Sunday, July 22, 2018

Say Something Part 2: Overdoing It

     The responses to this piece (which also appears in this collection of essays on writing fiction, soon to be expanded, updated, and re-released) have been quite varied in focus. One respondent wanted to know whether it’s possible to “overdo it” with theme: i.e., to emphasize it to the detriment of the other virtues of a good story.

     Oh my yes. It most certainly is. That’s the malady that goes by the name of message fiction: a story whose theme is so grotesquely overemphasized that it’s really a preachment or a lecture, lacking in entertainment value.

     Much of the current contretemps in the speculative genres is about exactly this problem. Hearken to Scooter at Castalia House:

     What distinguishes message fiction from other kinds of fiction is that it is primarily agenda-driven. That is to say, message fiction is created first and foremost for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. Since authorial intention is often unclear, we tend to only notice the blatant cases — the ones with long-winded preachy sermons by one-dimensional characters who are only heroic by virtue of their cause. Nevertheless, message fiction is propaganda within a narrative wrapper, where the story, whether well crafted or not, is merely the delivery mechanism for the message. This definition applies to message fiction that is conservative or liberal, Christian or pagan. A good story, i.e. one with a compelling plot, theme, characters, and style, can still be message fiction if and only if the author wrote it to deliver a message.

     Please note that message here is not theme, although a theme is a kind of message. Themes are universal, and can have philosophical, political, and moral associations. They can be general subjects, like the themes of Power and Domination in Lord of the Rings, or more pointed, like “you are a special little snowflake”, the theme of every commercial ever made. Most good writing allows the reader to synthesize the meaning of the theme for themselves.

     There are grades and varieties of message fiction. To embody an important theme is not necessarily to slough the other fictional virtues. Some of it manages to entertain and edify; consider C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy in this light. Some of it treads the danger zone: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes to mind here. And some of it really should have been structured and conveyed as nonfiction.

     Unentertaining message fiction is characteristic of the monomaniacal ideologue. His agenda is essentially all he can think of. He populates his stories with characters specifically to act out the message he seeks to convey. The changes his characters experience – if any – tend to be unconvincing; their emotions seem plastered on. His protagonists seldom learn anything new; his antagonists are almost always pure evil (until the optional moment of enlightenment).

     Only another ideologue of matching convictions will enjoy the most extreme message fiction.

     In short: Yes, it’s possible to overdo it, and you must be careful not to do so. But how does one avert such a calamity? That’s what you’ve read this far for, isn’t it?

     Many a writer comes to his calling because of his desire to promulgate a particular idea or set of ideas. Again, C. S. Lewis presents a good example. This profoundly Christian man wrote far more nonfiction than fiction. However, except among his most ardent fans, his fiction is probably better known and appreciated. Yet Lewis’s fictions are one and all sermons on the overriding importance of Christianity.

     There are episodes in the Space Trilogy where Lewis edges near the abyss of overdoing it. He’s saved (albeit in one instance barely in time) by his love of a good story and his sense for what such a story demands.

     The dead giveaway to overdoing it is the tell.

     Every fictioneer and aspirant has heard the maxim show, don’t tell. Most of us get thoroughly sick of hearing it before we’ve finished our first novel. This is especially the case for those of us who have a powerful theme to convey.

     Herewith, how to recognize “the tell:”

     If you ever allow your narrator or a character – typically it’s a protagonist, though there are exceptions – to state your theme baldly at any point, you’ve overdone it. If you ever feel that you simply must do so – that not to do so would somehow be a default or a betrayal – you’re working in the wrong medium.

     That’s the thematic version of “the tell.” Rand stumbled into at several points in Atlas Shrugged. She leaped into it most notably in John Galt’s interminable radio speech toward the end of the book. It ruins the book, which possesses many other virtues, for quite a lot of readers.

     I find it particularly interesting to contrast the thematic with the characterological tell. The characterological tell appears when the narrator allows himself to speak directly to the reader about some character’s virtues, vices, talents, or faults. Here’s an example to demonstrate that “even Homer nods:”

     There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey. [The Fellowship of the Ring]

     If J. R. R. Tolkien can stumble, anyone can.

     Obviously, the thematic tell won’t look quite the same. However, it will bear a common fingerprint: i.e., either the narrator or one of his Marquee Characters speaks baldly of the theme rather than portraying in his decisions and actions.

     I’ve done it too. Fortunately, I have an “alpha reader” who’s ruthless about whacking me across the snout for it. I shudder to think how badly wrong I could go without her.

     And so: Yes, say something. Have a conscious theme. But don’t overdo it. Be alert to your own weaknesses and the temptations that can cause you to indulge them. Entertainment must always come first...but then, as a reader of fiction, you already knew that, didn’t you?

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