Messages in our minds

Man is a rationalizing creature, not a rational one. We can no more order ourselves perfectly from top-down principles than we can tell ourselves “I’m going to eat right, exercise, and get all my chores done from now on!” (Well, we can say that. You all know exactly how well it works.)

Instead, we process things in stories, dreams, and songs, and from such inside ourselves, work out the principles by which we live. As a Christian, I believe this is why G-d sent a part of himself to be his Son, and die for us – because there are some things so profound we need to understand it by example, by story, and internalize it before we can understand it as a rational truth or set of principles.

As consumers of story, we know this: stories not only make you think, make you try new foods or learn new skills because you read about them, and present other points of view for you to consider, they also teach us “this is the hero” and “this is the villain”, and these are people we should be like, and these are people we shouldn’t. If you do this, it will end badly for you. If you choose to do that, it is the right thing, and it will go well. As C.S. Lewis put it, Fairy stories don’t teach children there are monsters; children already know that. They teach children how to deal with monsters.

As tellers of story, the temptation is to come up with the message first, then create the story to fit. But that’s like telling yourself that you must only eat keto and stay on budget when you’re grocery shopping while hungry. Or out with friends at a restaurant. (We know how well that works.) We don’t read for rationalization, nor for message, we read for story, and twisting the story, or stopping it to shoehorn in message, makes for bad story and unhappy readers. This isn’t to say that it can’t be done, but that it’s very, very hard to do well and very easy to do terribly.

And here’s the rub: it doesn’t matter what your message is. It can be “the good guys win in the end” or it can be “humanity is a plague upon the earth.” There is no special pass on the “right” message, or the virtuousness of that message – they all suck the joy, entertainment, catharsis, and fun right out of the story, break the suspension of disbelief, and leave an annoyed reader.

That said, because stories are the way we internalize, rationalize, and solve problems, anything we create will have messages from our subconscious to our conscious mind. The stories we read shape how we view the world, and how we view the world shapes the stories we make. So you’ll find messages in your stories, even when you didn’t mean for them to be there.

So, how do you shape your stories so they organically contain the messages you want to? By taking care of your mental health.

No, seriously. If you’re going through depression, it shows in the stories. So do a whole host of other issues, as well as any major questions or issues your brain is chewing over. Making your life better will make your stories better. So have faith in yourself, and in G-d, and in the future of humanity. Resolve to make your day better, to speak the truth and stand up straight, and to help yourself. And when you fail, just like characters do, pick yourself up, spit out the dirt, and keep trying. Take your mental gaze off despair or dread, and learn something, do something, and be something.

Your life, and your writing, will be all the better for it.



  1. The stories I wrote to vent while in grad school? Yeah, I had to do a lot of cleaning up and getting rid of the characters’ “oh, woe, woe is me, life hates me, the world is unfaiiiiirrrrrrrrr!!!” Which we all know anyway, and reading page after page of it is boring.

    1. Yeah, there are entire chunks of stories I’ve had to throw away – or entire stories – where I was writing away and realized “Everybody in this dragged down into no-win scenarios, gloom and despair, and… oh! I’m hitting the threshold of S.A.D. again! Right, time to turn on my happy light, make sure I’m careful with sleep patterns, cut out carbs and schedule exercise. Because my brain is lying to me.”

      And when I fix the brain lying to me, the spiraling-into-darkness story goes away. Sometimes I can take a deep breath, figure out where I hit the depression threshold, chop out several thousand words, and fix it – sometimes I just have to start over. Or shelve that one entirely.

    2. The next novel I hope to kick out the door got, in its last revision, a lot of the heroine’s dithering junked.

  2. Re: questions or issues my brain is chewing over.

    There was a recent document dump that I interpret as favoring a darker probability distribution where topic A is concerned.

    I’m still at a very early stage, with a lot of possibilities, on that project that I asked about avoiding grimdark for. A is a possible option for some of my plotting choices. So in response to that document dump, I found myself testing the incorporation of a dark interpretation of A in my plot. But that was simply because of the document dump, not a creative choice my hindbrain compelled. Figuring out the plot grew fun again once I realized that, and noticed that I could pick a more balanced approach, or simply not make A central to the plot.

    Even before that, some of the plot possibilities I’ve been coming up with for that struck me as likely to result in something I wouldn’t want to read. I’m not yet a great writer. A plot requiring I have advanced skills to leave the reader happy is probably one where I’ll deliver a downer ending for a lot of readers. I could generate a plot that reads to me like a downer ending, and probably wouldn’t write the story. I’m finding the plot possibilities that feel happy to me. I’m looking for the best one, that I’m most excited to write. I’ve long struggled with plotting, and suspect Swain has given me the remaining tools I need to fix that.

  3. The series I’m reading now (Space Force) just did that. Moving along, moving along, then a chapter on how exercise/training is so important, moving along, moving along, then another chapter on how exercise/training is so important. UGH! I get it! Now where are the Doritos so I can snack while I sit here and read?

Comments are closed.