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
So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
- What does this character want immediately/externally?
- What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
- What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
- What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
- What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
- What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
Figuring that out is where plots come from!
An expository dump (or info dump) is a “a very large amount of information supplied all at once, expecially as background information in a narrative.” That’s a rather academic definition, and like most language definitions, it contains subjective terms. Exposition is simply text that explains something. Narratives need a certain amount of exposition to work. What I object to is large chunks of explanation that stops the action of the story. For example, a few years ago I wrote about a fantasy novel I stopped reading because the third or fourth chapter of the book consisted entirely of one character lecturing another about the history of the world. That’s sloppy writing, at best.
I don’t have anything against exposition, per se. There’s a lot of expository writing in some of my favorite novels. Just earlier this week, for instance, I was reading in Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair (which is a non-eurocentric steampunk novel, so far), a description of a small train. The description gave us some hints of how the fictional world’s technology differs from our own history, gave us a sense of not just the look of one of the supporting characters, but his personality, and also had hints about the social strata of the country which the viewpoint character was visiting. But this wasn’t a long passage. It was only two paragraphs. And rather than prattling on for pages about the history of the country, it gave us a few tidbits of information from which we could infer more. And it isn’t just description. Something is happening: a supporting character is arriving to some anticipation of the viewpoint character.
In my own writing you will find very little exposition. To me, the heart of any story are the triumphs, failures, hopes, and fears of the characters moving through it. Yes, I’ve done a lot of world building. If you ask, I can go on an length about all sorts of things in the history of the fictional world where my fantasy novels are set. I have to know all of that stuff to tell stories. But most readers are interested only in a fraction of it.
No one wants to read a scene in which one character prattles on about how ten years ago when the previous emperor died, a group of traitorous nobles assassinated several of the heirs in an attempt to grab the throne for themselves, including the motives of each of the conspirators, who died and who survived. When it was important to the plot I’m writing now, I had one character mention “the succession crisis in the capitol year ago.” There was another point where that history was relevant to the reason one character was hostile to another, and was able to have just a few lines of the argument between those characters give a few more details. But those lines also moved the plot point that was happening right that moment along, and gave the reader some insight into the personalities of the two arguers (as well as a couple of other characters who were trying to get them to stop arguing and deal with the problem at hand).
I do that because I trust that readers are smart enough to put pieces together and build their own picture of the world. I don’t need the reader to visualize exactly how the stitching on a character’s clothing looks, or the precise shape of the filigree on a particular piece of furniture, or to keep track of which pillows are round and which are square in order to follow the story.
If I wanted to tell the story of the succession crisis, I would make the crisis itself the story. I’d pick one of the characters involved as my protagonist and tell the tale. But if it’s backstory, we don’t need all the details. Sure, it’s handy to know that in the present timeline, one particular vampire-like character was one of the failed conspirators who was cursed by someone who loved one of the murdered heirs (hey, it’s a fantasy universe, why can’t we have a good curse every now and then?). That tells you how the character wound up an evil parasitic undead, and gives you some hints as to how trustworthy he is going to be to his alleged allies in the current story. It may also help the reader understand his motives at later points in the tale. But I was able to convey that in a couple of lines of dialog and keep moving on with the current tale.
Not everyone is as comfortable without all the details as I am. I understand that. And there’s a part of me that always worries that I haven’t given readers enough clues. So sometimes I do something like write a whole chapter worth of flashback, which I read and re-read and argue with myself about whether it’s really needed and do I really want pull the reader out of the current story.
And eventually I usually figure out that if I tweaked some dialog over here, and add a small scene where two characters who weren’t aware of the past events find some of the aftermath, and realize that yes, I should trust the reader to figure it out and move those flashbacks over into my big file of background information that the reader is never going to see.
Because part of trusting the story is trusting the reader to not just to follow it. I want the reader caught up in the story I’m telling right now. I want the reader turning the pages as quickly as they can, breathlessly asking, “And then what happens?”
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.
I wrote yesterday about why I believe storytelling shouldn’t be preaching. I’ve also written about how author’s values inform stories, usually not in the ways you think.
Sometimes stories come about because the author is trying to figure something out. We write the tale hoping to find that answer. I wrote a story set in my Trickster universe that was one of those. I’d had the bare bones of the conflict in my head for a long time, a kind of just-so story to answer a question about how one of the characters got into a particular vocation. But while I had an opening problem, I didn’t know how it ended, so it sat in my big list of story ideas on the hard disk for a couple of years.
Completely unrelated, I had been struggling for a long time to understand a particular zen koan. And it occurred to me, one day, that this character’s struggle might be something like the koan.
The next thing I knew, I was writing a story… And what came out was something called “The Luminous Pearl, or the Second Tail of Sora.”
Go give it a read, and tell me what you think.