Writers tend to resist sending a message when writing stories because they fear their writing will come off as preachy or they just want to tell a simple story. If you consider yourself a writer, ask yourself, why would you be interested in sending a message with your own story?
The answer is simple: Whether you like it or not, stories send messages. It’s inevitable. The difference between a writer that knows how to send a message and a writer that doesn’t want to send a message is that only one of them has control over the message their story will surely tell.
How exactly do stories send a message?
Stories consist of a conflict between characters and their values. As your character chases their goals, their values will come into conflict with their opponent, who holds different valuesIf your character reaches their goal at the end of the story, their victory will communicate to the audience which values or character traits helped them win. If your hero fails to reach their goal, this will demonstrate what values made them lose or what values made the opponent win. A message will be sent whether you like it or not.
The problem is that if you want to make sure your writing consists of quality stories, you need to make sure that this message is not contradicted throughout your story.
For example, if your hero is a rebel that wants to escape a dystopian authoritarian country with their family, you can write that they value family and freedom. If by the end of the story, they sacrifice themselves to let their family escape, the message communicated will be along the lines of, there cannot be freedom without sacrifice.
However, if some other family in this story manages to escape the country without any sacrifice, you need to know what other values that family had that led them to escape without terrible loss. If you’re not aware of that, your entire story will fall apart in the eyes of the audience. The message will become,there cannot be freedom without sacrifice . . . sometimes, and your original message is lost.
If you don’t want your story’s message to come across as weak and wish to maintain control of your story’s moral argument, here’s what you need to do:
Along with your character conflict, your story must take into consideration the conflict of values. A conflict of values tends to revolve around two or more values that are opposing each other within the context of your story.
Some of these values can be freedom vs order, love vs duty, love vs work or even good vs evil. While love and work aren’t inherently opposing values (like life and death), in stories like the 2016 film, La La Land, they are. In La La Land, our hero has to make a decision between prioritizing her dream job of being an actress and the person she loves. In this context, these values are in conflict because the hero cannot have both love and her dream job.
After you have a clear view of the conflict of values, you need to make these values present throughout the story. If your conflict of values is truth vs lies, for example, you need to present the audience with each character’s different view on truth and lies. This could mean having characters that are so honest they’re hurtful, and it could also mean having characters that lie with benevolent intentions.
In your hero’s character arc, you can have both values at each end of the arc. If your hero values lying at the beginning, have them embark on a journey that teaches them to value truth in the end. Think about the moment your character will realize to value truth has over lying. Write this realization in a way that forces your hero to make a choice that will change their life forever.
The Character’s Choice:
In your story, a character (mostly your hero) will find themselves, in the end, making a choice that will inform the audience what values will thrive or lose. This is what John Truby calls, in his book Anatomy of a Story, the moral choice.
The moral choice is the single best tool writers can use to communicate a message in their stories. This choice should be motivated by a revelation your character will have prior to this choice. The moral choice should be something that the character, at the beginning of the story, would NEVER consider doing. What happens between the beginning of the story and the end is a journey your character must undertake in order to become someone who is willing to make this decision.
For example, (SPOILERS for Casablanca, 1942 film) in Casablanca, our hero, Rick, a selfish, greedy club owner, comes into possession of some letters of transit which allow free travell through Nazi-occupied Europe. Rick could sell these letters at