Literary Billboards, or, This Novel Brought to You By…

Theme. Message. Allegory.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in trying to use these tools. A written work is, after all, an expression of the author, and so it is very tempting to use them as vehicles for our own passions. But all too often, the push to include the right theme or message often drowns out the only truly necessary element: Story. Writers are, by nature and definition, story tellers. Telling the story is the first, foremost, and arguably the only real obligation of the writer.

The best written works often contain all these elements, but they all have one thing in common; they tell great stories. In Moby Dick, Melville gives us a stunning view of the dangers of blind obsession and revenge. There have been enough thesis papers on the themes, sub-themes, and such of Moby Dick written to sink a fleet of aircraft carriers, and I don’t intend to add to it. But in my mind, (and I’d bet in Melville’s, too) Moby Dick is really the story of the Pequod’s last journey. Yes, I have a point here.

Melville didn’t sit down one day and say “What if I told the world about the dangers of obsessive revenge?” He probably had a moment of “Hey, what if a whaling captain went bat-shit crazy trying to catch an elusive whale? Yeah, and maybe he’s pissed, like super-pissed, because it took an arm or a leg or something? He’d be so crazed trying to kill this one whale, he wouldn’t give a rat fart about his crew, his ship, or even his own life.” And then he started to write.

The best novels tell a story, and if there’s a message, it usually just sort of…happens. You can have the most powerful message in the world about global warming, genocide, racism, or what-have-you; if you beat the reader over the head with it, they’re probably going to put the book down before they finish it and move on to someone else. In her excellent Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has a lot to say about standing up for what’s right, no matter the cost. But because you’re so engrossed in the adventures (and utter mishaps) of Harry and the gang, you don’t feel like you’re trying to see the story around billboards. In fact, it’s perfectly possible (and utterly acceptable, not to mention fun) to read the entire series, back-to-back, without giving a fig about the message or the theme.

I could go on and on (and believe me, if someone doesn’t stop me, it’s likely) but I think we’ve got the point. As a novelist, your first–and arguably only–job is to TELL THE STORY. By all means, develop a theme. Have a central message as part of your story arc. Use allegory to shape the story line and the characters. I promise to listen; as long as we both understand I might not agree with you, it’ll all work out in the end.

But tell a story, damn it. If you write an entire novel and you don’t have a story to tell, you’re just jerking off.


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