You’ve all seen it before. The stories so wrapped up in their oh-so-enlightened message. Ones who happily sacrifice creativity and nuance for the chance to beat you silly with it. The ones so ham-fisted, they make you feel shame by association. Stories like these are a pain to read – and sadly, they are all too common in the Christian lit world.
I’m not saying that books shouldn’t be written with a message in mind. Far from it! One of the things I love most about stories is the ability to examine values, explore difficult topics and even persuade others in a way that is engaging instead of condescending. Using well-written characters and immersive worlds, you can help someone to see parallels in our own world and make them question whether it works or doesn’t work.
A heavy-handed story will also attempt to do this, but will fail miserably, and for one simple reason: it will tell the audience what its message is, but it never effectively shows it.
I’ll break it down for you here to see why this happens and how you can avoid it in your own work.
Problem: Every Scene is a Sermon
This featured heavily in a book by a Christian author I had previously rather liked: “In the Fields of Grace” by Tessa Afshar. It’s a fictional account of the story of Ruth. The book of Ruth already has a powerful message about trusting God to provide for your needs, and serves as an allegory for Christ as our Kinsman Redeemer. You’d think the message would speak for itself, wouldn’t you?
It probably would have, if given the chance. The trouble is that these characters aren’t written to be characters, but mouthpieces for a lesson. More than one, in fact. Whenever you have Ruth, Boaz or Naomi in a scene, you can expect that one of them is going to have some “wise words” to impart to the other characters that will leave everyone completely amazed at their insight.
Why It Fails
This method actually fails in two ways simultaneously. First (and perhaps most importantly), it isn’t fun to read. I can easily find Christian advice books or in-depth Bible studies if I want to work on my spiritual growth. When I pick up a novel, I hope to be transported into the world and lives of someone other than myself. In a book like this, I’m simply left thinking, “Really? Nobody talks like this.”
Secondly, it isn’t an effective way to get these lessons across – which you would assume was the author’s intent! What makes an effective lesson is seeing it played out by the characters, because we internalize their emotions and make it personal to us. Simply have a character state it, and it loses its power. We don’t care about it, so we don’t remember it. Any impact it might have had is lost.
I’ll go more in-depth about “In the Fields of Grace” another day, but for now, let’s take a look at how we can avoid this pitfall.
Solution: Let Your Characters Be the Lesson
Stories work best when they take an idea and demonstrate it through the actions of the characters. If you want to effectively communicate an idea, you need to show it in practice – as the old adage goes, “show, don’t tell”.
To successfully demonstrate a lesson in action, a character needs to go through four essential stages: Introduction, preparation, revelation and transformation. Let’s break that down a little more:
- Introduction: We see your character’s initial state, before they’ve been impacted by this lesson. This will set up the conflict of the story and will demonstrate how they struggle prior to learning the lesson.
- Preparation: This is where your character is shown the lesson (or glimpses of it) through events or dialogue with other characters. They won’t take to it right away; you’ll typically need the length of the story in order to convince them of it.
- Revelation: This is the ‘aha’ moment for your character. Either the lesson becomes clear to them or, if it was already clear, this is the point they stop resisting it. In most stories, this will be your climax, but it could conceivably happen before that and lead into the climax.
- Transformation: We see how the character is changed by the revelation in the way they live or behave. This demonstrates that the change in them is positive, solidifying the benefit of the story’s lesson to the reader.
- Note: A tragic story can accomplish this as well, but in the reverse order – a character may demonstrate a lesson, but is forced through the story’s circumstances to compromise or go against this lesson, leading to their downfall. They may also follow the first two points, but fail to grasp the lesson given throughout the story, and the tragedy that follows is viewed as inevitable because the character was unable to put the lesson into action. (Consider the ending to Romeo and Juliet, where the two families’ inability to stop fighting cost the lives of their children.)
Problem: Characters Learn the Lesson, Pull an About-Face
Not long ago, I watched a movie on Netflix called “A Gift Horse”. (I don’t recommend it, unless you want to learn how not to write a script.) One of the characters is your typical spoiled little rich girl named Abigail, who constantly says nasty things to everyone around her. She is also incredibly jealous of the main character’s gift for horses, and even goes so far as to attempt to injure the main character’s horse so she won’t be able to ride.
When someone catches her in the act, Abigail starts crying and claims that she was only desperate because her father has been pushing her so hard to win the championship. She actually loves horses and riding, but doesn’t want her whole life wrapped up in competition. She is given the customary wisdom the scene dictates, and from then on, Abigail’s a model citizen who even cheers for the main character once she (of course) wins gold in her first competition.
On paper, this character sounds like it could work. In practice, however, it’s a complete failure.
Why It Fails
The problem is that her vicious attitude is the only trait we’ve seen in this character to that point. When she says she loves horses or is stressed out by competition, the audience is incredulous because we’ve never seen any of that demonstrated. How can we believe that she really has a good heart when we don’t get to see it for ourselves?
Solution: Foreshadow Change with Proper Setup
In real life, people are unpredictable – since we can’t know what another person is thinking, we won’t always know how they’ll react to a situation. In a story, however, this should never be the case. The job of the storyteller is to convince us that this character is real, and they should do that by demonstrating what kind of person this character is and why they make the decisions they do.
Consider the example I gave above about spoiled Abigail. I can fix her entire failed character arc by adding just one scene. Observe.
Abigail is in the stable prepping her horse for training. Her father stops by and asks how the training is going. Abigail looks uncomfortable, then asks if she can skip the training for the day so she and her father can go out for a nice ride like they used to when she was younger. Instead of encouraging her, her father gives her a lecture on how she always needs to work harder and strive for more, and that he’s counting on her to make him proud. He leaves, and Abigail, frustrated and stressed, takes out her anger on the main character and the horse trainer.
Adding this scene allows Abigail to go from a flat, spoiled child archetype to a more realized character. In this scene, we learn:
- Abigail is under pressure to compete
- She like riding, but not training
- She wants to connect to her father, but is unable to
- Her aggression toward the main character is due to misplaced anger about her own situation
- She deals with her emotions poorly
Now that we’ve seen that Abigail is more than just a flat character, we can believe that she actually is remorseful about her behavior, and that she isn’t really a bad person. Her apology to the main character at story’s end feels genuine and earned, not simply a product of the script.
Problem: Your Story Isn’t One Lesson – It’s All of Them
When my sister and I first got our Wii console, we picked up a few inexpensive games to play on it. One of these was “Nights: Journey of Dreams”, a Sonic-esque game where you fly your character through magic rings in a race against the clock. The world was pretty, and the gameplay was fun overall. The story, however, was abysmal.
Nights takes place in a dreamland, a place children go to escape the fears haunting their nightmares. One boy who visits this world is dealing with multiple issues, including a workaholic father and difficulty learning to work with his teammates on his soccer team.
Throughout the course of the game, he interacts with Nights and another girl in the dreamland, learning lessons along the way. You’d expect these lessons to be about teamwork and coming to terms with his father’s absence. Instead, he learns about having free will and standing up against evil. At story’s end, we see him in the waking world, where his father (whom he never speaks to directly) is watching him play in a championship soccer game, and he demonstrates his abilities as a team player by… scoring the winning goal himself. Yes, really.
Why It Fails
In all of the stories I’ve mentioned so far, I couldn’t tell you what the message was no matter how hard I tried. Take the Ruth story: Is it that God takes care of you? That it’s important to have confidence? That good will triumph? That you shouldn’t judge by cultural standards? That hard work reaps reward?
I can’t decide which one is the lesson of the story because they’re all in there. Worse, all of them are given equal focus. This means that instead of telling one story well, it’s actually telling five stories badly.
Solution: Pick One Message and Stick to It!
Imagine that your story is a painting. A painting has many colors and many elements, but it always has one focus. The other elements serve to enhance this focus, making it clearer, more dramatic and more memorable.
In the same way, the elements of your story should all serve to highlight the message you’re trying to send. Your reader only has so much time and attention, so you’ll only have an impact if you stay true to your original purpose.
I stated earlier that the Biblical story of Ruth was about trusting God to provide for your needs. It’s easy to look through that story and find several examples of this. Because of faith, Ruth stays to look after Naomi. Because of faith, Ruth goes to work in the fields even though she is a foreigner and expects to be rejected. Because of faith, Naomi encourages Ruth to seek Boaz as a husband. Their faith is rewarded in the end as Boaz, a good and faithful man, welcomes them into his home and provides for their needs.
This isn’t the only lesson you could find in the book of Ruth, but it is the most apparent. A reader should be able to clearly state what the message of your story is in a single phrase by the time they’re finished: trusting God, learning to forgive others, overcoming your fears, turning from sin, overcoming past wounds. If they can’t, then you haven’t presented them with a message, simply a mess.
Message Stories Done Right
When a message story flops, it’s pretty obvious – and painful to see. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to think of a message story that’s done well. This is because message stories employ something a failed story will miss out on: subtlety.
By demonstrating a single focused message through transformative arcs with believable characters, the message becomes more than a message – it becomes your story.
Consider these three movies: Spiderman, Wall-e, and The Help. The first is a story about a kid with superpowers. The second is a story about a trash-collecting robot who falls in love. The third is a story about black maids in the 1960’s and the white families they work for. On the surface, they have nothing in common. Yet all three of these are, in fact, message stories.
Spiderman teaches us the importance of using our abilities for someone other than ourselves. Wall-e teaches us that our world, and our community, is precious and worth preserving. The Help teaches us that all people, regardless of color, wealth or station, deserve equality and respect.
Each one has an enduring message, but it probably isn’t the first thing you remember when you think about those movies. Instead, you remember the characters, the moments, the lines, and how you felt when you saw them. The message becomes part of your experience, and is likely to stay with you longer for it.
How do you feel about stories written around a message? What’s a good example you’ve seen? What’s the worst? Let’s talk about it in the comments!