruments. Public school teachers taught me to read music and how to almost play the viola and later to play the trumpet. But I taught myself how to play bassoon, ephonium, trombone, french horn, flute, bass clarinet and a bunch of others. And while I’ve only finished full arrangements of a few songs over the years, no one taught me arranging, I taught myself.
I’m not saying that finding teachers isn’t worth it, but I am saying that if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to work for it. Yes, it is harder for those of us who come from working class families. There are many social, financial, and other systemic barriers to many opportunities in this world.
But there is a point where you need to realize that before you can be a star, you have to learn how to make music (or how to write a story, or how to draw a picture…).
Some people never get that.
And some of them are people who seem to have successful careers in the arena which they aren’t really very good at. These folks have enough privilege to fail their way into middling success. Because of connections and so forth, these guys (it is most often a white guy from an upper middle-class or better background) get jobs where they have some responsibility to create (or direct the creation of) something, and they screw up in various ways, they make promises they can’t keep, but they have an assistant (almost always a woman) who cleans up for them. Anyone who has worked in a large office knows this woman: she may have a title like Executive Assistant or even rarely Office Manager, but the upper management people she reports to clearly think of her as a secretary; but she’s the one that actually makes everything happen. She knows how to work projects through finance. She “cleans up” the boss’s presentations. She smooths things over when morale is down or people are angered by things the boss said or did. She finds solutions to the contradictory instructions.
It doesn’t just happen in boring corporate locations. Lots of people in creative positions are just like those bosses. They make decisions that contradict other things they’ve said. They order people to do things that won’t actually work. They write scripts full of clunky dialog, if that’s part of their project. And other people “clean things up.”
That’s how you get someone who can’t direct an interesting movie to save his life being paid to make one loser after another. It’s how you get best-selling authors who throw temper tantrums when someone writes a critique of their work who are flabbergasted when someone holds the page in front of them and shows them that yes, that passage did come out of their work. That’s how you get senior partners at law firms who had an extensive and impressive record as a prosecutor, when deprived of their phalanx of assistants making blatantly incorrect declarations of the law and actually further incriminating their client in television interviews.
And sometimes, apparently, it’s how you get someone clueless enough to use a supposed condolence call to whine about why other people won’t compose and arrange music to accompany their mediocre poetry.
If you really want to be a rock star, you have to learn to rock and roll. Otherwise, you’re no different than a lip-synching puppet.
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
For another take on some of the topics covered here, but not from the viewpoint of a sci fi fan, you might find this informative: The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall
- Once you obtain your Artist License, you receive a quota of ideas monthly from the Ideas of the Month Club™.
- No one really knows the exact nature of the alchemy in an author’s subconscious that synthesizes our experiences, conversations, and other information we encounter into ideas.
- The fact that you ask that question indicates you’re looking at the storytelling process completely wrong.
The funny answer is play on words. The term artistic license doesn’t describe an actual license one earns or applies for, but rather it describes the phenomenon of the distortion of fact or alterations of convention which is sometimes made in the name of art. A movie “based on real events” will take a lot of artistic license with the events in order to create an interesting and cohesive story, for instance. So the joke is a way to not answer the question; because the answer isn’t straightforward.
The truthful answer is that writers and other artists concoct their ideas usually unconsciously based on or in reaction to stories we’ve read, art we’ve seen, and so on, blended with things we’ve observed throughout our lives. Both art teachers and writing teachers I’ve known are fond of saying, “Hacks borrow, artists steal.” Humans have been telling each other stories through stories, painting, music, dance, and other art forms for tens of thousands of years. There is no such thing as a plot that hasn’t been used before. But a good storyteller doesn’t worry about that, because what makes a story ours is the individual spins we put on elements, our personal perspective, and our own style. Yes, that does mean that characters in our stories often contain elements of the personalities of people we know in real life. But they’ll contain elements from several people. Even when we intentionally base a character on someone we know, we make changes in order to fit the character into our story. Or we’ll combine the personality traits of the person we’re basing the character on with those from other people—maybe people who remind us of the person, maybe not.
The real answer may seem a little harsh, but the things that most people mean when they ask a writer about “ideas” are not the important part of writing. People asking that want to know why an author decided to make the second detective a robot, or where the notion of a flat world balanced on the back of four elephants riding through interstellar space on a giant turtle came from, or how someone came up with the idea of the character Yoda. Those things are, in one sense, merely window dressing. They aren’t the heart of each of the stories in which they occur. Sometimes, yes, a writer may start from a single question or a prompt from somewhere, but what makes the story are all the connections between the various elements. It’s how the author puts all those things together and makes them work together as the protagonist is confronted by a problem, deals with the problem and the complications that arise from it, and eventually resolves it (for good or ill) at the end.
All those elements that folks mean when they ask about ideas are part of the story. Some of them are even integral to the tale, but the magic is how they work together. Just thinking up the idea of a girl with a magical ability to control all things made out of paper, for instance, isn’t enough. The author has to put that character into a world, make her interact with the other characters, and most importantly make you believe, at least for a bit, that she’s a real person facing a very real crisis.
Sometimes we know where a particular idea came from. For instance, one night at my writers’ group, after we had gone over some scenes I had written from the first novel in the Trickster series involving some of the wizards, my friend Mark made the comment that he thought it would be funny if there was a mage in the world who was always wearing a whole bunch of gold chains, and generally conducted themself like a parody of the 70s or 80s gangster villain. It so happened that I needed a dangerous but comedic mage to fill the role of second-in-command for The Rage Regiment (a group of sort of anarchist wannabes that would figure more prominently in later parts of the series), I just hadn’t figured out her personality or anything. Mark’s description nudged me into filling in details (those dozens and dozens of gold chains around her neck each held magic amulets and the like, making her a walking arsenal; her flying carpet is a converted hearse, et cetera) that eventually came together as Sister Blister, underling to Mother Bedlam.
But the truth is, most of the time the author doesn’t know where the parts that a reader finds most interesting came from. We may know that we gave certain personality traits to a particular character because someone of our acquaintance has those traits and we find them interesting (or frustrating, or endearing, et cetera). And yes, sometimes we’ll base a character that horrible things will happen to on someone we have known in the past who we think deserved horrible things to happen to them. Or we’ll base a character on some other author’s character and give them a happy ending because we think that person deserved something better than what happened to them in the original story. But if we’re good, we’ll file the serial numbers off, and the vast majority of readers will never recognize the character we’ve created an alternate universe version of.
There is no simple answer. There is no magic process we can teach you, no sure-fire mechanism we can share that will generate “ideas” on demand. There are tricks we can use to help us write when we’re blocked and so forth. But the answer I gave above that I labeled truthful really is: no one knows the exact nature of the process. Our brains mix and match and percolate and conjoin all sorts of things from our life experiences, and sometimes something wonderful blossoms from it. And when it does, we have to get to work, making the something wonderful work in a story.
Over dinner last night, my husband pointed out2 that C.S. Lewis, even when writing stories that were meant to be Biblical allegory, remembered that the stories had to be stories first: fully-rounded characters that you care about facing obstacles that seem insurmountable which they overcome through their own actions. And that made me realize that even Lewis’s Christian apologetic novel, The Screwtape Letters was less preachy than some of the other stories we were discussing—because even while discoursing on the nature of human imperfection in the form of letters from a senior demon to his nephew (who is a Junior Tempter), Lewis created a demon who was, as a character, sympathetic and relatable.
I’ve written about this before, during which I quoted (and disagreed with) a Christian filmmaker’s argument that all fiction has a message. The same argument has been being repeated by a lot of people in the discussions specifically about sci fi/fantasy writing, with a new variant: maybe none of us (of any political opinion) notice the messages we agree with because we are so passionate about the things we believe.
I think this is just as wrong as the earlier version. All fiction tells stories, yes, and those stories will embody the values of the author in many ways. I’ve given the example that part of my fundamental temperament is a refusal to accept a no-win situation4, and therefore even when I write grim stories with unhappy endings5, there winds up being at least some hint of a glimmer of hope somewhere in the tone of the story.
But the C.S. Lewis example belies that notion that all fiction is message fic. Yes, some people find the allegory of the Narnia books not to their liking, but I haven’t met anyone who’s read them who can’t explain the plot. Yet, I read scores of reviews of “Parliament of Beast and Birds” earlier this summer (by some very smart people) who couldn’t find a plot6.
So I remain firm in believing that if your story is a message, you’re dong it wrong. That isn’t how you make good art.
I agree that messages are to be found in stories. But they ought to be more like that one alluded to in the Neal Gaiman quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” They are meanings that can be inferred by the reader. They are meanings that different readers will interpret in different ways. The interpretations of some readers can contradict the interpretations of other readers and can contradict the interpretation of the author.
Some readers will come away from the story knowing that dragons can be beaten. Others will come away convinced that wizards always find loopholes. Others will say that kings always find ways to take credit for other people’s work. Others may say the message is never to underestimate the damsel. And some, of course, will say the message is humans would rather kill an endangered species than learn how to live with them.
If the story is art, if the storyteller has done their job, the world of the story should be vivid enough and rich enough for readers to find and see all of those sorts of things in the tale. Which is what you want. You want the reader to be transported into a world that they will experience and interpret themselves. You want the reader to share your vision, yes, but you want that vision to take on a life of its own and for the reader to find visions of their own.
That is the opposite of a sermon, whose goal is to bring a person around to thinking the “right” way. To adhere to the truth as defined by the speaker.
I want my readers to run through the imaginary world and find new things that I never dreamed of.
1. Which is why many of us reviewing those stories commented along these lines: “Oh, Puppies, just because you agree with the message, it does not make the work any less message fiction.”
2. We were on the subject because he had been reading one of his favorite sci fi zine sites and had gotten pulled into the comments section of a book review, if I recall correctly3.
3. I was into my second glass of my favorite wine at my favorite restaurant, so I am probably getting the details wrong.
4. Intellectually, I know that lots of situations are no-win, but there’s always that one voice in the back of my head arguing that we should just spend a little more time and try something else…
5. And despite the fact that more than one reader has accused me of being a hopeless optimist who writes everything through rose-colored glasses, I actually have written more than a few tragedies.
6. Or figure out what the story was supposed to be about7.
7. Quick sum-up: imagine an idiot savant has read some Aesop’s Fables and then binge-read the entire Christian apocalyptic snuff-porn series, Left Behind8, and then attempts to write fanfic of it.
8. To be fair, much of the New Testament’s Book of Revelations is treated as snuff-porn by a lot of Xtians I knew growing up. One of them was me. It was my grandfather who pointed out to me that I was spending all my time and energy focusing on the end of the word, when god put us here to build each other up and make the world a better place.
It must be the truth, because so many people are saying it, right?
Well, not really…
I watched a teaser for a movie I’m looking forward to seeing later this year, and accidentally got sucked into the comments.
As a rule, I try to ignore comments on the internet. Wiser people than I have written extensively about why some of the worst humanity has to offer seems to congregate in the comments sections of articles and the like. Sometimes, on some sites, you can’t help be see at least the first few comments while you’re looking at the actual content.
This comments section began with someone writing a long rant about how the movie, and previous entries in the related franchise, were not original. They had borrowed this element for an older series, and that element for an older movie, and so on and so forth.
Except, of course, none of the things he cited had been original in their use of those elements, either.
Humans have been telling each other stories, constructing various finds of flights of fancy, for tens of thousands of years. Every twist of plot has been thought of, in some form, thousands of times before, for instance. Technology and cultural changes allow some of the details and contexts to change, but in some ways only on the surface. If you abstract any idea out far enough, it becomes a trope or cliché that’s been around for ages.
Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to distinguish between a genuine effort to tell a story that is yours, and a lazy copy of someone else. But it does mean that pointing out some element or bit of a story “has been done before” isn’t saying anything terrible profound.
And certainly not original.
“Prequels are really difficult,” Alan Dean Foster once said. The main reasons I recall him giving were that usually the readers who most wanted to read a sequel were fans of the original work. Therefore, they already knew the characters’ future, removing one source of dramatic tension. Also, they often had already imagined their own version of events, and whatever the author comes up with may not match up to their expectations.
Another reason is that the author often doesn’t know exactly what happened. So when we try to put the events into some sort of narrative that is satisfying to us, it may not actually add up to an interesting story.
This will prompt some people to ask, “But it’s your story! How can you not know the details?!”
Let me give an example from one of my current writing projects. At the moment it consists of two novels: one is a sequel to the another. In the first book, one of my protagonists is an apparently human, somewhat mysterious, fortune teller. One of the villains is the Zombie Lord. One of the mysteries surrounding the fortune teller is that she has some sort of past relationship with the Zombie Lord.
For plot purposes in the first book, the readers needed to know that some sort of friendly relationship had once existed, but there had been a falling out. So I’ve included only enough information to establish that before it becomes important. And no more.
At the time I was writing the first book, I knew more than the little bit I revealed, but it wasn’t a huge amount more. I didn’t need to know more. I knew how well they know each other, and how they feel about each other now, so I could write their interaction (and eventual combat) correctly, but that’s all I needed to know, so it’s all I’d figured out.
In the second book, their past—and their relationships to several more characters—is integral to the plot. So I have figured and filled in a few more details. Again, I’m figuring out more than will actually appear in the story, but there’s a lot I’m not worrying about.
One of the things I don’t know, for instance, is exactly what sequence of events led to them ceasing to be friends. Ultimately, it was because he became an evil overlord, of course, but was there a defining moment? An action he took where it became obvious that’s the path he was going down? Or was it a gradual thing?
All creative people do that sort of thing. For example, say you have this idea for a poem or a painting or a song about what it feels like to be a young person who decides to throw all your problems and cares away and just leave, start a new life on the other side of the country or something. So you create the work of art, and you do everything in your power to capture that feeling, and you might end up with something like this:
After writing it you spend the next forty years being asked by reporters, fans, and talk show hosts what exactly was the crime that set this whole thing off. For all of those forty years you keep coming up with variants on the answer that you don’t know, it didn’t matter for you in creating the piece. What was important was that feeling you were trying to evoke. He wanted his listeners to project themselves into the song and just experience that moment.
The other reason it doesn’t matter is because part of the point of art is to engage the audience. That song isn’t only about what Paul Simon was thinking when he wrote it. The song is also about what each and every listener who hears it finds within it. My meaning, when I hear it and sing along, is just as viable and true as the meaning he had when he wrote it. Your meaning when you hear it is just as viable and true, as well. His meaning when he performs it all these years later is no more, and no less, true than the meaning that someone who his never heard it before may find if they hear a recording tomorrow.
We leave things unsaid in stories because we should only include things that move the story along. We leave them unsaid because in our pursuit of telling the best version of the story we can, we can’t afford to let ourselves run down rabbit holes and lose the story. We leave them unsaid because the story isn’t real until it is heard or read and believed by an audience. We leave them unsaid because the audience can’t throw them self into the story unless we leave room for them.