Many storytellers want their stories to say something meaningful, but fail to communicate that message successfully. This usually happens because the storyteller is futzing over the gift wrap while neglecting what’s in the box. Like anything else important, messaging has to be built right into the story, not added later with a few monologues.
We’ve previously described authorial endorsement, which is how we evaluate what messages an existing story has. Now it’s time to cover how to create the messages you want in the first place. To workshop as we go, I’ve created two sample messages:
- People should get out of the rat race and slow down.
- We should use the correct name and pronouns for everyone.
These messages aren’t the same, so they don’t call for the same treatment. When reviewing your messages, consider these factors:
- How central is the message to your story? Is it the whole point or should it run quietly in the background?
- Does it need a lot of explanation or will most readers understand right away?
- How sensitive is it? Is this an issue that’s personal and emotionally fraught for some people?
With that in mind, let’s look at the different ways messages like these can be incorporated into a story.
Using the Lesson of the Story
Every well-structured story contains a problem that the protagonist must solve. Depending on what action the protagonist takes at the climax, that problem is either solved or becomes unsolvable. Much like one of Aesop’s fables, this structure conveys a lesson to the audience. So, a powerful way to communicate any message is to package it as the lesson. That means the protagonist must take your message to heart to reach their happy ending. In the case of a cautionary tale, they might perish because they ignored it.
Using the story’s lesson for your message puts it front and center in the story. Because it is so central, there’s usually adequate time for explanations. The protagonist will have to think through their change of heart in depth. Because their success depends on the message, it will always be plot relevant.
If you like the lesson-learned format but your message isn’t so central that you want it to dominate your story’s climax, you can also use it for a smaller turning point. Stories are fractal, so your message could be the lesson learned at the end of a scene or chapter, or it might be used on side characters. The key is that success or failure for characters is determined by how well they take your message to heart.
Even with the option to use it at a smaller scale, this method doesn’t work well for every message. For the protagonist to learn a lesson, they must start the story not knowing it.* In the case of particularly sensitive issues, that could be unacceptable. Your protagonist could become an unlikable person, particularly for the people you are trying to advocate for.
Examples of the Lesson as a Message
Let’s examine this with our example messages.
- For a message about leaving the rat race behind, we would build a plot where a protagonist who is initially part of that rat race has to walk away from it at the climax. Maybe this is part of a central character arc where the protagonist has been working hard to get promoted, only to realize that there are more important things in life than that promotion. It will take some time to demonstrate to the audience why the rat race is a problem, and this central placement will grant that time. Overall, this method is a good match for this message.
- On the other hand, a message about respecting names and pronouns needs a different treatment. Any protagonist who uses the wrong names and pronouns at the start of the story will be unlikable to many of the audience members who support the message. It’s also a sensitive topic, so it’s probably best to avoid depicting people being misgendered. Audience members who haven’t been hiding under a rock will know why names and pronouns matter, so the message doesn’t need extra time in the story. This message is overall a poor match for the lesson-learned method.
It’s not impossible to have the protagonist learn a lesson on sensitive topics. Some stories have found success with a protagonist who participates in a toxic system because they are a victim of that system. One example is Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, which features a soldier who’s bought into corporate propaganda and learns that the corporate powers are fascist and evil. The book improves the soldier’s likability by having a future version of the character who’s already learned this lesson narrate the story.
A more dramatic example is Jojo Rabbit, which only pulls off having a Nazi learn better because the Nazi is just a little boy living under the constant threat of being viewed as an enemy sympathizer and killed. The movie also features an absurd imaginary Hitler to ensure that Nazis aren’t glorified even as villains. While Jojo Rabbit was successful, I definitely don’t recommend most writers trying something this difficult.
Using the Stakes of the Story
Instead of having the protagonist adopt the message as a lesson during the story, they can spend the story fighting for it. The antagonist, on the other hand, will usually try to accomplish the opposite of what the storyteller is advocating for. The antagonist might participate in harmful practices or try to force other people into them.
For this to work, the story’s message has to translate to something with high enough stakes to hold up the story’s plot. If you’re writing a personal drama, that may be simple. Otherwise, you can raise the stakes by translating issues to society-wide problems or by exaggerating them. This is typical of dystopian fiction, where something troubling in society today – like corporate power or income inequality – is much worse in the fictional world.
Using your messaging for the stakes of your throughline will make it central to the story, giving you time to explain your message and why it matters. However, the cost is high if you can’t get your audience to agree with what you’re saying. If they don’t think what the hero is fighting for is important, your story will lose its tension.
While using your message for stakes doesn’t risk making your protagonist into a terrible person, it can create exploitative stories. If you’re using a social justice issue affecting a real group of marginalized people and you are not personally in that group, then I recommend:
- Making your main character a member of the marginalized group.
- Using an analogy for the marginalization you are depicting.
- Staying away from depictions that are too intense and graphic.
If you are part of that group, you can use your own judgment on how to depict your message, but you may find doing additional research and talking to other members of your group to be very helpful.
Examples of the Stakes as a Message
- For a message about leaving the rat race, you could use a protagonist who is trying to achieve work-life balance while their boss tries to exploit them and get them to overwork themself. To raise the stakes, you could create a dystopian society where everyone is constantly racing to get ahead. This could be purposely designed by corporate overlords so that no one has the time or energy to advocate for positive change.
- For a social-justice issue affecting a particular group like names and pronouns, I would feature a trans main character while also using an analogy. While the main character’s correct name and pronoun would be used by others, they might fight against a label that had been thrust upon them or someone else. For higher stakes, you could create a dystopian society where every baby is assigned a pink or blue label at birth – wait, that’s not a fictional analogy. I mean, a dystopian society where everyone is arbitrarily sorted into red, yellow, and green categories.
Using Positive and Negative Associations
For a message that your story isn’t overtly about but is still present in the story, you can label things as good or bad by association. The traits, behaviors, and opinions of antagonists look bad while the same things appear good when associated with a protagonist. Similarly, cultural practices can be added to dystopian or utopian societies to cast them as negative or positive.
When assigning messages to characters, their individual role matters. While you might guess the main character creates the most positive association, that’s not necessarily true. Many stories contain characters that have higher credibility than the main character. Usually, this character is a mentor, but it could be another benign authority figure or dispenser of wisdom. If a character appears to be right all the time, their endorsement of an issue will send a stronger message. For instance, when Gandalf gently admonishes Frodo for saying he wished Bilbo had killed Gollum, the audience knows Gandalf is right and Frodo was wrong. This is also reinforced later using a lesson: Frodo succeeds because of Gollum.
However, even if a main character is less likely to be right than a mentor, the story still revolves around them. A well-crafted story will empower and validate the main character to the highest degree. Even in unusual cases where they are a bad person doing bad things, basic story mechanics will reinforce the idea that this bad person is worth hearing about and sympathizing with. That’s why who your main character is makes a significant difference in issues like exploitation. The choice of main character, and other protagonists to a lesser extent, already sends a message about which people are worthwhile.
Antagonists also vary in sympathy and credibility, and that will affect how something they embody comes across. But in general, your choice of antagonist communicates what should be rejected just like your choice of protagonist communicates what should be accepted. When you aren’t interested in that message, making one of your protagonists similar to the antagonist will help erase it. Anything that is clearly more common among protagonists or antagonists will gain positive or negative associations respectively.
Since these kinds of associations are less central to the story than lessons or stakes, sending messages this way doesn’t grant as much time for explanation. You can probably work in a few lines about why something a society or person is doing is great or terrible, but inserting more than that is likely to come off as a preachy exposition dump. It won’t be as easy to convince anyone who’s inclined to disagree with you or add much nuance if it’s a complicated issue.
Examples of Messages by Association
- For an anti-rat-race message at a personal level, we could compare the protagonist to a more antagonistic character. Perhaps the protagonist refuses to get caught in the rat race, but they have a work nemesis who is obsessed with getting ahead. At a larger level, the protagonists might be a cooperative group facing an evil corporation that works employees to the bone for their bottom line. However, because this is a complex issue with less time for explanation, this setup comes with a higher risk of stigmatizing people for simply trying to put food on the table or succeed in their careers. More time might be needed to clarify the difference between surviving in a toxic system and losing yourself to it.
- A message about respecting names and pronouns is a great match for a positive association with protagonists and utopian societies. Showing protagonists asking others what their pronouns are and describing how they decided on a name will get the message across. Since this is a sensitive issue, the negative side of the coin will take more care. I would stay away from misgendering, but an opposing dystopian society might assign everyone silly or dehumanizing names at birth. Perhaps the members of a sympathetic resistance in that dystopian society have given themselves new names.
Last, the most casual way of sending a message is by depicting something as normal in your story and world. This means that the subject of the message is not only frequently shown, but characters treat it as something that isn’t worth remarking on. Depictions like these push the cultural Overton window toward accepting whatever is being normalized.
While depicting what you support will help normalize it, there’s no way to depict something so it becomes less normal. The opposite of normalization is leaving the subject matter out. That may not be satisfying, but in some cases it’s important. For instance, storytellers have a tendency to throw violent bullying casually into their stories to increase protagonist sympathy. But with extreme bullying normalized, more subtle harassment looks harmless to people in comparison. Leaving out physically violent bullying and treating casual harassment as a serious issue will make a stronger statement than condemning physical violence. Behavior we all leave out will eventually lose the normalization it has.
It does make some difference if a protagonist remarks on how something is weird or strange. That doesn’t use normalization; it’s sending a message by association with a protagonist. However, it can still be useful. Since characters don’t naturally talk about things they consider normal, having them discuss the reverse can be a way of explaining the world – or just making a joke. For instance, if everyone in your world wears togas, one person could say, “Could you imagine us all wearing cloth tubes around our legs? How dorky would that be?”
Examples of Messages by Normalization
- Because the rat-race issue involves economic systems and not just individual people, it would be easiest to normalize leaving the rat race in a fictional world. All the people in your world could work 20-hour work weeks. They could innovate while carefully examining the impacts of new technology and include social and environmental welfare goals in their bottom line. The antagonists would actually do this too. The message will stand out simply because these practices won’t be considered commonplace by readers.
- Sending a message about respecting people’s names and pronouns via normalization would simply mean showing highly respectful name and pronoun use universally, without remark. Perhaps characters routinely share their pronouns when they meet, and they adapt to name changes without a fuss. They would do this even for their worst enemy, without thinking about it. Because this would make it easy to leave out misgendering and normalization has a pretty strong influence on habitual behaviors, this particular message is very well suited to this method.
While a story’s messages can inspire and empower people who are inclined toward them, they are not mind control. A message that’s communicated clearly will be heard by people who disagree, and those people probably won’t like your story much. That’s okay. If everyone agreed with what you have to say, you wouldn’t have to say it.
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