Editing Novels with Messages

In my post on editing satirical fiction, I mentioned the message being the driving force in such stories. A recent question from a student made me want to explore the question of editing novels with messages a bit further.

The Problem with Message Novels

The student pointed out that some authors start novels with a specific message they want to convey, whether they are writing a novel of ideas, a coming-of-age story, or a satire. Such novels often suffer from uninteresting plots, boring/predictable characters, and a lack of dramatic tension. Sometimes such authors don’t want to make their novels more readable as this, they fear, will detract from their message. They don’t seem to realize that not using storytelling skills will detract from the message even more forcefully: nobody will read it.

If you’re not sure you’ve encountered a ms like this, think about whether you’ve ever read a ms with speeches that go on for five pages. That’s your first clue that you’re editing a message novel.

I have certainly seen my share of these. I will say that with the exception of satire and comic novels, novels with messages still need to have realistic characters and plausible (for the story world) plot events. The problem is that if the author starts with the message, they aren’t trying to tell a story. They’re trying to convey the message.

It takes significant ability to write an Animal Farm; most writers will end up with an overly simplistic, dreary screed that readers aren’t going to be interested in. What’s the point?

One Solution: Theme over Message

It is difficult to work with such clients because they are more focused on conveying the message than on telling an engaging story. What can sometimes work is to ask them to think about how they can write a story that explores a theme versus one that is intended to promote a particular message.

Theme can be extremely powerful but it tends to create more nuance and meaning in a story than hammering home a message does. With a theme, the author isn’t telling the reader what conclusion to reach about a story (versus a message, in which they are).

So, a novel could explore issues of addiction, showing characters that we care about struggling with the situations that give rise to addiction and/or showing the consequences of addictive behavior. Maybe we see two people fall in love but one of them is an addict and it eventually drives them apart.

That is going to be far more affecting than the message “Just say no to drugs” put in characters’ mouths.

While I think telling a story is usually more effective if one begins with either characters or a situation, if one is going to begin with the message, it will typically work better if it can be broadened into an exploration of theme.

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