Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

As several folks here have observed a few times, sermons thinly disguised as fiction suck. And not in the fun way, either.

Personally, I’ve never enjoyed a message tract with a thin veneer of fiction, regardless of whether or not I agreed with the message. These can work reasonably well in short form, if written well enough (very few authors meet that bar), but in novel-length works, not so much.

The end result emerges rather like the pizza the Husband and I once ordered from the local pizza joint, where we made the mistake of requesting extra garlic. What we got would have given any self-respecting vampire fits: we couldn’t taste anything except garlic. We took a bite, looked at each other. The rest of the pizza went in the trash. The words “I wanted a pizza with extra garlic, not garlic garnished with pizza” were used. Then we found something else to eat, and we never went near that place again. Even though at the time it was quite literally half a block away.

This is what message fiction usually does to the reader who isn’t reading it for the message (someone who’s reading for the message is likely to get irritated by the unnecessary plot and characterization the author has added, so it’s a no-win either way). It turns them off. Sometimes it turns them off reading altogether, especially when they’re force-fed a diet of the most dreary, dismal, and shitty message fiction imaginable (hello, school reading lists).

I’m sure the proponents of having fiction with the message would think this is not a bad thing, but I beg to differ. You see, readers of fiction tend to draw their own messages from that fiction. It was fiction that taught me it was possible to endure and emerge more or less intact despite years of vicious bullying. Fiction gave me hope, and it showed me there were ways to be who I was even if things were shitty at the time.

It wasn’t message fiction. It was a mix of things: any historical fiction I could get hold of in the school and town library (and that they’d let me borrow, since librarians tend to be kind of reluctant to let the 8 year old kid borrow from the grown-ups section), Doctor Who novelizations (which lead into my love of science fiction and fantasy), and pretty much anything else that took my fancy. I read so much that I didn’t have a library card, I had a set of them stapled together and I used the initials of the book title to write in what I was borrowing because I was getting them in job lots.

Along the way I picked up an extra serve of Heinleinian cussed independence, some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s self-sufficiency, an abiding loathing of bullying in any form, and many, many reminders that I could do good and sometimes heroic stuff too, even if I was scared.

If I’d been stuck with message fiction, I wouldn’t have gained any of that, not least because the characters in every message piece I’ve read are functionally ciphers standing in or sometimes embodying the virtues the author wants to showcase or the evils the author wants to decry. I preferred the heroes who were scared and did it anyway because they had to. Edmund Pevensie, confused and frightened, and realizing what he’d betrayed but still going after the White Witch and nearly dying in the process. Jill in a later Narnia book crying and trying to keep her bowstring from getting wet because she couldn’t afford to do that. Laura Ingalls and her battles with jealousy of her too-perfect older sister who she also loved dearly (Yes, I’m aware the Little House books are fictionalized autobiography. I didn’t know that when I read them as a child). Anne Shirley and her often disastrous romantic fantasies.

The messages came through without the sermon. Simple messages: it’s better to be honest than not. It’s better to be kind than cruel, but sometimes you have to be harsh and sometimes the wrong group wins. Life is harsh and life doesn’t care. Be true to yourself. Those messages.

Perhaps more to the point, I learned them for myself, without some Great Expert telling me how it was supposed to be. It’s because I learned them for myself that they stuck and they meant something to me. Being lectured is just like being stuck in a classroom waiting for the bell to go so you can be free again.

Since most people want to do things their way at some level, letting message emerge seamlessly from the interaction of your characters and plot for your readers to discover has much more impact. It also doesn’t make reader-puppies sad and desperate to escape you.

I know which way I choose.

62 Comments

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62 responses to “Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

  1. paladin3001

    Message versus sermon. All stories have a message, modern “message” tries to browbeat you. Good message lifts and makes one think by great story. Need to work on that “echoes” essay I started months ago.

    • There is also a distinct tendency to conflate ‘theme’ with message. A message is ‘somethings are worth dying for’. A theme is ‘courage’ You can have a cautionary message with a hopeful theme. /random musings.

  2. If I’d been stuck with message fiction, I wouldn’t have gained any of that, not least because the characters in every message piece I’ve read are functionally ciphers standing in or sometimes embodying the virtues the author wants to showcase or the evils the author wants to decry.

    This. Cardboard characters. Characters who there the last in the casting office and don’t really want to be there, anyway. Characters that don’t act in a believable manner.

    That may not be the first choice of the devotees of message fiction, as long as the message is what they want to hear, but since message is primary and fiction secondary, they accept it. The ones who support message fiction are the ones who think stories should have a moral, should teach the proper view. The irony is if the fiction is weak and tepid, the only thing it has taught is to avoid that author in the future.

    • At least the Victorian moralizing fiction encouraged independence and making the best of bad situations (The Little Princess, Secret Garden, Horatio Alger’s stories). And some of it is still readable despite itself. Some of it… ergh. Especially the short stories from Sunday school weeklies. Ooh boy.

      • This reminds me of a pet peeve: Frankenstein.

        Oh, holy mother of pearl. Mary Shelly, heavy on the message or what? And now, Frankenstein is the ONLY PLOT ALLOWED ON TV!!! Or in movies, for that matter.

        When was the last time you saw a monster movie, and it wasn’t: misunderstood creature, treated badly by its creator/discoverer, exacts revenge for mistreatment and chases girl with big hooters for half the show. That’s the whole movie. Sometimes they “change” it, and the monster is a girl with big hooters.

        Problem is, it is a contrived and stupid plot, arranged clumsily to make ol’ Mary’s point that Men Must Not Meddle With Ghod’s Stuff.

        The spectacle of Hollywood liberals, atheists all, bowing at that particular altar for every single SF plot line, it makes me nauseous.

        • That’s why Alien and Aliens were so successful they didn’t fall into this trap. They mostly came at night. Mostly

        • Luke

          I frankly liked Mary’s point, and found the plot neither contrived nor stupid.

          It’s also worth noting that she spent her life surrounded by atheists with grandiose views of their own competence. “Write what you know”, right?

          • Wasn’t she also… like, twelve? And it was written on a bet?

            • I could be wrong, mind; I’m not feeling well again and that tends to mess with my memory.

            • She was around 20, and she got the idea as part of a bet to see who in her circle could write the best horror story.

              • Bob

                It was technically science fiction also. I know this because feminists have been constantly crowing that ‘women INVENTED science fiction’ (as in, the genre is the collective accomplishment of all women and under their ownership*) rather than ‘a woman invented the first science fiction novel’**

                *unless the woman in question doesn’t tow the right ideological line, in which case her woman status is revoked by the sisterhood.

                **if you don’t count Kepler. Or the myths of Daedelus.

                • Bob

                  They do get pissed when I point out Kepler’s Somnium and twist themselves in knots to claim it isn’t science fiction because apparent supernatural agencies are responsible for the space travel. I counter that the supernatural agents could easily be Sufficiently Advanced Aliens and in terms of exploring scientific knowledge current to the time of writing, there’s a LOT more of that in Kepler’s story than Shelley’s.

              • Thanks. All I could remember was ‘young+ age starts with t’.

              • Mary

                They had the bet. She kept trying to get an idea.

                Then she listened one evening to a discussion of using electricity to make frogs’ legs twitch, and implications from there.

                That night she had a nightmare about a man being brought to life that way. Woken up, she was trying to distract herself and found herself thinking that if only she had an idea as good as that nightmare. . . duh. . . .

          • Bob

            Well sure, the FIRST time it was done it was good, groundbreaking and exceptional even. The ten thousandth? Not so much.

        • Since a monster tale is a type of horror based on the fear that something will get you, what you can do with a man-made monster seems limited. Either it’s the monster that threatens to get the protagonist, or the the monster is the protagonist and something threatens to get it.

          It’s possible to do a “There are things with which man was not meant to meddle” themed story, and can think of one that’s a nod to Lovecraft and another that’s downright nasty. But I think the Frankenstein theme is about hubris. Not about a man trying to usurp G_d, but a man thinking he understands something so completely nothing can possibly go wrong.

          “I say, old chap: Would you be so kind as to hold my wine as I undertake the grand scientific endeavor?”

          “Certainly, ol’ bean. I shall await in the carriage until it is complete.”

          “Jolly good.”

        • Bob

          I’ve got to give credit to the movie: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, for improving on several aspects of the book, as well as the first movie.

          The creature’s ability to learn how to read and speak is explained – traces of memory in the brain.

          And while the monster remains sympathetic, as in the first movie, he’s also active, decisive, and capable of malevolence and revenge, blackmail, planning murder, and even a very twisted and sadistic sense of humor with his choice of body for the ‘Bride’ at the end.

          • Bob

            Also, one novella/short story about Frankenstein that really stands out is Black as the Pit from Pole to Pole, that picks up where the novel leaves off and is told from the monster’s perspective as he finds a vent that leads into the Hollow Earth and walks from one pole to the other, fighting monsters and barbarians and dinosaurs along the way.

            Every wanted to see the Frankenstein monster fight dinosaurs?

  3. Kate, you are so right about people drawing their own message from fiction. Years ago, I submitted a short story to an online group for critique. It wasn’t anything I’d invested much in. As everyone here knows, short fiction isn’t my favorite form to write. I also don’t write with a particular message in mind. So you can imagine my surprise when one of the harshest critiques I got was about the “message” in the fiction. My first reaction was “message, what message?” It seems that because I had a throwaway line in the story about government regulation of something, that because the message for this reader. It still boggles my mind.

    It is also a lesson I bear in mind. It showed how quickly something you meant to be a plot point can and will be turned into a message if you aren’t careful. People want to read to be entertained or to learn something. They aren’t signing on for a sermon — at least the vast majority of readers aren’t. I know I don’t want a sermon.

  4. Nice point of how your varied reading subtly gave you hope and life lessons, without necessarily beating you over the head. A good few years ago, I stumbled over a book by William Kirlpatrick, “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong” https://www.amazon.com/Johnny-Cant-Tell-Right-Wrong/dp/0671870734
    Which at first glance, you might think is in favor of pushing moralistic, grey-goo message fiction for kids – but it really more of a treatise encouraging kids to read the kind of books that you drew upon: ripping good stories, sympathetic to the characters and their world … and with certain lessons about life subtly built into them. At the end of the book is a long list of kid-lit which do exactly that, according to the author … and I realized that I had read just about every one of them as a child and teenager.

  5. Star Trek Vs Star Trek
    The original series had an episode about a half-baked half-white fellow on the run… pursued by a half-white half-black fellow. This wasn’t clear until near the very end and the story worked without the lesson of how silly racism looks from outside.

    The Next Generation had a story about couples of same vs mixed gender and it was painfully obvious what message was being sent
    In a book, it would have been walled – even though I don’t have an issue with same-sex marriage. It was that the story wasn’t a story but a sermon or lecture.

  6. Sometimes a message is accidental. I found myself writing along and there was a demon being tempted by a mortal on the top of a mountain. As I’m writing this scene, it occurs to me that I’ve seen something like that before, only backwards. The allusion seems to indicate a message, but it is an accident. I’m not smart enough to plan that ahead.

    I left it in, because the message isn’t wrong for the scene, or the story. But I’m sure some devout atheist (if they make it that far) will yell and pout when they get there.

    Sorry, atheist dude. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  7. This is why I gave up on John Ringo.

    It’s not just that his message of “liberals bad, white conservitves good” was heavy handed but also that if he had trimmed the media bshing and liberal bashing the story would not have been harmed at all.

    • Bob

      Terry Goodkind and Dean Koontz’s later books have got to be among the worst offenders on the right. Particulalry aggregious in Koontz’s case: he cut his teeth with fast paced thrillers and got a lot of well-earned success. But his later stuff? Just try to get through Relentless without shuddering, even if you agree with his basic point.

    • I dunno. The politics in The Last Centurion were part of what made it so good. It would have been a very different story if the main character was the equivalent of a Bernie supporter, or even totally apolitical.

      • Perhaps, but I think the author’s politics ruined the Troy Rising series. They were extraneous to the story.

        • Haven’t gotten to those ones yet.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          Those ones worked fairly well for me.

          Okay, there was a passage in I think the last book that bothered me a bit. But that wasn’t political message over story to me.

          That said, I see Ringo as a bit of a lefty, and flat out do not see where you are getting any sort of strong pro-white messaging from him.

          • Strongly pro-Western, perhaps – but that’s not the same except to those who think culture = genetics.

            • Matthew

              I thought he made clear that at least some of the “perfumed princes” were basically good kids who had been massively screwed over by their culture’s expectations.

              • I think John Ringo made that clear to most. I just think it doesn’t get through to the sort that scream “Racism!” whenever somebody from a Western culture criticizes any aspect of a non-Western culture.

      • Matthew

        True – TLC was kind of oddball, it was mostly a political rant, but he made *farming* sound exciting.

        The looking glass stuff – now that was awesome.

        And Prince Roger…

  8. I read and review short SFF for Rocket Stack Rank, which comes to about 900 stories per year, totaling about 5.5 million words. That includes all the stories in eleven magazines plus about a dozen anthologies per year and ~60 stand-alone novellas. So, I’ve got a pretty good idea what actually gets published in short fiction.

    It’s true that a few stories do get published that could be described as “a little story with your message,” but it’s under one percent. (Editors are smarter than that.) What’s more common is what Amanda alluded to above: a story with one or two throw-away lines that deliver a political message which, even if you agree with it, pops you out of the story. All but the top 20% of stories have at least something that breaks suspension of disbelief (typically a science/technology error–not a political message), so I don’t count those as fatal, provided there aren’t very many of them.

    A lot depends on what counts as message, of course. I’m only looking for remarks from the narrator and/or characters; I don’t count the setting itself. For example, some people think that a story set 100 years in the future in which global warming has flooded a few major cities it making a statement, but I don’t count those unless the story includes a lecture about how 21st-Century people were so stupid as to let things get this way. I suppose I’d feel differently if I couldn’t suspend disbelief for the setting at all, but I haven’t seen that happen. Not because of a political message, anyway.

    I’ll add that most stories with a grating message are written by well-known writers, who presumably get special treatment from editors who are happy to have such a name on their covers. If you’re a new writer submitting to a magazine, I suspect any hint of a political message is fatal.

  9. Luke

    I wrote a response on my tablet, which decided to crash just before I hit “post”, so my apologies if it’s a bit disjointed the second time around.

    To the extent that speculative fiction is about asking “What If?” your starting assumptions to a large extent dictate the conclusions that you’ll reach.This being the case, most Science Fiction and a good chunk of Fantasy can be fairly categorized as message fiction.
    It would be really hard to label Harrison Bergeron or Fahrenheit 451 as anything other than message fiction.

    So we’re really discussing the difference between an implicit message and an explicit message.
    Except that some stories with explicit messages are really, really good. Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to start the list.

    The amount of message is also independent from how good the story is.
    Picking on Ayn Rand (who wrote nothing *but* explicit message fiction) for a moment, Anthem is the most anvilicious thing she ever wrote. I’d also argue that it’s her best story. The Fountainhead was her least messagy (totally a word, shaddup) story, and I’d rather spend a week digging ditch than read it again.

    So it’s not really message, the message being explicit, or the amount of message, that we’re objecting to.
    It’s message that is dissonant to the story conveying it.

    The Chronicles of Narnia is overt message fiction that’s a timeless classic. The message supports the story and vice versa.

    • John R. Ellis

      C.S. Lewis might disagree that Narnia is “overt message fiction”. as when he wrote the first book, it was only halfway through writing it that he realized who Aslan was. And even then, he called it more a “Supposal” (“What form would the Savior take in a storybook world?”), and had no problem with children enjoying the books are mere stories without realizing the deeper meanings.

      They definitely give off a different vibe than, say, His Dark Materials, where it is IMPOSSIBLE to read past a certain point without getting the MESSAGE and everything dissolving into a mere vehicle to transport the MESSAGE.

  10. I just have to say that while I agree that message fiction is usually pretty crappy, that garlic pizza sounds really, really good.

    • I have had to learn to not add too much garlic to my dishes. I also have had to learn to watch one of my daughters, lest she sneak more garlic into the dish when my back is turned…

      • In the lands where my Czech ancestors came from, they have this thing called cesnecka, or garlic soup. Best. Soup. Ever.

        • I’ve had something like that – except it came from the wife’s Polish roots. Best. Soup. Ever.

        • TomR

          Sounds like foghagymás leves (Hungarian garlic soup). Multiple heads of roast garlic … mmm …

        • Xenophon

          Huh. My Slovak ancestors have a recipe for a garlic soup (proper name escapes me at the moment). Best. Soup. Ever. (With the possible exception of Slovak sauerkraut soup, whose proper name also escapes me ATM.)

          Funny thing about that… Czech. Polish. Hungarian. Slovak. We seem to have a theme going here. 😉

      • naleta

        I carry a bottle of granulated garlic in my purse. When at restaurants, I taste, then add garlic and pepper to suit myself. Today I even added a dash of salt as well to the clam chowder I got. If your daughter likes more garlic than everyone else, let her add it at the table, just like salt and pepper. 😉

  11. Arwen

    Isn’t nonfiction better for delivering a message anyway?

    • But in non-fiction you actually have to let your arguments stand on their own merits and can’t as easily trick people into reading them.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Non-fiction is easier for me to write, and easier for me to check the strength of my arguments.

        When I’ve written jokes with heavy handed message, I’ve sometimes had to cut out parts of the message. They weren’t funny enough, and I needed to make the joke stronger.

        While my fiction projects sometimes have messages like ‘complex plans can fail in unexpected ways’, if I could address what drives me to chase a story in an essay, I would probably do that instead.

    • Mary

      Depends. In the taxonomy of C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, non-fiction goes for the reason; fiction goes for the sentiments. If you want to teach that courage is right, non-fiction is better. If you want to teach that courage is admirable, fiction is better.

      OTOH, while I’ve started with odder inspiration than the message “Courage is admirable”, message inspiration is HARD to write, because it doesn’t come prepackaged with any story elements. What is the danger that requires courage? Who is the character who must be courageous? Where are they both? (And that’s even before you have to depict him as admirable!)

  12. I think a lot of message fiction is entirely unconscious. Authors just write what they see as being “reasonable” (even if it’s not realistic fiction).

    For example, in Max Brook’s “World War Z” every single character who had a positive impact on the zombie war was a member of some government of quasi-government organization, and every single character who acted as an individual made things worse.

    I don’t think that was something that Brooks set out to do, and I expect he’d be surprised if it was pointed out to him. (It probably has been by now.) It was just how he sees the world–I doubt he set out to write a book with the message that the State is good and individuals are bad, I think he set out to write as realistic a book about zombies as he could, and for him the benevolence of the State is just part of how he sees the world. (Considering he grew up wealthy, that’s not surprising. The government always plays nice if you have lots of money.)

    • Also, the idea that the US would end up being pushed back to…the Rocky Mountains? Really?
      I never did buy that line. Good night, given that they were slow zombies, I really don’t see any infestation making it more than about five miles out of the cities before they got piled up in windrows.