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Friday, March 23, 2012

What Does Your Story Say?

One of the big discussions in Christian writing circles revolves around the topic of what Christian fiction should do. I've discussed that here a time or two. Recently on Mike Duran's blog, deCOMPOSE, he brings this up again by asking, "Why Christian Fiction Should NOT Provide Answers." Check it out when you're done here. Some interesting discussions ensued.

But the post caused me to think as people chimed in with their various points of view. So I thought it a good idea to dive in a little further and discuss in what ways a message drives fiction.

First, understand the purpose of the type of writing, and work within that. A romance story has a particular purpose, as does a science fiction story, as does a sermon. A sermon's purpose is to get a distinct message across in a manner that impacts the listener with "truth." A non-fiction book's purpose is to convey information that is perspective enlightening and beneficial for the reader to get, hopefully in an engaging manner, that will better their lives. Both of these types of writing make judicious use of illustrations, often in story format, that highlight and serve the truth and/or information being conveyed. When a reader picks up a book of sermons or a non-fiction book, it is generally because they believe the information presented there will help them. They read the book for the message, and expect the author of the book to speak directly to them.

In general, fiction's primary aim is to entertain. When your general fiction reader wants a novel, they are little concerned with whether it has a specific message. What they want is a great story that they can get lost in and will be satisfying to them as a reader. Note, this does not mean every fiction reader feels that way. There are those who feel entertainment is a waste of time, so if they don't feel they are getting a message out of their fiction, they will feel they've wasted time. It is one of the reasons that non-fiction sells so much better than fiction. The fiction reader that likes fiction with an overt message generally view entertainment as a secondary function of any book. In other words, they read fiction like they would non-fiction.

But that group is a small subset of the fiction readers. Most fiction readers, if they feel the author is pushing a "message" or to put it in more negative terms, "an agenda," will put the book down and walk away. Why? Because if they had wanted that, they would have bought a non-fiction book. And yet, does this mean fiction shouldn't have a message? Not if you listen to many writing books. And when it comes to Christian fiction, most will tend to have a message of some kind. So what makes the difference between an engaging story that delivers a theme and message that resonates with the reader as opposed to the reader feeling the message is an agenda hitting them over the head?

In fiction, the term most often used as to what the author is trying to create is the "suspension of disbelief." That is, we want the reader to become absorbed into the story, to get lost in the characters, to "live" in the world the author has created. But when the reader runs into something that doesn't make sense or pulls them back to the reality, they are reading a story and not living it. The effect breaks the suspension of disbelief in the same way it would if in a movie you saw a camera boom momentarily dip into the top of the screen. It reminds you that you are watching actors on a set, and it breaks you out of the story.

One of the ways an author can do this is when their message turns into an agenda. That is, instead of the message serving the primary purpose of entertaining the reader, it becomes a non-fiction book by the story becoming a giant illustration for the message. Like non-fiction, the reader feels the author is speaking directly to them, rather than the characters. When the message breaks into the story in an artificial, shoehorned feeling, breaking character motivations or circumstances or reality way, then it destroys the suspension of disbelief for the readers, and they are no longer in the story. At the point that happens, the message becomes an agenda.

When does that happen? Two ways. The least used anymore but most famous is the author interruption that used to be so common in stories, especially morality stories. So after telling the story, the narrator would say, "And so, the moral of this story is..." and then proceed to spell out what the reader should have come to believe or see from the story. The other way is doing the same thing, but through either the character (instead of a narrator) or through an obvious circumstance, like the "bad" guy getting his due.

For an example, allow me to use an old flash fiction I did a long time ago (currently in my Ethereal Worlds anthology). In the story, I had the main character come to the realization that what they were doing was killing the "unborn" children of an alien race, after a few scenes of attempting to defeat these aliens from taking what they had. In the future world I had created, abortion had long since been abandoned and was looked up by them as we currently look at slavery now. So I felt it natural at that point for the protagonist to realize he was doing something that went against his morals, and gave him motivation to stop fighting them and let them take back their children.

Well, I sent that into one magazine, and the basic message that came back was that they felt I had hit them over the head with a big anti-abortion message, and that the whole story was written to come to that point. Actually, it hadn't. I didn't know where the story was going to end when I started it, and when I got to that spot, that seemed his natural conclusion and thought. But what they were telling me is that it felt like I had intruded into the story and used the story not to entertain people, but to attempt to convince people that abortion was wrong. I was in effect, giving a sermon illustration, not telling a fiction story.

So before sending it to the next magazine, I simply took out the character's realization of that fact, and made him not want to kill them once he realized why they were so adamant in getting back their children, unborn though they be. The only real difference was that I no longer directly had the character bring out the specific conclusion. Yet the dots were still there that these unborn alien children were worth saving and not killing. But it would be easy for the "pro-choice" reader to interpret it differently at that point, as being respectful of the wishes of the aliens who felt it was important, and maybe those babies weren't the same as ours, since the babies obviously were not residing in a mother's womb specifically, but in a cloud of cosmic dust.

It is also true that the more controversial the topic, the more this will happen. If I had been talking about slavery, I doubt my more overt message would have raised as many hairs. If I had my character realize the were killing a sentient being, like some cosmic pet the aliens were protectors of, I doubt the editors would have felt they'd been hit over the head with an agenda. It wouldn't have taken them out of the story, they wouldn't feel that if the character had thought that, it would feel I was using the story to make a point. The more people who disagree with your character's thoughts on something, the more it will feel to them like the author is attempting to knock you out and drag you to their side of the argument.

It is for that reason the biggest topics that create a sense of agenda in a story are religion, politics, and culture/morals. Anytime those become overt as the underlying message in a story, that's when it will feel like an agenda to anyone who doesn't agree with it. It is one of the reasons why Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy bombed as the books went along. The first book, The Golden Compass, was a big hit. Pullman's atheistic beliefs, however were subtle in that volume and didn't rise to the level of being an agenda. But as the series went on, it became more and more overt, as the whole story was about the death of God. By the last book, it was clear that Pullman's ideology had become the reason for the story. The whole trilogy was a huge illustration about how God was irrelevant and not worth believing in, and a statement where society would one day be: godless.

So a theme or message transforms into an agenda once the reader picks up that the author's primary purpose is to convey a message to him or her. And once that happens, suspension of disbelief is destroyed. Then you'll either have an amen corner from the choir that likes the message, or a closing of the book from those who do not. And even a closing of the book from those who might agree, but didn't buy your book to hear you preach a message. The message and theme must remain inherent to the story. It must serve the story rather than the story serving it. Once that gets reversed, then you no longer have a novel, but a non-fiction book. Once the reader senses, "This author wants me to believe X because of this story," then it subverts the primary purpose for fiction: to entertain.

The answers can be there, but it has to be the reader that comes to drink from that well and sees them, rather than a fire hose spraying it over the pages.

At what point does a message evolve into an agenda for you?

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