Great writing is not only enjoyable, it has something to say – there is greatness in the theme. It may not be primarily a moral or a lesson, but something about the story appeals deeply to the heart. I believe that your skill as a writer determines the weight of the message you can communicate. The more skilled you are in handling the basic elements of plot, character, setting, conflict, and point of view, the more ambitious your theme can be, and the deeper the message your reader can take away from it.
But as a writer, you may be starting from the other end. Maybe it’s the theme that motivated you to write in the first place. Maybe you have a message that you want to get across, and you’re more sure of it than you are of the plot, character, or setting. It’s a message that everyone needs to hear. Do you go ahead with it?
Some would say yes, “the message is always first.” That was the slogan of Ken Anderson Films, an evangelical movie company best known for its 1978 film Pilgrim’s Progress featuring Liam Neeson in his first starring role. Even as a college student, majoring in theater at the time, I thought something didn’t seem right about that slogan.
Your message cannot be first
Whether you make movies or write books, it’s not true that the message is always first. When you make a movie, first and foremost, it’s a movie. When you write a story, first and foremost, it’s a story. Your grand message will never get across if nobody can stand to read what you wrote. If it’s too long to finish, if the vocabulary is too complex for ordinary readers, then ordinary readers won’t read it. When you compromise your story, you compromise your message.
Authors may claim they’re standing up for truth, and that truth sometimes offends. First, they should make sure that what’s offensive is the truth and not their writing style. Ultimately, writers only keep the readers whom they don’t offend. As a writer, you are responsible for deciding how far to push your readers, deciding how much to say that they may not like. A disturbing theme sometimes makes a book more interesting. But no theme, no matter how great, can compensate for intolerable writing or make it tolerable.
Ken Anderson wasn’t the first communicator to believe “the message is always first.” Under a dictatorship, the dictator’s message is always first. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the approved artistic style in the Soviet Union was called “socialist realism,” and those who experimented with a different style could have their careers ruined. Any creative people who dealt with forbidden themes or subjects could find themselves in trouble with the police, not just with the critics. Socialist realism was supposed to depict the everyday life of the working people, to promote Soviet ideals. Except that Soviet officials saw morality as either black or white, while real people are complex – not all good, not all bad. In the end, socialist realism didn’t succeed in showing real people living Communist lives, because its characters were not real people.
Sometimes when a writer is willing to put his message ahead of good craftsmanship, he writes an allegory, in which each character represents a different character quality and each event teaches a lesson. Ironically, the most successful allegory in Western literature is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (the 1678 original, not Ken Anderson’s version). Bunyan was a preacher – he did have something he wanted to say – but his book has endured because his characters seem like real people with particular character qualities, rather than character qualities masquerading as real people.
Years ago, I thought of an illustration to describe the challenge that everybody faces, particularly a writer, who wants to communicate a message that’s important to them.
Loading up the truck and driving
Suppose you’re a military commander who wants to move something to another location. The problem: a ravine, a dry riverbed, between where you are and where you want the material to be. Before you can move your material, you need to prepare the way. How much work will that take? That depends on what you want to move. If you simply want to move an envelope, you can hand it to a messenger who puts the envelope in his pocket, hikes down to the bottom of the ravine and then hikes back up. But if you want to move a ton of armor, you need to spend more time, effort, and resources in preparation. You’ll probably need to build the bridge across the ravine. How strong a bridge? That depends on how heavy the load is. Once the bridge is built, the truck is loaded and it begins to drive across that bridge, you will find out if your bridge is strong enough.
Writers with important things to say, with a heavy load they want to put on the truck, will need to spend more time preparing the road for their readers. All too often, I’ve read books by idealistic writers who haven’t done the work needed to communicate their message. They try to drive their heavily loaded truck through the ravine before they build a bridge across it. “But everyone needs to hear this message!” they protest. Then they need to take the time to make sure everyone can hear it.
There’s no shame in loading up your truck with no more weight than your abilities as a writer can sustain. If your writing abilities are not yet what they will be, there is no shame in remembering that bridges break. Neil Gaiman had the idea for The Graveyard Book in 1985, but he felt he was “not yet a good enough writer.” As the years passed, he won Harvey Awards, Locus Awards, Eisner Awards, and Hugo Awards, but he still didn’t feel ready to write The Graveyard Book until 2004 (when he decided he might as well get on with it anyway).
As a writer, I’m learning not to overload my truck without considering whether the bridge I’m sending my readers over is strong enough to support such a weighty message. Otherwise my writing can end up like medieval religious art, beautiful perhaps, but literally without perspective.