Story or Message?

Be A NovelistTo Message or Not to Message

Whether to write a story, or to convey a message (in a novel), that is the question. But most beginning novelist will flare up and recoil at such a question. Why? Because they are confident that it can be both. They are confident that they most assuredly can purport their message via the venue of a novel — and pull it off.

Why is it that many novice novelists get touchy when this subject is broached? In nearly every case, it’s because that individual has a message lurking within his heart and mind. In fact that message may have been simmering for a very long time, slowly coming to a boil. The next step, to that novelist’s way of thinking, is to get the message out to the world by weaving it into a novel.

So what’s wrong with that, you may be asking. Sounds like a great idea.


Here’s the crux of the matter. A fledgling novelist with a message burning within, will invariably produce a novel that is message-heavy. This means the story becomes secondary to the message. It’s a guarantee for producing a weak, lifeless plot.

When message becomes the primary emphasis, the result is closer to a sermon or an essay. Be A NovelistIt harks back to the time when novelists inserted “…and so, dear reader…” speaking directly to the reader to make their point. Now the plot has become flat and cold.

When the message becomes the primary emphasis, it shatters the fragile illusion of reality that your readers is seeking. (That illusion of reality is the real reason she is reading a novel in the first place.) Today’s readers have no patience with such tactics as poorly-devised attempts to couch a message within the novel.

Keep in mind if the novel-reader were looking for the author’s opinion, that reader would read the editorial page, not a novel.

Let Characters Do the Work

If you feel strongly about a subject (and most novelists do!), wrap those ideas and opinions around your characters. Let your characters play out those ideas in their dialogue and actions. However, make doubly sure those words and actions belong in the story and help build the story. Otherwise, it still amounts to author intrusion. (Remember, the novelist’s job is much like a puppeteer; if you can be seen the illusion is destroyed.  The author must remain invisible.)

Another point to be made is this: once you have emptied your gun in this beginning novel, will your need for enforcing your message carry you through a second or even a third novel? I’m guessing the answer is probably not.

Love of Story

However, if your novel-writing is conceived and birthed in the womb of love-of-story, now you are miles ahead.

The novelist who has an innate, insatiable love of story, can produce story after story after story – it’s a natural overflow of that deep-seated love and passion. And the good news is that a well-crafted, well-told, well-written story (novel) will nearly always carry within it a strong message.  Hm.


I trust the teaching and instruction given in this blog post was helpful in your goal to be a Be A NovelistnovelistFor more in-depth writer’s workshops, check out the wide variety offered at the Be A Novelist Website.


Are you one of those budding novelists who makes a great start but you can’t seem to finish?  Then this is for you!  Be A Novelist, Six-Month, Finish-My-Novel Challenge!  Six full months of guidance and instruction. Guaranteed to light a fire under your novel-writing attempts and to launch you into a pattern of consistent writing! Check it out here!


9 thoughts on “Story or Message?

  1. klynwurth

    I love this…I’m writing my fifth novel and I realize that those others, where I felt I had “something to say,” were weak in the very way that I thought they were strong. Thanks goodness those four didn’t make it into print. This one is about character and story and is more open to reader interpretation, which I believe is a very good thing.Once there’s a reader, the story doesn’t solely belong to the writer, anyway, and apparently we like that fact, because we keep trying to engage readers. Writing a novel is a lively and ultimately social event. For me, it’s enough that the story is the message. I’m looking forward to hearing other people tell me what it “means” to them.

    1. Norma Jean Lutz

      Hi K.Lyn!! Thanks for sharing your heart. Don’t you love it when you can look back and see genuine progress in honing your novel-writing skills? Engaging our readers, as you said, is crucial. Once we forget that, we are headed down a very lonely road. (And it’s lonely enough being a novelist without alienating our readers!) Thanks again!

  2. Steve Craig

    One of the best lessons I ever learned in a novel writing workshop was, “Be very careful of your moral agenda.” If you beat your reader over the head with your moral, your reader will push you away.

  3. Lari Don

    I completely agree that a heavy message or theme can destroy a book, and this is especially the case in kids’ books, where some writers seem determined to “teach” children something important, as well as tell them an exciting story. I think it’s possible to create sympathetic characters with a variety of moral points of view and address complex issues in books for kids, without giving them a black and white answer. I prefer to let my readers work it through for themselves rather than telling them out loud what I think! In fact, sometimes I don’t even know what I think about an issue until I’ve finished writing it. With several of my novels, I’ve noticed a theme or a message running through them once I’ve finished writing, perhaps at the editing stage, which must have sneaked in subconsciously! Usually I leave the theme there, but I do make sure it’s not even slightly obvious. I don’t like being preached at, and I want to show the same respect for my readers. Interesting question, thanks for posing it!

    1. Norma Jean Lutz

      Hi LariDon (Love your name!)
      This is balanced insight you have shared here. Love hearing your perspective. It’s obvious you’ve learned the balance — just by looking at what all you’ve had published. Thanks for weighing in on a sometimes touchy subject.

  4. Pingback: Author as Puppeteer – Author Intrusion | Be A Novelist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *