The way I see it, there are two major categories into which a literary work can fall:
- works which strive to explore certain topics, themes, and messages
- works that are designed to entertain
Now, there are certainly pieces that will do both – that, I think, is the ideal story: one with a meaning that ultimately entertains. Most often, though, we come across works that attempt one or the other of those categories – but fail miserably. What I want to explore is why.
This week’s topic, as you might have already gathered from the title, is an exploration of those fictional works which explore certain topics, themes, and messages. It seems most things are pushing some sort of message these days – it’s like a rite of passage for a literary work, if there isn’t some preach-able lesson by the end of the story, then it was never a ‘real story’.
Trouble is, for me at least, most of those messages fall flat. I mean, how many movies have we watched that operate on some sort of big business bad/environment good sort of narrative? Or, maybe it’s just another action-adventure about the power of teamwork and friendship? Now, I’m not saying the messages themselves are necessarily bad, but the delivery of them is certainly lacking.
Let’s take a look at two relatively recent movies:
First up, the good: The Avengers.
This is not a deep film, and given the current state of the Marvel cinematic universe it’s not even a complex film. But, it does explore themes of teamwork and friendship in a way that manages to not be overly cheesy. Here’s why I think it works:
- The focus of the film is not on pushing the message.
The excitement and the details of the plot comes first. This is a super hero movie, there is already an acceptable level of ‘cheese’ going around, and while the internal stakes are often very high (I mean, Manhattan nearly got nuked, and the whole world almost got taken over by aliens) the focus of the story is on allowing the audience to have a good time.
- The message is conveyed through how the characters interact with one another.
(SPOILER ALERT! But, I’m going to assume that you probably saw this move.) While the theme of the movie is certainly about learning to come together for a common goal, that theme is explored by throwing together the multiple motivations of the different avengers. The audience isn’t getting beat over the head with a teamwork message, instead we see Coulson sacrifice himself in the attempt to stop Loki, and then the pain and guilt the avengers feel in losing one of their friends. We are watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers butt heads, feeling for one or the other – or both of them – as their worldviews clash. Then, when the whole team comes together to defeat the alien invasion, we see the value of friendship and teamwork for ourselves without anyone having to explicitly explain it.
Next up, the bad: Ready Player One.
This movie was one half geek/nerd pandering and the other half message, but for me the message really fell flat. Here’s my thoughts on why:
- They were too committed to the message, or not committed enough.
Yeah, that’s real helpful, right? 😉 Let me explain: There was a moment in this movie where I thought I was going to be impressed. (SPOILER ALERT!)
It was when the villain activates a super weapon which kills the avatar of every single player in the Oasis – or so it seems. In that moment, where I thought everyone had died and gone back to level 1, I was impressed. I honestly thought this goofy, pander-fest might actually have something to it. The whole economy of this society was tied into this super special video game – the virtual stuff was more important than the real-life stuff. The greedy CEO villain had power because of his influence in the virtual world, not the real world, and I thought, now that everyone was back to a level playing field, the society would have to face the crumbling reality of their real world – the rich and poor were now equal again. I thought this would be the big twist – no one gets the Easter egg, no one wins the prize. How original would that have been? But no, the main character had an extra life and it all ends with him, predictably, winning everything.
In the conclusion, the main character and his gang of friends run the Oasis – but they closed it down two out of seven days a week. *cue audience clapping sound effect* This was a cop-out on their message. A message that could have been something like “focus on what’s real around you to make a better world for everyone” turned into “video games are cool and fun but real life is cool and fun too.” But, the ending of the movie really leaves the characters doing neither of those things – so what if they experience reality for 29% of their lives. That’s not a solution, their society is still going to keep falling apart. In this way, the movie was not committed enough to the message – if they were going to push the real>virtual that hard, they needed to go all the way.
But, Ready Player One couldn’t go all the way on that message – too much of the story was built on making the viewer go, “Hey, I remember that! I love that!” And you can’t string someone along with all the virtual things they love just to end with a message that says those things are distracting them from their real life. So, the message was compromised. The movie had two options: stick through with their message to the logical, fundamental end and cut back on the pandering, or just tone the message down a few notches and put more focus on the fun and nostalgia – and pander to their heart’s content. Either would have made the story all the more enjoyable.
In summary, The Avenger’s message works because it’s in the background, Ready Player One’s message doesn’t because it’s not made a commitment to the background or the foreground. Have a blatant message, or don’t – just don’t try and go with the between. .
So, the bottom line: how might we be able to use these observations when writing? When planning or writing your story, ask yourself: is the message the focus?
- If you say no:
- Most of the time, the answer really should be no. If a reader wants beat over the head with a message, they can pick up a news article or peruse a religious text. Keep your message in the background and focus on the characters and the narrative. Or, don’t be afraid to skip the message entirely – there will be more on this next week!
- If you say yes:
- Sometimes the answer is legitimately yes. If you really want to answer yes don’t be afraid to go for it! Just be prepared to work VERY HARD to get that message in there without being preachy or cheesy – and be ready to take it to the necessary extremes to really sell the idea. And, I honestly still believe a focus on the characters is going to help that message be all the more palatable. Strive for a unique message – or, at least present a tried-and-true message in a new and unique way.
When it comes down to it, people are turning to fictional works to be entertained. Having a message does not automatically ruin a work – to be honest, I think a well-placed message actually enhances a story’s entertainment value – but the process of integrating that message naturally into the story is going to be a serious struggle for the author. Seriously, it’s going to be a struggle. I don’t say this to discourage messages; I write this now to encourage that struggle. Make it to the end, and the struggle will have been worth it. Just know very clearly the themes and ideas you are trying to explore, and be ready to work incredibly hard to express them well.
So, what do you think about finding meaning in fiction? What are your favorite works which have a message or explore themes? (Mine is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series!) Join the conversation in the comment section below!