In a previous post, I talked about finding the voice of your writing as a body of work and for each individual story. The way you tell a story is your voice. It’s unique to you because you are the only person in the whole, wide world with your particular combination of life experience, personality, talent, and situation.
Voice is only part of the equation, though. This week, I’d like to talk about the other part: the message of your story.
What is Message?
It may seem like voice and message are the same, but they are not. Closely linked, yes, but not the same.
The message is what the story says.
The voice is how the story says it.
Most writers have pretty much the same voice in all their stories. Even if they write in multiple genres, their voice is basically the same. Different inflections of voice, perhaps, but the same basic voice throughout.
Some writers have a favorite message, too. One that permeates most of their stories.
But for most of us, each story carries a different message. You might write about redemption for one story and about persistence for another. Redemption is one message; persistence is another.
What you’re telling your readers about each of these things is your message.
There’s Always a Message
Every person who has ever written a story or painted a picture or made a song is sharing something. There is a purpose or a message behind their creation. It may be latent and unintentional or it may be very intentional.
The message arises out of the writer’s world view, philosophy, political leanings, personal experience, and a number of other things. Everything they are informs their writing and influences the message of their work.
You can’t help delivering a message in your books. If you write, there will be a message.
But you can write a book designed to share a specific message with your readers.
How to Find Your Message (If You Want One)
In his book, Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell suggests that authors write about the things that move them. What makes you happy? What enrages you? What frustrates you? Those are the things likely to influence the message for your book or books.
For example, forgiveness is a big issue and one that could be tackled by every author that ever has or ever will walk the face of the earth and still not be exhausted. It would be relatively easy to write about a character who has refused forgiveness either to self or to someone else and weave a message about the importance of forgiveness into the story.
The future of the world—hopeful and hopeless—are also popular messages.
So the first step in finding a message for a book is to look at the things that matter to you.
Another way to find a message is to look at current events. Read just a few pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and you can find any number of springboards for possible messages.
Beware the Message!
As important and automatic as message is, don’t let it take over your story. A poorly written story with a strong message is still poorly written. If you must have one or the other, work on telling the best story you can.
It’s also important that the message of your story not be delivered in a brow-beating fashion. Diatribes for characters prone to diatribes are all right.
Novel-length diatribes are not and would be better off published in the Op-Ed pages of your local newspaper.
As with most of life, balance is not only important: It’s necessary.
So don’t be afraid of message. If you have one, share it.
But don’t obsess about it, either. Just write the absolute best story you can.