James Scott Bell is with us today! Jim is an award-winning thriller writer and the author of the #1 bestseller Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish. His latest release is Just Write: Creating Unforgettable Fiction and a Rewarding Writing Life (Writer’s Digest Books). Jim is also co-creator of the interactive writing app Knockout Novel. He has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at workshops in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, though he always likes coming home to L.A. where he can enjoy an authentic street dog. You can keep up with his new books and deals here.
How to Weave a Message Without Pummeling Your Readers
Got an email the other day asking for advice on how to weave a “message” into a novel without sounding “preachy.” I immediately thought of the quote variously attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, Moss Hart, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Capra: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” (Note: It’s too cogent for Goldwyn. The best evidence gives it to Hart).
Translation, of course, is that audiences don’t want a sermon, they want a story. They’re not looking for a lecture, but a fictive dream. If they sense an author intruding, they’re liable to become a reader excluding … your next book.
Some writers ask, does my story need to have a message (or theme) at all?
Answer: It will have one whether you like it or not. Every story leaves the readers with an impression that the author has presented a view of the world, a slant on life. The only question is whether you want to be intentional about it.
Note, however, that you don’t have to know what your message is from the jump. You pantsers will love hearing that. You like to write, in part, to discover. Fine. But when you finish that first draft, start asking yourself what message is in there trying to get out. Then you can use the tools of craft to deliver it in a way that is natural, unobtrusive, organic.
In answer to my correspondent I found myself writing in aphorisms. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’d just been on Twitter. Or possibly because my favorite philosopher is Pascal. In any event, here’s what I wrote:
Don’t stress your message, stress your characters
The engine of a story is characters in crisis exercising strength of will. True character is revealed only in a high-stakes struggle. We don’t know anything deep about Scarlett O’Hara until the Civil War breaks out. Clarice Starling is a smart young FBI trainee, but it’s when she becomes the only person the creative chef Hannibal Lecter will talk to – with clues that can save another victim from the serial killer Buffalo Bill – that we begin to see the real Clarice.
And it is within the crucible of these struggles that a message takes shape.
Grit and selfishness will take you only so far before you pay a devastating personal price. (Gone With The Wind)
You must travel a dark road to silence the demons that haunt you. (The Silence of the Lambs)
So ramp up the conflict, threaten your character with impending death (physical, professional, or psychological) and let the outcome illuminate your theme.
Reach for the heart before you address the head
As a former trial lawyer, I know this to be true: Juries don’t coolly apply the law to the facts. They search for the most compelling story then seek a legal way to vindicate it. The best trial lawyers use “the will and the way” – they first make the jury willing through a convincing narrative construct, then show them the legal way to render a verdict consistent with it.
That was what Johnny Cochran did in the O. J. Simpson murder trial (I hope you got to see the superb FX series that brilliantly captured all aspects of that crazy time). The evidence of guilt – especially the blood evidence – was overwhelming. So Cochran changed the narrative. The case wasn’t about O.J. and domestic violence, but about a racist police department framing an innocent black celebrity. Cochran gave the jury the legal “way” to affirm the story – reasonable doubt. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” And they did.
Now, this is not a place to discuss Cochran’s tactics or ethics, only to point out why they worked. Jurors don’t go to law school to learn how to deconstruct facts, re-arrange them and place them in obscure legal slots. They’re people asking, simply, “What happened to whom, and why?”
Your readers are like that, too. You must bond them to a character in crisis and make them want to find out what happens. Otherwise they won’t stick around for your message.
Ditch pontification in favor of confrontation
When it comes to the actual content of a message, my favorite technique is to place it within confrontational dialogue.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a college graduate in the early 1960s. He’s confused about his future. The theme of the book is the search for an authentic identity. The message might be phrased this way: The only way to find your true self is to reject and flee the expectations of your upbringing (stakes: psychological death). You have a scene early in your novel where the young graduate is mulling all this while back at home with his parents. You could write something like this:
Benjamin did not know exactly where he was going to go, just as long as it was on the road somewhere. He’d hitchhike, wouldn’t take anything with him, maybe ten dollars. No plan. Who knew how long he’d be gone? Five years, ten! His parents just didn’t understand his need to get away, to meet real people. Heck, what if he worked his way around the world? Whatever it was he was looking for, it wasn’t going to be what his parents had. He was through with big houses and swimming pools. He was going to spend the rest of his life with farmers and truck drivers! The hell with his education.
Or you could have Benjamin make a little speech about it.
“Mom, Dad, I do not want to be like you. I’m sorry to say it, I love you, but I just can’t see myself in a big house with a swimming pool hanging around with people I don’t like. I have to go out on the road. I have to find out what real life is like. I have to mix with farmers and truck drivers. I’ll be gone a long time, maybe even ten years. Who knows? I may try to go around the world. I’ve got this education, yes, but it means nothing to me. I need to go out and find something authentic. I don’t need any luggage or money, I’m just going to go, and I’ll make out all right.”
But I prefer the way Charles Webb did it in his novel, The Graduate. Ben is at the breakfast table in the kitchen, talking to his mother.
“I’m leaving home,” he said.
“I said I’m leaving home,” he said, picking up his spoon. “I’m clearing out after breakfast.”
Mrs. Braddock reached up to wipe her hands on a towel beside the sink. “You’re going away?”
She frowned and walked across the room to sit down beside him at the table. “You’re taking a trip?”
“That is right,” Benjamin said. He dug into the grapefruit.
“Well where are you going,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you’re going?”
“How long will you be gone,” his mother said.
“I don’t know.”
“More than a day or two?”
“But not more than a week.”
“Look,” Benjamin said. “Maybe five years, maybe ten, I don’t know.”
Mr. Braddock came into the kitchen carrying the morning newspaper. “You’re up early,” he said.
“Ben, tell your father. Because I know he won’t let you do it.”
“What’s up,” Mr. Braddock said, sitting down at the table.
“I’m going on a trip.”
“He’s not taking the sports car. He’s not taking any clothes. He has ten dollars in his pocket and he’s–”
“Excuse me,” Benjamin said. He reached for the bowl of sugar in the center of the table.
“What’s this about?” Mr. Braddock said.
“I’m leaving after breakfast on a trip,” Benjamin said, sprinkling sugar on the grapefruit. “I have no idea where I’m going. Maybe just around the country or the continent. Maybe if I can get papers, I’ll work around the world. So that’s that.”
“Well what’s the point of it?”
“The point is I’m getting the hell out of here.”
Mr. Braddock frowned at him. “This doesn’t sound too well thought out,” he said.
“Do you know what I want?” Benjamin said, tapping his finger against the table.
“Simple people. I want simple honest people that can’t even read or write their own name. I want to spend the rest of my life with these people.”
“Farmers,” Benjamin said. “Truck drivers. Ordinary people who don’t have big houses. Who don’t have swimming pools.”
“Ben, You’re getting carried away.”
Benjamin stood. “Goodbye,” he said, holding out his hand.
His father shook it. “Call collect if you get into any kind of trouble.”
“Ben?” Mrs. Braddock said. “Do you think you might be back by Saturday?”
“Because I invited the Robinsons over for dinner. It would be so much more fun if you were there.”
Not only do we get the gist of Ben’s quest in the dialogue, but also an indelible picture of why he needs to get out – his parents are frozen in their cluelessness.
So when in doubt about how to weave a message, start an argument!
We could talk about symbols and motifs in support of your message, but this post is already running long. So let me turn it over to you. Do you have a message or theme in mind before you start to write? Does it emerge over time? Or do you not think about it at all? Should you?