In today’s social media driven knowledge and talent economy everyone (supposedly) has a brand and a message that they’re trying to get out there to say “look at me, hire me, buy my things, I’m you!” (Some people are a lot better at it than others.) It didn’t used to be this way or at least it wasn’t as important. For writers, this trying to convey a message through words is something that we have been doing for hundreds of years whether we mean to or not.
And sometimes our messages in our books and stories gets through. And sometimes, the messages that are found in our stories aren’t the messages we thought we put in and that’s okay. Sometimes, we don’t think we have a message because we have a story we want to tell and that’s okay too. The story can be the message, something about that story is important to you even if you can’t verbalize what it is.
It can be okay to not be able to verbalize something. You might not know what you needed to get out of that story until it’s done and you’re finished and you can step back and evaluate and go “yeah, that’s it, that’s what I wanted to say.”
Writers most often come across this conundrum in the parallel problem of expressing emotions. Because emotions are things you feel rather than something you can touch, taste, see, smell or hear. Emotions are bound up in thought and many people don’t know what they are or how to express them properly. They’re ephemeral. And your message can be just as ephemeral.
Messages and emotions have to be worked around and expressed explicitly at times to convey them and have them hit home. Because your message serves absolutely no purpose if no one understands it or even gets that it’s there.
Other people are not in your brain.
Unlike the science fiction and fantasy worlds that I write in and that I love to read, people in our reality tend not to be telepaths or empaths or psychic or mind readers. Especially when it comes to the written word. They don’t know your thought process or that you spent hours of time agonizing over five variations of the same dialogue or how to convey character movement without making the characters appear like they’re fidgeting. (Unless the character is a chronic fidgeter.)
So, you, the writer, are going to have to convey your message in different ways. You’re going to have show it and tell it. (Throw that “show, don’t tell” advice out the window on this one. It’s show and tell time, ladies and gents. Just like back in kindergarten when you brought in that cool action figure.)
Comics are a great medium to study to learn about this. They are a very constrained medium. Many comics use four panels per day or week to get their point across. And there are a lot of different types of comics. There are funny comics. There are dramatic story comics. There are comics that are political and comics that are about life.
A really good comic that I love to read (because it fits my “brand”) is Manly Guys Do Manly Things at thepunchlineismachismo.com by Coelasquid aka Kelly Turnbull (a storyboard artist for Ben10 and all around amazing person tbh. I wish I had her health, seriously.) Those are the first two messages right there, the name of the comic and the website URL. I know instantly that this webcomic is about to revolve around beefy action hero types doing action hero like things.
The main original character is named Commander Rock Lobster Badass for goodness sake. You’ve got Canada Guy running around randomly killing moose. And everyone from Ganondorf to Duke Nukem popping their heads in and making commentary. (Riddick runs the occasional DnD session.) And then you’ve got Jared. And Jared is the everyman with limp noodle arms and a magikarp in this insane world to give a reason for the Commander to translate all this craziness for us to understand.
There are one off funny comics, there are story arcs, and there is the occasional political lampoon commentary, lots of bits about Overwatch, and then there are bits where the Commander explains the philosophy of Marlon Brando and his own version of actually very healthy masculinity. (Round pegs don’t go in square holes and square pegs don’t go in round holes. Do what works for you.) And there are other places where he shows healthy masculinity in being an all around awesome dad and mentor. (Seriously, don’t be Goku standing around screaming for hours.) I love the fact that Commander Badass is in a relationship with Jonesy that he refuses to pin down with labels. Because not all romantic relationships need labels!
And she does this once a week despite holding down a demanding job and breaking her limbs in motorcycle accidents and going off to Wasteland every year and keeping pigeons. (That inspired some adorable velociraptors.) Even her pictures reflect her brand!
As a writer and a storyteller, you have to show your message and you have to outright tell people your message in your stories and through your stories. And some characters might not be quite as literal as Commander Badass there.
Say your story is based on the message of “Girl, you need that man like a fish needs a bicycle.” (See entertaining Sinfest Comic strip.) So, you’re story is probably going to open up with your female character thinking she needs the male in her life. Her friends and family don’t think so and tell her so and probably try to encourage her to be more independent. “You don’t need him!” “You’re better than that!” But she’s stuck in that thought pattern that she needs a man.
And she’s not going to change until she comes to the realization on her own quite possibly at her lowest point when he’s betrayed her in whatever way is the most important to her. (Or she’s done something that even shocks herself that she’d thought she’d never do.) Then she’s going to believe “Oh, I don’t need that man. “And no doubt, she’s going to think it and she might get angry about it. Now she wants to get free and be independent and she wants it badly. She’s hurt. She’s lashing out. And she may or may not lash out constructively! (Conflict! Angst! Girl Power! Boo Yah!)
Then you have to show you quite possibly kicking this man out of her life. And then doing whatever it is that needs to be done to be more independent and take care of herself. Then, the character is going to have to figure out why emotionally and psychologically she thought she needed that man. (Therapy is good people.) Or else, she’s just going to fall back into the same pattern and not learn anything or grow as a character. (Character growth is the best.) So that when she finds a new man, that man is nice and all and she likes having him around, but she doesn’t need him to fill whatever emotional or psychological need that the previous man was filling.
Give it a fancy title that reflects your message of freedom or breaking chains or independence and call it a day! (Simplistic example is simplistic.)
It’s the age old problem of show versus telling. But in this case you have to show and tell to get the point across. The point being that somewhere in your story that your main character or a character around your main characters in a not preachy way manages to say your message clearly and succinctly.
Because brevity, brevity, brevity.
People don’t come to a story for the message. They come to be entertained and yeah, the message or the theme may resonate with them. They want to see the message in action more than they wanted to be talked at about the message for a good hour or 300 pages. (Look, if I want a moral lecture I’ll go back to church.) If your brand is about romance, the story should focus more on the romance and answering the question of “why can’t they be together right now” than the message of “You don’t need that man, honey.” (Okay, contradictory to an extent, but um, not at the same time. Healthy romances, HEALTHY folks.) If your stories are like mine and are about adventure and explosions with a side of finding your place in the world, then the story should focus on action, explosions and finding your place in that world.
Your message needs to be clear and consistent and even though you as a person might not agree with something that a character is doing, it doesn’t mean that you endorse what that character is doing. You can always show that the character is wrong, that their methods are bad by giving them consequences.
And remember, just because your story has a message, it doesn’t have to be about the message. You can still save the universe and convey that being gay is okay or that racism is wrong or true love can strike twice. Stories are allowed layers.
The key being that if no one at all gets the message you wanted or the opposite message or no message at all when you’ve tried to put one in then you’ve failed as a writer. And that’s not okay.