Blast From The Past: Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

So it’s time to post, I’m tired, and I was scrolling through some of my older posts and came across this one. It still holds water – or something.



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 readers sad and desperate to escape you.

I know which way I choose.

Oh, and have a derpy Westley (who has thankfully forgiven us for the trauma of the Vet Visit last week).

24 thoughts on “Blast From The Past: Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

      1. Richmond has a West Leigh street that i travel on often

        Yes, riders have heard me refer to it as ‘dread pirate roberts street’

  1. Eh, it can go longer than a short story. Anthem was a novella, Anvilicious as hell, and still a good read.

    And when there are more messages than one, novel length can certainly be achieved while still being entertaining. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for example. The problem is that someone who has been beating a drum for four hundred pages is likely to emulate the energizer bunny and keep going and going. (Yes, Atlas Shrugged, I’m looking at you. But could easily substitute a lot of Steinbeck.)

    Nobody would want to read (I would add “or write”, but that’s obviously false. I just couldn’t imagine doing it.) just message fiction, or even mostly message fiction.
    But a bit now and then isn’t bad.

    1. It takes a phenomenal amount of skill to make a longer message piece work well. As far as I can tell, 99.99% of those who garnish their message with a little fiction are not that skilled.

      In my world, beliefs leak out when I write. I try to keep them as organic and true to character as possible in the editing phases rather than hammering them in with a bloody sledge. But then, I’m nowhere near as skilled as the likes of Heinlein, so…

    2. The only piece of writing advice I ever heard about from Robert A. Heinlein was, “Tell the story.”

      Sounds like good advice to me.

      I found Atlas Shrugged enlightening when I read it at around the age of 20. She put into words so many things I had more-or-less figured out.

      Tell me Fauxi isn’t a Floyd Ferris clone.

  2. I think that I commented somewhere along those lines. Far too many of these people are graduates of a writing system that tells them “you have to have a MESSAGE!!! Or else, what’s the point?”…and you get the garlic with a side of pizza that you had.

    And, when it’s all about the message, and you have school districts and the New York Times and all of the right (correct) people that you want to buy your books…selling to the general public is something that you can’t do. Because they think they know what is best for you.

    1. You’re not wrong. There’s a reason the Harry Potter books turned into massive bestsellers across age groups, gender lines, and practically everything else. It was that they told a good story without the constant Message crap, and did it well enough to keep people turning the pages.

      Even if I wanted to shake several of the characters for being total prats or utter morons, they were still in-charactertotal prats and utter morons.

        1. Of course. It helps to hide the never-to-be-admitted fear that if they didn’t have everything stacked in their favor they’re never get anywhere.

          1. Well, I have seen people manage to put the most insane interpretations on works whose message was rather blatant. I once read a work on historical films where the author managed to interpret every single war film as an anti-war film. Including some that — were not.

            1. That is a bit like the effect of the “Moral Majority” or whatever they called themselves. If you’re looking hard enough for something your own mind will make you find it – which is why the perpetually offended can find something offensive in anything.

              (Also why if you get me into the right – or perhaps wrong – mood, I can turn practically anything into an innuendo)

  3. I want an escape, dang it. I attend a house of worship (or chapel, or mass, at Day Job) for sermons.

    There’s an alternate history book that has soooo many “check the box” characters that even the hard-core activists left bad reviews about “this could have been fun, but it’s so obvious that these characters were forced into the story . . .” That’s pretty bad.

  4. Message writers all want to be George Orwell writing 1984. Meanwhile no one wants 1984 to be the only thing they can read.

    1. Or Aldous Huxley writing Brave New World (which in some ways is even more horrifically dystopic than 1984)

    1. Really good messages are invisible. You don’t even notice until you’ve finished the book and you’re thinking about it days later.

  5. When even the people on your side are saying, “Cool basic idea, but way too heavy handed,” you, Dear Author, have gone wrong. (This was an alternate history that had so many “check the box” characters that hard Progressive readers were shaking their heads at the overload.)

    1. Ugh. I shudder to think what that would have looked like. And I really, really don’t want to know.

  6. And sometimes messagefic rears it’s head in the final chapter.

    Nick Cole’ Ctrl-alt-Revolt. Entertaining as hell, author viewpoint obvious but well enough told that I didn’t care, but in literally the last 10 pages he starts actively preaching. Even on a viewpoint I more or less agreed with, it was annoying.

    Seriously, read the book but skip the epilogue.

    1. I hear you. If I wanted to be preached at, I’d go to a sermon. And preaching to the choir is bad form anyway.

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