I’m always delighted to pick up something new by Ursula K. Le Guin. Her recent collection of essays, Words Are My Matter, covers a wide range of topics, but of course, I find her essays on writing the most thought-provoking. Here she is on whether you should start with story or with message:
Kids are taught writing in school as a means to an end…. So the kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”
No, I say, I don’t. I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all…. The kids are often disappointed, even shocked. I think they see me as irresponsible. I know their teachers do…. But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work…
Whoa. My bachelor’s is in English Literature (and Le Guin also goes on at length about the literature vs. genre debate) and it has been drilled into the heads of anyone who aspires to write capital-L Literature that the Vast and Noble Goals are the whole point. Yet Le Guin is one of my biggest influences, one of my most admired authors. What to do?
This got me thinking about another subject, tangentially related because I was watching it at the same time as reading this essay – Torchwood: Miracle Day. I watched Torchwood eagerly in its first three seasons (I know – they’re called “series” in Britain), and I consider the third season – Children of Earth – to be some of the best science fiction ever on television. It took me a long time to watch the fourth season, though, largely because of the negative reviews it got after the move from the BBC to Starz. Now that I am watching it, I have to agree, and I have to wonder why the fourth season is so bad. Miracle Day treads a lot of the same ground as Children of Earth: an otherworldly crisis brings out prejudices and other flaws in human nature. But where Children of Earth allowed these themes to grow naturally from the story, in Miracle Day all the themes seem to be shoehorned in, as if the writers periodically decided, “Now is the time to put in the Big Message!!” before going back to the plot.
Now I have to reflect on my own writing. Do I shoehorn in the Big Messages? Do I make story secondary to theme? It’s hard for me to get started writing until I know the major characters, their story arcs, and the theme – the thing that they need to learn or the way they need to change over the course of the story. These things seem to come to me all at once. So the original, skeleton outline for my second and third books was, “Aron Jannes is confronted with a choice. At the end of book two he makes the wrong choice. At the end of book three he makes the right one.” Everything else, all the details, fell in line around this thematic trajectory. The messages of growing maturity and responsibility were implied in the character arc. Is this sacrificing story for the sake of message?
Still, I can’t imagine that Le Guin sat down to write A Wizard of Earthsea without deciding that it would be the story of a talented young man whose recklessness gets him in trouble. It would be hard to even envision the character of a talented young man without the tendency toward recklessness and the potential for trouble being part of it.
I suppose the lesson here is to see what naturally follows from the ideas, from the story. Stuffing messages where they don’t emerge on their own is the problem. As Le Guin says, “A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”