The Right Message

“If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

This quote is attributed to Sam Goldwyn, though I discovered it via John Scalzi. Goldwyn was talking about movies, but I think it’s equally applicable to all forms of fiction. It’s a clever and memorable phrase. Do I agree with it… well, yes and no.

If the purpose of a movie, or novel, or whatever, is to convey a Very Important Message, then unless that Very Important Message is that good dialogue is crucial, that book or movie is probably going to suck. Nobody likes being pounded over the head with a Very Important Message – among other things, it’s very annoying to be treated like an idiot. When a book takes me by the hand, leads me to its core conceit, tells me at great length how important it is, then follows with a series of examples, then tells me again – let’s be honest, at that point I’ve already put the book down and walked away. It’s horribly prevalent in YA fiction – drugs are bad, kids! Be nice and pretty so boys will like you! – but it sneaks into adult-oriented fiction too, usually in the form of dreary ‘realistic’ Literature that leaves you just terribly, terribly depressed. (This trend is why I almost never read Lit anymore)

But you can’t create a full narrative without conveying some kind of message, even if it’s ‘Robots are extremely cool but perhaps not quite so cool as Michael Bay thinks they are’.  And I think it’s very important to be aware of what message you’re sending.

Take the Dragonlance series. A flawed but still beloved masterwork that I adored as a teenager and still fondly revisit. But there are bits I have to skip over, including nearly all the references to the Gods. See, in the Dragonlance series, the True Gods have turned away from humanity because humanity became arrogant, and the Kingpriest of Atlantis Istar gave them attitude so they destroyed the whole city and went off to sulk. Oh, and ditched all the other sentient races too because ask the humans that’s why they fucked it up for all of you.

Really. The whole city. In a hissy fit because one priest was mouthing off. And now the sentient races have to come crawling back and prove that they’re penitent and humble enough to deserve the gods’ attention again. These supposedly good and noble gods who are acting like toddlers throwing a tantrum.

I hate this so much.

If you want to write gods who are petulant douchenozzles, fine, go ahead. If you want to write gods who are wise and noble and pure and everything, cool. But for the love of all that is textually appropriate know the difference. Add in Tika being a doormat to Caramon’s massive self-absorption, Tanis being a raging twerp who lets his penis do his thinking way too often to make a convincing leader, and the Solamnics and the elves being utter assholes and people just being stupid for plot coupons…

Let’s just say that I tend to come out of the books thinking ‘you know, Raistlin was evil and all, but I can really see why he made those choices’. When your villainous traitor who abandons his twin to die and later decides to become a Dark God is making more consistent moral choices than almost everyone else, and isn’t even in the top five for Characters Making Bad Bad Decisions, you need to think about what you’ve done.

I haven’t actually read Twilight. I’ve tried, but the prose-style really does not work for me at all, and I didn’t like the story nearly enough to put up with it. However, the not-so-subtle themes of ‘creepy stalker = romantic’ and ‘love means letting him assault you repeatedly’ have been reasonably well documented. And may I just say, eeeyuch.

There are way too many circumstances in which the Good Guys get away with doing incredibly ethically questionable crap because they’re the Good Guys so whatever they do must be okay. No. It’s not. I don’t care how heroic your hero has been until now, if he turns around and stabs an old lady or utterly lets down someone who’s had his back for the last two hundred pages, I want consequences. I want it acknowledged that he’s fucked up and to see him have to fix it. There are no moral passes, not for anyone, not ever.

Take the movie Thor. Thor is an arrogant jerk who tramples blithely over his little brother’s feelings repeatedly and acts like a jackass in general and then tops it all off by starting a war in a fit of pique and then mouthing off to Odin Allfather. And what happens to him? His brother tries to kill him, Odin strips him of his powers and casts him out and he gets tased by a cute intern who does not care to have big burly men staggering towards her shouting. And rightly so. Thor is a petulant douchenozzle god done right – the consequences of his actions hit him hard and he has to actually deal with them and stop being a spoiled brat. And he knows that Loki’s fall is in some part due to him, his fault for being a selfish jerk and a lousy brother, and that’s something he has to deal with too. ‘Actions have consequences, and sometimes it’s something that you can never undo’ is the message of both Thor and Loki’s character arcs, and it’s a good one.

In conclusion – don’t write just to send a message. But please, please be aware of what message you’re sending.

[Edited because Mel is right – writing with a message in mind isn’t bad at all. But writing only to send a message is not generally a good idea.]


7 thoughts on “The Right Message

  1. Thank you. I always did switch off the after school ‘special message about drugs’ after the Michaelangelo cameo, and even groaned when he said “this isn’t a sewer – this is the inside of your body on drugs!”

    It’s also a funny thing that humans seem to have a history of creating gods to which they aspire and work to appease who end up being less moral than themselves. Why else would a man who takes the form of a goose to pick up chicks be named ‘king of the gods’?

    • It always baffles me that people seem to think saying a god or character is ‘good’ is enough… their actions don’t have to bear this out. At least with the Greek Gods the mythology’s fairly consistent. They’re essentially human, just with godly powers, doing all the shit the humans know they would be doing if *they* had those powers.

  2. The one that bugs me is that famous 1950s SF film The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the aliens’ message is basically “Humans are too disgustingly violent to mix with us so we’re going to kill you all”. Wtf?

  3. I think it’s fine for a writer to write in a message consciously and purposefully. As long as it’s done well (and preferably, without being patronising). Hitting the reader over the head with it is irritating, but there are lots of ways to present a message without annoying the reader. Literature (and I’m not referring to just literary fiction here), along with other forms of art, has often been used to communicate messages to great effect.

    My favourite example of this is Black Beauty. It shows the plight of working horses without beating the reader over the head with ‘you must change this’, and yet it led to the banning of the bearing rein.

    It’s completely fine to avoid making your story a message-bearer, too. All depends what you’re going for and what’s important to you as a writer and artist.

    I completely agree about being aware of what messages you’re sending. It’s sometimes very easy to fall into the trap of writing a message you didn’t intend. I look out for this in my work all the time! Beta readers are so handy for spotting this for you. My rule of thumb is: be aware, and try not to suck if you do it.

    • You’re right about Black Beauty. I loved it when I was a kid but haven’t been able to reread it in… God, about twenty years now… because Ginger’s going to die and I will cry a *river*. And you’re right that fiction can present a message – I like it when it does it on purpose, instead of by accident, even. What bothers me is when The Message is the only point to the story, when the whole story is constructed around The Message and that’s what it’s for and that’s the whole point of it.

      Because that, in my experience anyway, tends to make for a bad story, because the focus is on The Message and not actually making the story good. If you can weave a message into your story, great… but building a story around your message seems to be a heck of a lot harder. Black Beauty is a wonderful and engaging story in itself, full of examples of human and equine kindness as well as cruelty, which I think is why it worked so well. I don’t know if you ever read any ‘Dolly Romance’ novels when you were younger, but if you did, don’t – they tended to be the worst sort of message fiction, either hammering away at ‘drugs are bad’ or ‘true love is what matters’ or apparently unintentionally assuring girls that all that matters in life is being pretty and getting a boyfriend.

      • I think if the message is so visible that the story suffers for it, then the writer hasn’t done a good job. If the message takes precedence over writing a good story, you should probably be writing literary fiction. If you want to write a good story that conveys a message, understand what makes a good story and the tools it gives you. It isn’t always easy to create multi-layered fiction, but it’s certainly possible and sometimes wonderful.

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