On Writing: Having a Message without being “on the nose”

One of the particular struggles I have with writing is that I feel like I want to have much more significant messages, but other than crossing my fingers and hoping the individual story carries some sort of emergent theme organically any of my attempts to write with a message either comes across as preachy nonsense or really contrived characterizations.

And as we know such writing tends to put readers off. I don’t think people like to be preached to as a general rule, even if the message is an agreeable one I think it breaks the spell of fiction, there is too much of the authors belief seeping through the story for a reader to enjoy.

So I’ve been scrounging around some resources and reflecting on the topic and come up with some ideas for how to have message without being ‘on the nose’

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Using secondary characters

One of the subtle but invaluable tips from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is to use secondary characters’ dialogue to communicate the MCs lessons and changes, a simple example being rather than have an MC state “I’m a selfish pig” get another character to do it!

While it seems like a bit of a cheaty McCheat way of inserting themes or messages into a work I think the strength of using secondary characters to communicate is the reader naturally sees their input differently to a Main Character. An MC who spouts off is typically hard to relate to, and as mentioned above can be very obvious is just expressing the authors opinions.

Secondary characters however can be presented as a less is more approach. Now there is still a risk of being ‘on the nose’ with secondary characters, a rather obvious technique is to have characters whose views are meant to be WRONG have terrible things happen to them and/or get paired with ugly character traits, for example if you want to express to your reader that environmentalists are bad its pretty obvious if you write a bunch of hippie dippie or terrorist characters with Green views.

What you can do however, if say you want to sneak in a message that lying is bad, is show a subplot were a well-rounded by lying secondary character does suffer the consequences of their behaviour. Probably a bad example because disception backfiring is a common character point that does actually work pretty well for MCs (see Shakespeare)

The Message Doesn’t have to be the Main Plot

This is rather counter-intuitive, after all, if you want to write a story with a message it kinda seems like you should be making that message a vital part of the plot and characterization right?

I’m not so sure.

In Lord of the Rings, (actually contradicting my earlier point a little) Frodo Baggins ends his character arc with a strong message of pacifism, which is kind of drowned out by Aragon, Pippin, Merry etc celebrated the defeat of the Dark Lord (oh Spoilers I suppose).

Also that message isn’t a major part of the conflict leading to the success of the heroes in the story, the main thrust of Sam and Frodo’s journey is their force of will and goodness to sacrifice all to get that ring destroyed. Frodo’s mercy does enter into the equation as he spares Smeagal, but ultimately there is a message there that isn’t inserted directly into the main story.

And of course Lord of the Rings is technically filled with messages and emergent themes, so is probably a bit overwhelming to try and study for advice on the subject!

My point is though that usually when it comes to a MC and their plot-long character progression we’re usually looking for a more personal struggle, something relatable and broad such as being brave, loyal, sacrificing oneself, putting love first, honesty, or you know, getting that serial killer before they get you. That’s what readers are really turning pages for, and its OK to have messages embedded throughout the story NOT the main conflict.

That might seem a little sneaky or even covert, but that’s not my intention to advocate. Particularly of novels, part of the purpose of fiction is to meander and explore widely, to make an imitation of life and sometimes in life our lessons aren’t paired with a storyesque conflict, its something quiet that we realize on the journey somewhere else.

My next to points kind of converge together so finally..

Showing not Telling

This cliche piece of writing advice is usually dolled out for character emotion and action, however its equally important for your messages as well. While the above advice is more in the ‘telling ‘ vein, its far more powerful (and subtle) to show a message rather than just tell or espouse it. This can get very tricky as you don’t want to overwhelm your scenes with action purposed towards your message, but I think it can be done. Let’s say you want to communicate that democracy is better than dictatorship, you can show that through some character’s group interaction style, selecting a couple of characters to represent the two ideas. You don’t need to show a country run by a dictator full on failing and a democratic one forever flourishing (not only is that on the nose its hard to demonstrate in a good story)

Which sort brings me to my convergent point Exploring not Preaching

I think ultimately even if you believe your points absolutely, there is a counter-intuitive process where messages that are presented and explored open-mindedly are often seen as more powerful than a absolutist presentation. This is reflected in real life too, where we are far more likely to resist and defend against hard-line arguments (even if technically the arguments are rational and true) and more likely to accept and consider softer presentations.

It’s because a softer approach allows us to toy with the idea in our heads before becoming more likely to accept them. As I mentioned above fiction is in part an attempt to imitate life, and in life we are bombarded with messages and opinions. Not saying we should attempt to bombard readers with even more messages! But rather we appreciate fiction that allows us the space to consider and process messages rather than having ideas thrust in our faces.

While it’s true that some successful writers have managed to have, in some cases extremely, overt and in-your-face thematic messages, for the vast majority of cases works that preach, or force ideas at people are rejected. Yet having important messages and themes is a key part of why stories are so important, so I think its an important topic to consider!

For me, I still struggle with the subject, and for most of my stories I “retcon” messages and themes based on what seems to happen with the personal stories of my characters, although I still hope to brainwash write stories with more significance in the future!


What are your thoughts on stories with messages?

Do you write with a message?

One thought on “On Writing: Having a Message without being “on the nose”

  1. I have to imagine that most stories have a message. Even in pulp fiction, the writer has a certain moral point of view that cannot but be interwoven into the story. It may just be something as simple as blackmailers are bad, but that’s still a message. Uppity Lit loves to be “on the nose”, as you say, with their moral message, which is exactly why I don’t read it. I like my messaging to be subtle. But in the end, a key part of any story is about a character and how that character changes, and I think there will always be a message in that.

    Liked by 1 person

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