The Moral of the Story Is…

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement among writers about whether a story should have an intentional theme or message, or whether every story even needs to have one. Some say that a story can be more honest and well-crafted without a single, intentional theme, and others say that a unified message makes a story stronger and gives it meaning.

I am personally in the latter camp. I believe that as Christians, we should be writing with purpose, to glorify God, and that our writing, like everything else, needs to clearly point to Him in some way. Not that it has to be explicit. But I believe it’s much stronger when it’s intentional.

That said, I realize that tacking on a blatantly stated moral a la Aesop is usually not the best way to get through to the reader. Disneyesque epiphanies and stories that are forced to fit a theme artificially can be frustrating and very ineffective, not to mention just bad writing.

So how can one be clear while still being natural? Is it possible to communicate what you mean without being explicit? Of course it is. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen it done masterfully. And in my studies of such examples, I’ve noticed a common attribute — the story and the message are so intertwined that you can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends.

The best example, I think, is Jesus. (Isn’t He always?) The tales He told were allegorical, a form often scorned by writers as being “too obvious.” But what I see when I look at His parables are beautifully concise examples of story and message being one. It doesn’t look like He had a nice story and glued a message on top, nor does He seem to have forced the stories to tell His messages. The stories are the messages. The two cannot be separated. It’s not possible.

Charles Dickens is another good example. In most of his novels, he wanted to raise awareness of certain aspects of the impoverished classes of his time. That’s why his books exist. They are unified, with every arc and plot point being a part of something he feels very strongly about.

This is how I try to craft my stories. I try not to think in terms of message-first or plot-first. I try to keep the two so interdependent on each other that they are a single entity; the story. I have yet to master it, but I will continue to study the masters, to practice my craft, and to write passionately about things that deeply matter.

How do you deal with message and theme in your writing?

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