Writing Better Stories With Morals & Messages
Fiction is a great way to convey a moral message to people and spread a message. Unfortunately, if it's done wrong the message can fall flat or even backfire. So, here are some things to consider when writing them to make the morals of your stories work.
Table of Contents
- Understand the other side and its complexities.
- Don’t make it all about the message and skimp over everything else.
- Don’t try to sell your message with circumstances or consequences that are extremely rare or don’t exist in the real world
- So to recap...
Understand the other side and its complexities.
A fault in many works that attempt to convey a message is that the issues the they attempt to address are polarized. Those who aren’t on the side the author is taking are treated and/or characterized as utter monsters or reprobates. If there would realistically be any negative consequences if those that the author believes to be in the right had their own way, they’re conveniently ignored. For example, a work might portray a working-class game hunter as a heartless monster, ignoring the fact that in the real world, a successful hunt can mean the difference between having food to put on the table or going hungry.
Entire groups whose actions and/or ideologies that the author doesn’t agree with may be uniformly presented as a virtual hivemind of evil or ignorance, rather than a collection of individuals with varying personalities and opinions, and who possibly even have genuine moral convictions for acting the way they do. For example, let’s start with the story premise that there is an old tree that Bob wants to cut down, but Susie believes should be left alone. If the story is written from an environmentalist point of view, Bob and his supporters might be characterized as greedy business tycoons who don’t care what harm they cause to the environment, while Susie and her supporters are characterized as having respect for Mother Earth and the environment and understanding the importance of protecting and preserving it. If the story is told with sympathy to Bob’s side, then Susie and her people might be characterized as ignorant idealists who put the welfare of a single tree above people - the tree is old and a danger if it falls, and the community center that Bob plans to build in the area will benefit the locals. Both versions of Bob and both versions of Susie exist in the real world, and polarizing the opposing sides in a work of fiction so that it appears to be only one or the other is disingenuous and diminishes a work from being potentially thought-provoking down to petty propaganda.
The 2012 film The Lorax introduced the Once-ler as a struggling young entrepreneur. The Lorax attempted to get him out of the forest and even tried to kill him before he’d done anything really wrong. The fact that the Once-ler has to learn a living somehow (pancake batter doesn’t pay for itself!) was never acknowledged. This makes the Lorax, whose side we’re allegedly supposed to take, look callous and petty instead of sympathetic. If the story had taken a more nuanced approach, with it being clear that the issue was not just that the Once-ler was making thneeds, but that the Once-ler was making thneeds irresponsibly, it would have made a far more compelling story and sent audiences home with a message that would be far more applicable to the real world.
Many anti-drug stories treat drug addiction as something that people just happen to stumble into (often aided with peer pressure), ignoring the fact that one of the main reasons people start doing drugs in the first place is to gain relief from awful life conditions - eg, abusive family members, economic woes, or untreated medical or mental conditions. By ignoring the reasons people become addicted in the first place, addicts are harmed because those who have never faced such troubles fail to understand the depth and scope of the problem and therefore cannot respond to the problem appropriately.
You can’t give a message that’s supposed to apply to the real world that doesn’t actually fit the real world, let alone the diversity and complexity of the people in it, because the only people who will ultimately benefit from it are the people who live in your imaginary black-and-white world.
Don’t make it all about the message and skimp over everything else.
First of all, when people sit down to watch a movie or read a book, they’re usually doing so to enjoy a good story, not to be preached at. Most people don’t enjoy feeling like a story is preaching at them unless they already agree with its message, and if they already agree with the message then you’re just preaching to the choir. Your story needs to have characters and a plot that would remain compelling and stand on their own even if the message of the story was completely removed to keep people interested despite the message.
The best messages and morals are those that are worked into the overall flow of the story and come through as an organic part of a larger whole, rather than being the sole or main focal point of the story. Let’s take Corpse Bride as an example - the final message is that having something stolen from you doesn’t give you the right to steal it from someone else, but there’s so much more to the story than that. Wall-E has a message of environmental and economical responsibility, but it doesn’t overshadow the drama that goes on between the characters.
Take a look at your story idea - if the core message was removed, would there be enough left over to keep people interested? If not, you need to reorganize your story.
Don’t try to sell your message with circumstances or consequences that are extremely rare or don’t exist in the real world.
If you try to write a story that tries to dissuade people from bullying by, say, showing that bullies will be gobbled up by horrible monsters, you’re going to convince absolutely no-one because everyone knows that this doesn’t really happen. Likewise, if you’re trying to show that unconditional kindness is a good trait by having a flying saucer full of benevolent aliens pick up your protagonist because the aliens are impressed by how sweet and kind your character is, people aren’t really going to be affected because they know that the odds of being taken away by alien saviors are infinitely improbable.
If Birdemic is to be taken at face value, one of the main reasons we should try to fight global warming is because bird flu will make birds indiscriminately and senselessly maul humans to death and even make the birds explode. But out of all of the scenarios that a warmer planet could potentially cause, explosive man-eating birds is not one of them. All other issues with the film aside, people aren’t going to feel encouraged to change their habits to stop a consequence they don’t believe could ever happen.
It’s not a problem if a story with a moral message happens to contain fantastic or outlandish elements, but if the moral boils down to “do this/don’t do this because this fantastic thing with no real-world analog might happen,” then you’ve got a problem on your hands.
Another one you want to avoid is the “slippery slope” scenario, which shows up with alarming frequency in anti-substance propagandas. For example, little Janie gives into the temptation to try a bit of alcohol, and the next thing you know she’s turned into a complete juvenile delinquent. Yes, substance abuse can and does lead to horrible consequences, but a scenario like this won’t convince anyone who knows people who drink and remain functioning members of society. The only thing you’ll do if you fail to handle a scenario believably is show people that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and people aren’t going to listen to someone they believe doesn’t know what xe’s talking about.
So, to recap...
- Make sure you understand both sides of the issue, especially the one you're arguing against, so you don't end up creating a straw man and thus undermine the very message you're trying to make.
- Don't forget that you also need a good plot and compelling characters - simply having a message or moral does not on its own a good story make.
- Don't build your moral narrative on things that are not likely to happen audiences in the real world and/or have no obvious real-world analog. People aren't very inclined to change their behavior over something they don't believe could actually happen.
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