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Understanding Your Message



As we continue to explore the Year of Courage and reveal the many facets of understanding your writing, it’s time to take a closer look at the most essential, all-encompassing part of your work: the message


Your message is what drives every story you write, and what invigorates your writing practice as a whole. It’s the unique force that resonates in your story and in the minds of your readers. Without a message, your story is merely about something, not About something. 


Needless to say, your message is a big deal. So it’s important that you know what it is, and how to find it. Luckily, we can help you master both. 


Themes vs. message

The first step to understanding your work’s message is to separate your notion of message from theme


Story themes and messages are interrelated and often inform one another, but they are in fact two distinct story elements.


Themes are big, universal ideas that exist within the many layers of your story. They can often be described by a single word or short phrase, and your story may have several of them. Here are a few common examples:


  • Family

  • Power

  • Coming of age

  • Beauty

  • And, of course, love


Because of the grand size of these ideas, themes are typically abstract and objective. They’re not there to persuade your reader to believe a certain point, or pass some kind of moral judgment—they’re simply present.


(If you want to learn more about writing themes effectively, you can read my past blog post on the topic here!)


 

Your story’s message, on the other hand, is more specific, more persuasive, and more subjective than its themes. It can take full sentences or paragraphs to describe a message, and usually, there’s only one.


Your story’s message isn’t always a moral, though if you’re writing kid lit, it can be. Rather, your message is how your story specifically interprets the present themes, either by valuing one over the other, showing how they’re connected, and more. 


If themes are musical instruments, then the message is the musical composition: which instruments you use, what notes you play, and how you play them. Two artists can write a song using the same instruments, yet produce two wildly different end products. 


Similarly, two stories can have the same themes and convey two completely different messages. 


 

Consider two famous books by female authors both published in the early 19th century: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights


Both books explore themes of family, love, and class. But through the use of plot, tone, perspective, and other story elements, they come to different conclusions about them. In Wuthering Heights, love is violent and dark and ultimately tragic, while in Pride and Prejudice, love triumphs over money and status. 



No story can send the same message as another, because the entire story is the message. One can’t be fully separated from the other. 


How to find your story’s message

Themes often come up naturally as you’re writing. You may start with a few themes in mind, but it’s easy to later find (or have readers find) themes in your work you didn’t even realize were there. 


A story’s message is more intentional. Think of it as your thesis, and your story’s main purpose is to prove it. That doesn’t mean you need to write out your message (or even consciously know what it is) to start writing. Often, your message won’t be clear to you until after writing the first draft, or during the editing process. 


That’s the beauty of a work’s message—the work itself is what fuels it. 


As to what your message should be, only you can decide. Don’t be afraid to get deep, personal, and honest. Even if you’re writing comedy or satire, and your message is hidden underneath layers of irony and fun hijinks, it’s still there


At the center of every story is the sincere wish to share something you believe. So believe in it!


Why your message matters

A message adds essential meaning and depth to any piece of writing, no matter what genre it is. 


A reader can be a total sci-fi hater, but if your story about an intergalactic traveling circus troupe is at its core about the unifying, healing power of found family, you may be able to hook them. (Sidenote—I need someone to write that, like right now). 


Understanding your message will also make it easier to properly convey your story to publishers. If you can sum up both what your story is about, and what it’s About, the editor or agent you’re querying will see your vision more clearly, and with more interest. 


 

Don’t let your story’s message waste away in a bottle (or your docs)—unroll it and share it with all the weary travelers (your readers!) that sail your way.


 

About the author:

Lindsey has a BA in English and creative writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.

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