Friday, March 24, 2017

Why You Should Intentionally Write Messages Into Your Stories

"That book changed my life."

"This character's strength helped me through a rough patch."

"That message was one I really needed to hear."

These are just a few phrases that I'm pretty sure we've all heard. I've never found statements like this odd. After all, I also have read books that have shaped my thoughts and inspired my actions.

When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I took it as a matter of course that I would write stories with the goal of encouraging and inspiring my readers. I knew that stories had power. I'd seen that power. Felt it. I was conscious of it and chose to write carefully because I knew that words can make an impact.

I took it as a matter of course that other writers did the same.

But, after almost three years of blogging, I'm coming to realize something. Not all writers believe this. Many writers do not believe that they have a responsibility to write stories that are in some way helpful to their readers.

I've received comment after comment from fellow writers that all say pretty much the same thing: Authors should not inject themselves into their books. They write a story and let the reader take what they want from it. Readers pick the messages, the themes, the lessons, not the writers.

At first the comments made me chuckle. Oh, the delusional few. But I soon found that this belief isn't just a fringe group. It's an entire chunk of the writing community that holds this view.

People shudder at the idea of putting "lessons" and "morals" and "messages" into their stories. It's brainwashing! Preaching! Judgmental! It pulls people out of the book! It politicizes a story! Just write a good plot and developed characters and let the readers take from it what they will.

Now I'm going to say something. And it may make you frown. Just hear me out:
Hannah Heath: Why You Should Intentionally Write Messages Into Your Stories
You cannot have a good plot or developed characters without a message. You just can't.

How do you know you have a great story on your hands? I'll tell you. It's the book you laugh over, cry over, the book you want to share with close friends and random people you pass on the street. It's the book that makes you think about it even when you've put it back on the shelf. The one that you find yourself wanting to quote. The story you want to hug against your chest in an attempt to absorb the strength and emotion that the characters convey. The one that stays with you.

Those great stories are few and far between. They span all genres, include dozens of different characters types, and are written by authors living in all different countries in all different time periods. But, if you look closely, you'll see that they have one thing in common.

The author cared. You can feel it in the pages. The author pouring out his heart, trying to reach you. To tell you something. The author writing characters fighting problems that she knew you needed to see defeated. Authors who saw souls that they believed they could strengthen if they just used the right words.

They had stories they wanted to tell. Stories are born of plot and characters. Plots are born of real-life circumstances. Characters are born of real-life emotions. Our world is made up of stories and stories are made up of our world. They feed off of each other, intersect, tangle together in an inseparable web of words.

You cannot have one without the other. To try to remove yourself from your writing is like trying to remove yourself from existence. To try to remove a message from your writing is like trying to live without ever impacting another life. It simply is not possible.

No matter what you do, you will always be in your writing. Try as hard as you can and you will still have messages sneaking their way into your stories.

Own it.

Those messages will be half-dead and meaningless unless you feed them. Let them go untended and you'll have a story, yes. But not a great one. Maybe a decent one. An entertaining one. But it's also just as likely that you'll have an empty story. Or a harmful one with confused morals, dilapidated messages, and warped characters.

You want your readers to decide what message your story holds? They're not going to bother with picking out a message if you hand them over a less-than-great story. How do you expect them to find a purpose to your story if it isn't a book that they're going to think about after they put it down? You have to make them care about your story to make them find a meaning in it. And a reader can't care about a story if you don't care first. A reader can't care about a story if you don't give them something to care about first.

Sure. Reader will, to some extent, take different things from a book. People will read a book and grab hold of the parts that are relevant to them. That's what make them so special and so powerful. Five people can read a great book and walk away with different lessons.

But that's only because five different lessons were already placed in the book to be found.

It's true that readers can find a meaning in a book that the author hadn't originally intended. But this is due to one of two occurrences:

The author wrote the story so sloppily that there was no coherent message and thus could mean anything and, thus, nothing.

Or, alternately, the author wrote a story so honestly that there are messages outside of those expressly intended. They grew out of the original purpose of the story naturally and still fit with the integrity of the story.

As a writer, you are not expected to have all the answers. I'm not telling you that you need to solve the meaning to life, the universe, and everything. I'm certainly not telling you to shower people with propaganda pamphlets and pretend that they're stories.

What I am telling you is that you owe it to yourself and your readers to write a story that means something. Write what is important to you, because those themes are going to creep into your novel anyway. It's up to you to decide. Do you want full-fledged messages that have the power to make your reader stop and think? Or do you want a neglected theme that's starving to death between the pages?

Writing a story with a message takes guts. Weaving strong themes into a story without preaching or forcing a view takes skill. But you can't write a story worth reading if you aren't willing to put work into it. Don't be afraid. Write hard. Write true. Go deeper. I can promise you that your story, yourself, and your readers will be the better for it.

What do you think about writing stories with a message? What do you believe and why? I'd love to hear your thoughts! And if you have books that you know fall solidly in the afore mentioned "great book" category, please leave the title below!

Related articles:
Challenging Writers to Write Honestly
Why There's No Such Thing As "Just A Story"
Challenging Writer's to Create Stories With Meaning 

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  1. *stands up and applauds you*

    Really well said, Hannah. I totally agree. I would take it even a step further to say it's impossible to write anything good at all if you're not drawing a little from yourself and your belief. I just don't think a writer can be that totally objective. And you're definitely right - they certainly should not be.

    This reminds me of that Sam Gamgee quote from The Two Towers...

    "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something...There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

    I think Sam Gamgee has a better idea than a lot of writers do.

    Thanks for another excellent post, Hannah!

    1. That is such a powerful quote!! Is it from the book, or the movie, or both? I think I might just actually go and read the books.... :)

    2. This is an amazing quote! I think that sums it up perfectly :)

    3. I love that quote! I think of it all the time. :)

    4. This is my favorite quote now. <3

    5. How can you write a story--fact or fiction--and not inject yourself? Writing is an art. You put it out there and let others respond. That's the fun of it for-goodness-sake.

    6. Emily, that Sam Gamgee quote has been elemental in shaping how I view stories. I'm so pleased to see how many people love it, too. Thank you so much for sharing!

      To Reigha: I'm 99% sure that quote is from both the book and movie. I know it's in the movie. It's so beautiful and Tolkien-y that I assume he wrote it in the book, though it has been a while since I've read it. =D

      To Karen: YES! That is the fun of it. And the terror of it. =)

      To everyone else: *high fives*

  2. Beautifully done, Hannah! The best stories I've read have left their mark on me, never to be forgotten. It's not an obvious distinction, so that I could point to them in a line and say "this one taught me bravery, this one taught me respect, this one defined honor for me;" but the lessons and messages stayed with me regardless. When a message is absent, often the story seems nihilistic and hopeless; when the message is allowed, but weak, it is shallow; when it is nurtured, it has power to change lives. Thank you!

    1. I agree, Alena! I often can't define exactly what books fed what parts of my soul. I only know that they did. Thank you so much for the comment! You are one of the brilliant writers I know who write messages into your story, so I'm happy that you liked this post.

  3. So important!!! I just finished a fascinating book called the "Last Sin-Eater" that will definitely leave a lasting mark on my soul. It was an absolutely beautiful book that reminded me that shame doesn't belong to me any longer. It lit a fire in me that won't soon go dim. Definitely a recommended read!

    "Old Fashioned Girl" probably shaped my character the most of fictional stories. It taught me how to go and "make a bit of sunshine" for someone else when I feel left out or down. That is what finally brought me out of my middle school insecurities and into many a sweet friendships. It's been my favorite book for years, and that is a pretty impressive award considering how many books I've read and fallen in love with!

    "The Christy Miller" series are the books that inspired me to write. Though they are teen love stories of sorts, their message sings out so powerfully that my love for God always comes vibrantly alive when I read them. The author has poured her heart and her vast love for the greatest love story into these books. They are one of my very favorite series because of that!

    I could go on and on, but these are some of the influential books in my life. I’d love to hear what books helped mold your heart and got you through life! Fabulous post as always!

    1. I've never read Last Sin-Eater, but now I want to give it a shot. That sounds like a beautiful and important message.

      Old Fashioned Girl has a special place in my heart. I always smile when I think about it. It's one of those rare sweet novels that just so nice and wholesome. I

      I'm not familiar with the Christy Miller series, either, but I love hearing about books that have helped shape people...and books where the authors are genuinely working to make the world a better place.

      Thank you so much for this cool comment, Reigha! You've given me some new books to read. And some old books to smile about.

      As for books that have helped me: So many. The Book Thief, A Monster Calls, and Till We Have Faces are the newest ones. They're are many, many more that are special to me, but those are the three that are currently helping me through this period of my life. But if you'd like a longer list, just let me know. I'd be happy to oblige. =D

  4. I've always wanted to put a good message in my books (like the amazing C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien do) but being a young, new, fantasy writer, I've always been a bit scared to try. I thought, because nothing particularly interesting has happened in my life yet, it wouldn't make for great stuff to put in/wouldn't be great for a message, but this post has inspired to at least attempt to put some sort of message in my book. Thank you!! (Also, sorry if that doesn't make much sense. I wasn't quite sure how to word it)

    1. I think this is something a lot of young writers struggle with. People think that because they're young or don't have experience in an area, that their writing must not be important. It's absolutely not true, so I'm so excited that you are going to put messages in your story! Thank you for sharing.

      Here are two quotes I've always found relevant for this issue:

      1 Timothy 4:12: "Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity."

      A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: “Don't think you haven't lived long enough to have a story to tell.”

      Just because we're young doesn't mean we can't make a difference. I'm cheering you on! Go write something beautiful.

  5. I completely agree. Your worldview and opinions are going to creep onto the page anyway. So you might as well be bold about it. A story without a message is like an envelope with no letter inside. But that doesn't mean there is only one message, or that the message is obvious. Sometimes good stories simply ask good questions, and the author only makes suggestions without giving all the answers. That is the route you should take if you're afraid of "preaching." But every choice you make as a writer is communicating a message: the character of your protagonist, the plot, the resolution, the fate of the antagonist. All of the technical aspects of story you choose communicate subtle messages to your audience whether you like it or not.

    1. Great points! We don't have to give full answers, just ask good questions. Usually these questions end up becoming a theme and the answers naturally present themselves to the reader. Thanks for the great comment!

  6. You know, I came into this post expecting to disagree and I don't. At all. It's interesting, because I tend to be in the 'just write a good story', crowd---but only because I see people who try and force a Message into their stories, with no attention paid to grace or honesty or the general fickle uncertainty of the human soul.
    But THIS perspective, this is good. Thanks for putting it so epically :) ��

    1. This comment makes me so happy, Grace! I think this is a topic that many writers only THINK they disagree with each other about. Mostly it's just that people are afraid of "preaching." But preaching isn't really the sign of a message, it's just the sign of an author who isn't approaching their story correctly. Anyway, I'm glad you liked this post.

  7. Wow. I'm surprised there are actually that many writers like that out there. (Although I suppose I shouldn't be; I've read enough fanfiction in my time.) But why would anyone want to be a serious writer if not for the purpose of changing lives? Don't they realize that the tides of history have been changed by stories with meaning? The way such literary treasures as Uncle Tom's Cabin changed many people's view of slavery; Jane Austen's witty pleasures exposed the hypocrisy of her era and was likely a forerunner to classic Feminism (not to be confused with the messed up modern kind); or Charles Dickens' works helped shine a light into the dark abuses of the Industrial Revolution and other societal abuses of his day? Heck, even modern superhero stories inspire heroism and bravery and putting others above oneself! Who wouldn't long to at least TRY for something like that? That's rather sad, really. Like giving up one's birth-right as a writer: the chance to leave behind a legacy of change.

    1. I agree. It's what writers are meant to do, but I think people (both authors and writers) are losing sight of that. The shift has been pretty obvious in fiction written within the last 20ish years. It seems like people are starting to give into the "just go with the flow" modern mindset. Keep your head down. People are so afraid of offending that they end up not speaking at all and it's leaked into our fiction.

      Anyway, I loved your points about all of the classic authors who have had such a huge impact on people (both today and in their time). I always point to them as prime examples of how literature can shape the world. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    2. Wow, thanks! :D
      And thank you for shining a light on this topic on your blog. It's so tragic for anyone to miss the best part of their calling like that. Writers need to remember.

  8. This is such good post, Hannah! You put my frequent thoughts into words :)
    I've worried for a long time that my writing style for my first book, which is distinctly Christian, would offend people who didn't believe the same things I did and that my world would end (courtesy of overthinking too much.) But stories would only be empty pages if they didn't have an underlying meaning, and you'll always have people who criticize your work anyway. I guess you just have to write about your convictions, your experiences, your struggles in life, and weave them into what you write, because there's always people out there who are going through the same thing. And even if my book only helps one person, it will have all been worth it, just knowing that they identified with the morals and the struggles your characters went through, and walked away feeling encouraged.
    I was inspired to start my own blog because of reading yours. Amidst trying to graduate, working, and juggling my writing, keeping up with a blog isn't always easy, but I love challenges when they involve writing :) If you want to look up my blog, it's called Pens and Protagonists. I don't have many posts yet, but I'm getting there!

    1. Late response (so sorry!), but I'm so excited that you're come to this point with your writing. It's a bit nerve-wracking, but so worth it.

      Go you for starting up a blog! It put a huge smile on my face to learn that my blog was one of the things to nudge you in that direction. I just subscribed and can't wait to start reading!

  9. This explains why a lot of YA stories don't stick with me as long, I guess. I just read RoseBlood and I loved it (it was super entertaining) but I didn't really feel there was a real message to it? Maybe someone else who read it can prove me wrong...

    This is also why I love Marvel. They've got good messages in everything.

    1. YES! All hail Marvel!

      And I agree: many YA books lack messages. I think it's part of the modern-writer mindset.

  10. Thank you for this timely post. I was really struggling with my current WIP. The characters are based on real people and circumstances weren't kind to the one girl. I didn't know what to do with it. Now, I know to go ahead and address that issue and that will be the theme for the book as well.
    I love having reason for writing. I'd rather teach through a story than a lecture.

    1. Writing a story based off of real people is both awesome and scary, but it sounds like you're going in the perfect direction. I'm sure your WIP is going to be amazing!

  11. I'm right in the middle of a dilemma about this just now. Until recently (as in a few weeks ago), I was one of your "delusional few" (or delusional many, I guess). I have always used writing to explore different issues - that's my primary reason for writing. However, I have never consciously tried to put in a message. i see now that the messages in my favourite books must have been deliberately put in by the authors.
    The problem is, I am afraid of lecturing through my stories (and I have read plenty that knock you over the head with the author's views). Also, I am worried that, apart from the story, I really have nothing to say. I recently read a manga story in which a character says: "I'm afraid of digging deeper into myself. I'm afraid my worst fears will be confirmed. That I'm shallow... that there's nothing to me"; this just about sums up my struggle. Writing something deep is putting a part of your soul on display (or it feels that way to me), so I don't want to go too deep.
    Sorry if this sounds like a confused ramble (that would reflect my thoughts on this topic). By the way, my "great books" are Lord of the Rings, the first three Earthsea books, and "Plain Kate" by Erin Bow :)

    1. So sorry for the late response, Kikyo! I loved reading this comment. I know it's scary to dig deep and try to put your emotions on the pages. What if it's ugly? What if it doesn't make sense? But here's the thing: Life can be ugly and it almost never makes sense. People know that. And when they see a book where the author reflects this in their stories? It can make all the difference. Suddenly they feel so much less alone. So maybe it's scary, but it's worth it.

      Also, was tha quote from Erased by Kei Sanbe? Because it sounds really familiar and I swear that's where I read it. =D I loved that manga and that section in particular was really beautiful to me.

      I've never read Plain Kate, so I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the great comment, Kikyo, and I pray that you'll find the strength to dig deep and write with meaning. We all have something to say, so, if you don't mind me being forward: Don't short-change yourself. You have great thoughts and unique experiences (even if you can't see them now). Write without fear and you'll realize you have more to say than you realized. =D

    2. Thank you for your reply! It is really encouraging. I have definitely learned a lot in the last few months, and I am going to try to dig a little deeper.

      And yes, you're right: that quote is from Erased. It was amazing to read that at the point I was thinking about this stuff, because it basically summed up my thoughts at the time.

      Thanks again!

  12. AH YES I DEFINITELY AGREE. While I'm firmly of the belief that it's not my job to police what other people write - the types of messages they include, the lack of messages altogether, etc. - I still think it's awesome when authors put important messages into their books. Are there some messages I don't like? Uh, heck yeah. But that's the result of having a free press. There's nothing to be done about it unless a person wants to change the Bill of Rights and therefore forfeit their own right to write what they want.

    I personally LOVE writing important themes into my stories - in fact, one of my favorite WIPs was formed because I wanted to see a book that really strongly shows the "often, people on the other side of the argument aren't out to make you miserable - they're just average people trying to do what they think is right" theme. And while my "great" books don't always have messages - some just stick with me because I liked the characters or the writing was funny - I think messages are a large component of creating a strong story.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  13. "They write a story and let the reader take what they want from it. Readers pick the messages, the themes, the lessons, not the writers."

    Doesn't mean you can't put those messages and themes in there for them to find and pick. I mean, how else is it gonna work otherwise? I feel the same the same as you, Hannah; I can't imagine how to even write a decent story WITHOUT there being some sort of theme or message in it somewhere. What's the point of it if there isn't, how is it even a STORY, with a beginning, a middle and an end? Why did we just spend hours of our life reading it, if the experience is on a par with watching an episode of Geordie Shore with the sound turned off?

  14. I completely agree with you. We are constantly searching for meaning in life : why would we waste our time reading something if we feel as if the author didn't care ? Why try to search for meaning in a piece of fiction if the writer didn't judge it important enough to incorporate it into their story ? When I write my stories, I use the Dramatica Theory of Story - it allows me to wave my themes into the very structure of the story to not strike down my storytelling with preaching or obvious lines, it is made more subtile but it is fully there. If there's no attempt to make something meaningful out of a story, I don't see what's the point in writing at all. Sure we are afraid of being preachy but not assuming the inclusion of themes won't magically make them go away, it'll just make them more prone to being misunderstood. Which is why the "Death of the Author" argument exists (and I hate it) : yes, the author intent matters. You may criticize how he worded his theme, or even the theme in itself, but you can't go out of your way to say that only your interpretation matters and the author's doesn't. If we were to assume our themes and messages we could work them to their fullest potential and deliver an unforgettable experience many a reader would be thankful for. When a story feels that complete, the Death of the Author / "that's so preachy" argument fade away.

    A very inspiring post !


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