Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Message and the Story

Many moons ago when I was still a young pup, I went to breakfast at church camp and sat at a table with three preachers I knew. I liked stories with a moral, at the time, so I paid special attention when one of them asked, “Do you want to hear a story with a moral?”

I nodded.

“Someone put a block of baloney on a plate and stuck a fork in it. Before long, a fly came along, ate his fill, crawled up the fork and tried fly, but he fell and broke neck. Another fly came along and did the same thing. Then another and another until there were many flies lying dead on the table. Do you know what the moral to that story is?”

“No,” I said.

“Don’t fly off the handle when you’re full of baloney.”

Let’s think about this story. What if we were to change this story and instead of baloney we put cheese on the plate. Instead of a fork, we will put a toothpick in the cheese. The flies eat the cheese and die after flying off the toothpick. It’s essentially the same story, but without the message. Nothing really happens other than a bunch of flies die. Who cares?

I our drive to create stories that are less preachy, it is easy for us to think that the story is more important than the message. We might think, it’s okay to have a message, but it shouldn’t get in the way of the story. That is the wrong attitude. Every good story has a message. The message is the backbone of the story. It defines where we are going with our story. Notice the story I told above. I told a story about a man telling a story. Why? The story I told had to go along with my message, which is that the message is the backbone of the story. I could have told you about when my dog died, but you would wonder what that has to do with anything.

The message controls many decisions we must make about the story. If we want someone to see the importance of keeping their tires properly inflated, we are going to tell about something that happened to us or someone else because someone failed to inflate the tires properly. We aren’t going to tell about the time we went horse back riding. Both may be very interesting stories, but the message dictates which one we tell. The same is true in novels we write, but it is at a much larger scale.

In a novel, we have a central message that controls the direction of the novel. The central message has sub-messages that we see in each of the scenes. Let’s take the romance novel as an example. The central message is likely to be through compromise two people can learn to get along. Within the first few chapters we are likely to see a message like Alice is doing okay, but she is lonely. Then we might see a message like life isn’t lonely with Bill around, but Alice can’t stand him, followed by with Bill gone, Alice is more lonely than before. Finally we see, compromise as brought Bill and Alice together.

What if we take our romance novel and throw in Alice goes to Bible study and it brings her closer to God? It doesn’t fit and our story suddenly becomes preachy. A preachy novel isn’t the result of trying to put a message in the story, rather it a result of moving away from the message and trying to say something else. Every story should have one and only one message. The messages of the scenes and sub-plots must support the central message of our story. If that is not the case, we may just be full of baloney.