Monday, February 09, 2009

Because I Said So!

In the early days of fiction, especially fiction for kids, it was often used to convey a moral or teach a lesson. When I was growing up, I hated Sunday School because it was full of stories with lessons and teachers with messages like “Okay, kids, this is how we all have to behave. If you don’t, you’re a bad person blah blah blah.” It drove me crazy because I didn't like complete strangers bossing me about, so I quickly learned how to tune it out.

What about fiction today? In general, it's frowned upon to write stories with hit-you-over-the-head moral lessons. Sure, there are still stories floating around like this – fables, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, etc. And I think most kids tune them out, just like I did.

When a writer sits down with a new idea for a story, what is the objective? Simply to tell an interesting story? To get a particular point across? To impart wisdom? I'm sure the majority of authors say they just had a story to share. My question is this: why do they want to share it? Obviously it's important to them or they wouldn't feel compelled to tell it. So, what about it makes it so important? What is the story's purpose?

Hmm, that's a doozy of a question...

The purpose of a story depends on who you are. For a reader, the purpose is to either be informed or entertained. For a publisher, it’s business. For a writer? That's another loaded question.And this is what I've heard from authors on multiple occasions:

"I had something to say, and this was the best way for me to say it."
"I learned many things the hard way, and I want to send some wisdom back to the younger crowd. Maybe it'll make things easier for them."
"There was something I wanted to share with others."
"I want to present alternative views of life."
"There are things important to me that I want to be remembered."
"I hope to have an impact on at least one individual."
"I want to make people laugh."
"I want to defend or advocate for others."
...and so on...

All of these reasons are valid and admirable. But the reason behind the story doesn’t make it a good story – it’s all in the execution. And that execution will result in either themes or morals.

Theme – a distinct, recurring, and unifying quality or idea; the subject of a discourse, discussion, piece of writing, or artistic composition

Moral – relating to issues of right and wrong and to how individual people should behave; giving guidance on how to behave decently and honorably; a conclusion about how to act drawn from a story or event; a short precise rule, usually written in a rather literary style as the conclusion to a story, used to help people remember the best or most sensible way to behave

The main difference is that a theme asks a question, while a moral attempts to answer one. Which is kind of bossy, in my opinion. : ) That’s probably why I tuned out the heavy-handed stories in Sunday School, because no one likes a Bossy Boiler (in the words of Thomas the Tank Engine).

That said, isn't a theme also like a message, albeit in a more subtle form? It doesn't tell the reader how to behave or what to do, but it does present a question or concept that he may not have thought much about before reading a particular story. On some level, a message has been presented to him and he isn't ignoring it.

On a similar note, all the 'purpose of a story' reasons listed above, if you really look at them, do sound kind of message-y, don't they? I’ve heard all over the place that it’s a bad thing to sit down with the purpose of writing about atrocities/dangers/horridness of X. But is it really such a bad thing? I think it depends on how the story is executed.

Every book on the shelves has some kind of message woven into it. Some are blatantly obvious, and others have been written so subtly that the reader can take that message in his own context. Which isn’t necessarily the context intended by the author.

I think many people assume authors like this don’t write toward a message because it doesn’t hit them over the head. But I’m not so sure...if the author didn’t have something important to say, she likely wouldn’t have said anything, and we’d have had no story to read. Instead, I think she's just better at weaving in her message so it isn't so obvious.


Marcia said...

I think your last line sums it up perfectly. Most of the reasons people give for writing for children imply "message," especially #2 and #4 on your list, but not only those. In fact, why wouldn't they even apply to adult writing? As an introvert, I think I write to reach out, to get out of myself in an alternative way. I also write because I write. It's just me.

Mary Witzl said...

The best Sunday school teacher I ever had was one who told stories for the joy of it. I don't think she ever tried to tell us how to behave, but to this day I remember the great example she was. I need to remember this when I write: I have moral points I'm desperate to make and I have been too heavy handed.

Like you, my kids cannot bear being lectured to or presented with obvious morals. They wouldn't read anything that had a strong moral bias unless it was woven in so skillfully that you could hardly see it. They make great beta readers, actually...

I write for all of those reasons you've listed, but perhaps mostly for numbers 1 and 2.

Mary Witzl said...

(Coincidence! I've only just noticed that you wrote a comment on my blog!)

Tabitha said...

Marcia - definitely! I think these reasons apply to adult fiction just as much as kids fiction. The 'message' parts are more obvious in kids lit because I think a lot of adults make the mistake of talking down to kids. I see it happen sometimes with my kids, and then my three-year-old will say something insightful that clearly blows the adult's mind. It's kind of funny. :)

Mary - I wish I'd had your sunday school teacher! Mine was over the top. I was nine, and I think I actually rolled my eyes at one of the stories she told. And I wasn't an eye-roller, at all. Too funny that we cross-posted! :)

PJ Hoover said...

I have the hardest time identifying themes in my writing. I've been asked before what theme I try to get across, and I can't come up with one thing. I can come up with a random bunch of smaller things but not the biggie.

And didactic fiction drives me nuts!

I love your new little flower icon.

Merc said...

Very interesting post, Tabitha! Definitely made me think (even as mushed out as my brain is thanks to the evils of spandex discussion).

I poke theme occasionally (morals? uh, no clue), but I'm not always bothered if there isn't one obviously. I write to entertain, and I don't think you NEED to have something important to say all the time to just have fun... *shrugs*

If people want to read stuff into what I write, they're welcome to. :P I tend to be oblivious about most things of that sort when I read so to some extent that shows up in my writing. ;)

My brain is shot, I can't analyze much better... but again, good post.


Christina Farley said...

Interesting topic. I'm a fan where the morals or theme as you talked about it is so seemless that the reader doesn't even realize its there. I think all writers spill in their world view into their writing no matter if they mean to or not. Because ultimately, our writing reflect who we are.

Bish Denham said...

I found this about theme and plot.(I wish I knew where I got so I could give credit where it's due.)

Theme is what the story is about. It is the message, the lesson to be learned, the question that is asked. It is what the author is trying to tell about life and the human condition.

Plot is the action by which this truth, the theme, will be demonstrated.

If theme is the road, then plot is the landscape the road travels through. The road goes from point A to point B but along the way there are twists and turns, beautiful vistas, barren landscapes, deer that jump out unexpectedly.

The road itself MUST get to its final destination, that is the theme. What happens getting there, even potholes, how the road changes from beginning to end, that is plot.

I have kept this near-by for many years.

Tabitha said...

PJ - thanks. :) We've been under so much snow and ice lately that I was ready for a bit of spring, hence the flower. :) Regarding theme, maybe you don't have an overall theme. THE EMERALD TABLET is a plot-driven book, and I've noticed those kinds of books don't have major themes. The character-driven ones, however, are more likely to have serious, overall themes. They're also more likely to have hit-you-over-the-head lessons. :) Interesting the way that works out. :)

Merc - very true, you don't need to have something to say, you just need to have something to share. :) And the people reading into stuff in your work, too funny! That's my topic for next week! :)

Christina - exactly. We can't help but put in our own messages simply because we put so much of ourselves in our work. It's impossible not to. :)

Bish - great info, thanks!! :)