Friday, August 28, 2015

The Five Commandments of Message Fiction

Today's bit of ranting-about-writing deals with what seem to be a few of the common pitfalls among writers who are trying write a story with an explicit message or moral.  Click down below the break for my thoughts on how not to bore or insult your readers!

On Wednesday, I was sent an e-mail asking--or rather, telling--me to check out a story about ponies debating the ethics of abortion.  Against my better judgement, I gave it a look, and it was... not good.

(As an aside: I'm not naming or linking to the story, for what I'd hope are obvious reasons.  I don't doubt you can track it down on FiMFiction if you wish, but while it may be what led to this post, I'm much more interested in talking about how to write a good "message fic" than with picking on this particular piece)

It was fairly poorly written, but even beyond that I found it morally incoherent, and thematically rather offensive.  Now, it'd be easy enough to write an incoherent and/or offensive story about abortion as a trollfic, but it seems pretty clear that the author of this story was genuinely trying to write a serious, thought-provoking story about the subject.  And honestly, there are a lot of stories, both fanfic and non-, which end up inspiring a similar reaction by attempting to address some moral in a lazy or half-baked manner.  I know I'm not alone in this; there are a significant contingent of readers who've been burned on this type of story enough that they avoid them on principal.

And yet, there are also some unapologetic examples of message fiction which I absolutely adore.  The Screwtape Letters I loved enough that I used it as direct inspiration for my changeling fanfic, for example.  If the problem isn't the genre itself, then, what specific to message fiction (i.e. not stuff like "quality of writing") makes so many of these stories fall short?

I made a list.  And, given the religious nature that message fiction often takes on, I decided to write them in the form of commandments.

1.  Thou shalt write a story with a moral, not a moral with a story

This is probably the most common trap for message fiction to fall into: they transparently exist only for the sake of elucidating their central thesis, and any characterization, dramatic arc, or the like is strictly coincidental, if it exists at all.

The way to solve this is to write a blogpost instead of a story.  Seriously, if the only thing you have to say is "the death penalty is a travesty and here's why..." that not only isn't a story, it doesn't need to be a story.  Just dispense with any fictional trappings, and say what you clearly want to say.

If you do want to write a story, then here's a quick way to check if you've actually done so: are any of your characters defined, in this piece of yours, by anything other than their views on the moral and their actions stemming therefrom?  If not, you've got a problem.

2.  Thou shalt not reduce the views of real people to caricatures

When a character is a caricature, that's usually a bad thing in and of itself: it makes that character, and by extension the entire story, seem lazy, two-dimensional, and unrealistic.  In message fiction, where characters are often explicit stand-ins for entire groups' points of view, reducing their views to caricatures of those people actually feel about an issue is extremely insulting.  Authors most commonly resort to these kinds of straw man tactics to villify whoever or whatever they see as in opposition to their message, but it's perfectly possible to caricaturize one's own views as well.  The important thing to look for here is to ask "why."  Specifically, "why do people believe X, Y, or Z?" or "why do people sometimes do A, B, or C?"  This is one of the things I really loved about The Screwtape Letters: when Screwtape explains how to get people to indulge in various sins and to focus less on God and more on trivialities, his explanations ring extremely true.  To quote a choice bit:
[A]s habit renders the pleasures the vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say..."I now see that I spent most my life doing in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."
I think that, even for those of us who don't subscribe to Lewis's particular philosophy, this remains a very relatable, very thoughtful passage, because we've all found ourselves drawn into those kinds of time-wasting yet joyless activities.  Heck, with the advent of video games designed more to keep you playing than to be fun to play, this passage is even more on-the-nose today than when Lewis wrote it.  Compare to, say, Chuck Asay:

I realize political cartoons are held to much different standards than stories... but come on, we've all seen stories that made leaps of logic at least as specious

As a rule of thumb, if you don't feel like you understand why a person of normal intelligence and mild disposition would or could hold a given view or do a particular thing, you probably aren't going to be able to represent them faithfully in a story.  If you're dead set on doing so, rather than just throw together some talking points cobbled from the internet, your best bet it probably to talk to such a person.  And make sure you get their views on your counterarguments, too, and make sure that you don't go breaking the first commandment while you're doing all that!

3.  Thou shalt not trivialize thy message

If your message or moral is something innocuous, like "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" or "be excellent to one another," you're probably fine on this count.  But say you want to talk about something controversial.  Or suppose you wanted to go with a less divisive but still heavy moral, like "we are our truest selves on our deathbeds."

You can do those things.  But can you do them respectfully?  If your writing a pony fanfic, that already puts you at a bit of a disadvantage; combining something with MLP can seem inherently trivializing.

But it doesn't have to be; some of my favorite stories in this fandom deal with heavy or controversial themes in a respectful, nuanced way.  But that penultimate word is key here, I think: nuanced.  If you're going to write a message piece, the delicacy which which the topic is approached should mirror the weightiness of the subject matter.  For "be excellent to one another," having the moral be presented without much discussion and in an absolute light is probably not going to ruin your story.  For "truest selves on our deathbeds," it absolutely will.

4.  Thou shalt not talk down to thy readers

"Pretentious" is never a word you want associated with your writing, but it's very easy for message fiction to come across as such: after all, by definition you're trying to convey a particular message to the reader, which can come off as an awfully pompous thing to think of oneself.  That being the case, it's important to avoid any self-inflicted wounds, such as this author's note from the end of the abortion story:
This is a parable of truth & morality so everyone can learn something from this. Whether you are Pro-choice, Pro-life, or uncertain about your stance, there were three main lessons that was taught. What are these 3 lessons?
Again, I think (/hope) that the author of that story had good intentions, but stuff like this displays an alarming lack of self-awareness.  The fact that the abortion debate exists at such an uneasy intersection of religious interpretation and scientific volatility (the idea that life begins at conception has its modern roots as recently as the mid-1800s; medical understanding of when a fetus is "viable" and "distinct" have changed dramatically over the past 50 years), coupled with the fact that it's such a life-altering decision regardless of morality, are what make it such a divisive, passion-inflaming issue.  For any author to suggest that they've reduced it down to three lessons is the height of arrogance, and that's before we even get into the matter of what right, if any, the author has to tell the reader how to interpret their story.  Not "how the author intended their story" nor even "how the author thinks the story should be interpreted," but "how to interpret their story."

Asking your reader to jump through hoops for you, especially when those hoops end up being arbitrary even in relation to your own story, is never a good idea.

5.  Thou shalt avoid unfortunate implications in thy story

Unfortunate implications pop up in stories all the time; an author doesn't quite thing something all the way through, or doesn't realize how a particular bit of narrative shorthand will read, or just writes something that a reader with a different background or set of biases will perceive completely differently.  It happens.

But you really can't let it happen as regards the particular moral you're building your message fic around, because getting your reader to accept that moral (or at least, accept the premise you've laid, even if they disagree with the conclusion you draw) is what you're nominally trying to do.  To grab one more example from the abortion fic: the counsel of unicorns which initially pass judgement on the mare trying to get an abortion are specifically shown to be all-male, which sets up a very uncomfortable parallel with some political and gender politics (at least, here in America; I admit I don't know whether abortion is as divisive along gender lines in other countries).

Now, if the author wanted to explore the idea of men telling women what to do with their bodies, then that would be one thing.  But by using an all-male counsel without further examination or purpose, a huge distraction is introduced which serves no purpose but to distract from and weaken the main message.

I'm sure I could come up with plenty more, but this seems like a good starter set.  Plus, five commandments fill a single stone tablet nicely, and I don't really feel like getting out a second slab.


  1. I thing things all the time.


    1. Please, thing only in moderation.

  2. Yeah, #5 is a big one, and not just in message fics. This is a very good post, because I'm starting to get into exploring messages in my writing, and I will definitely be keeping #1 in mind, as I've criticized stories in the past specifically for breaking it.

  3. I think that having you start off with a section about Lewis sold me on this. Previously, I had only one rule about message fics: DON'T!

    As an atheist, I can't subscribe to the foundation of Lewis' philosophical works, but I deeply admire his observations on human nature and his resulting moral attitude. To me this means that his message fics operate on a deeper level than mere religious dogma, speaking to the basic nature of good and evil. Fortunately for me, I found the Narnia books when I was too young to be put off by the Christian Symbolism.

    So I'm willing to admit that a message fic can have value beyond its targeted intent... and that is what makes it worthwhile as fiction rather than editorial. I still think that the vast majority of fics that set out to deliver a message (even one I agree with) are irritating at best, but I won't condemn them out of hand in future.

    Congratulations on changing my mind about something!

  4. Little did Chris know that while he was up on the mountain, carving the stone slab, the readers of his blog had grown impatient, and had already written a poorly-done message fic about the use of religious symbolism, which they had printed on a great golden plaque. And when Chris came down from the mountain, he was enraged, and broke his tablet when he threw it upon the ground in fury. And the voice of Chris grew loud as he pronounced judgement on them:

    "I shall keep the promise I have made to your people, and one day, I will review all the fics that you have requested of me. But you shall not live to see that day. Only your descendants will know my blessings."

    And so they wandered the internet for forty years.

    1. And also he took their poorly-done message fic, and ground it up, mixing it with water and forcing them to drink their words. And they were stupid words. And their preachiness without source material to back them up did catch in their throats, and when Chris called them out on it, their words trailed off, and they did die.*

      *In the social sense.

    2. That speaks depressingly ill of the expected longevity of the pony fiction community.

    3. Or rather, the members thereof.

    4. We'd probably all live a lot longer were it not for that damn robot uprising.

    5. Their hubris was their downfall.

  5. By the way, Chris, did you get my last email?

  6. Good post, and on a subject I've been thinking about a fair amount since the review on "Tyrant." But it seems like this was focusing on one class of message stories: those that are really trying to be convincing to either an indifferent or a hostile audience. But there are also message fics, which can themselves be enjoyable for a more limited audience. Satire and parody, mockery, etc., generally of the preaching to the choir sort. There, some of these rules can almost be turned on their heads. Caricatures are fine in that genre, and by nature they may well trivialize the subject, since the point isn't to convince, educate, or edify, but more to poke fun at an opposing group or stance. The key point there is that it should be fun and funny, not serious. That's where I think "Tyrant" went wrong (along with some unfortunate implications): it was written with a caricaturization of the genre it opposed, but went with a downer tone rather than reveling in the stupidity the author felt the Tyrant Twilight genre exhibited.

    That said, I believe the points about talking down to the audience and avoiding unfortunate implications still apply. At that point you're writing for people who are already on your side, so pedantry is doubly insulting, and unfortunate implications can ruin almost any mood.

    1. Satire, it's true, can and does play by somewhat different rules. But I would argue that a good satire (as opposed to a lazy one) should still stick to all of these rules other than the "caricature" one. And even then, it's for a different purpose, generally; the kind of caricaturizing I'm talking about is when you reduce the views of a group to a silly, nonsensical strawman and treat it seriously. Satire will reduce the views of a group to a silly, nonsensical strawman to show how silly the core precepts really are. The difference being, then, that (good) satire recognizes that normal people don't actually believe [this]; it's holding up [this] as an example of why the actual views of the people it's mocking don't hold water.

  7. Wait. Hold up. We can write in and just demand things?

    All the time I've wasted...

    1. I demand that Chris write a clean limerick about ponies in the comments section! I demand it!

    2. There once was a colt from Nantucket...

    3. It seems my demands produced naught but the wishful results of a monkey's paw functioning at a fraction of its full effect. Let it be known that my hubris was my downfall.

  8. Good blog post! I feel intellectualized.

    Gonna go back to that G.K. Chesterton quote again about good stories telling the truth about their heroes and bad stories telling the truth about their authors. Personally I think all stories should have some sort of moral to them, else the conflict feel meaningless, but it should be a moral that the characters learn and the readers can contemplate, not something that has the characters practically turn toward the camera at the end and go, "See? See what happens when you blah blah blah?"

    I actually get distressed about this topic a lot because when it's done poorly about big issues it makes people lose respect not just for the author, but for the issue as a whole. If you want to write a story with a message about something serious, then you need to take it seriously, and be a good enough writer to be able to do it in a way that won't result in people just getting angry about it. If you don't have the charisma and the knowledge (actual knowledge. Not skimming Wikipedia articles on your phone knowledge) to improve people's understanding of an important issue without upsetting them, then it's almost a guarantee you'll make things worse, especially on the internet where insane people tend to be the loudest. Don't be that guy, man. Be cool. Write fanfics about fun stuff instead.

  9. Great post Chris. You make some very good points about the pitfalls of message fics.

    By the way you have another six star review to be done. This time it's Somber's FoE:Project Horizons.

    1. Also BronyCray's "The Night That Never Ended" and Arcainum's Harpflank and Sweets.

  10. Message fics, as a whole, are a little bit lost on me. I really like it when fics have a really strong theme, but in my book the author should always think of the story first and the message second.

    Take the show, for example -- back when they had lessons at the end of each episode, they would sort it out at the very end of it. It was the last thing they came out with; they just asked themselves "Okay,so what did they learn this time?"

    (Hence AJ's legendary "Ah didn't learn anything!" They couldn't come up with a lesson that time, so they said screw it leave it like this).

    While he's not the best author out there and has some flaws, I believe Stephen King's approach to writing stories and adding morals to them is the best way to go: write the damn thing, then read it. Figure out what's the theme and what's the moral, and edit it to make it more obvious if necessary. That's how I always do it.

    Then again, the messages in that kind of story tend to be really simple. "It's okay to let it go sometimes", "you need to realize what is more important to you", etc. If people catch it, good. If they don't, hey, as long as it's a good story? Neat for me. All my stories have a moral of sorts and usually nobody notices -- and I actually think they're better for that reason, so there you go.