Sullivan's Travels by By Paramount Pictures - National Board of Review Magazine for January 1942, Volume XVII, Number 1, page 7, Public Domain

Must a story have a message?

My novel The Remainders will be published by Black Rose Writing on September 2, 2021. I will describe my book in this series of posts. You can read other posts in The Remainders category on my website.

Here’s my opinion: Every story has a message, even when you don’t intend it to. This opinion isn’t popular to some people. Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn was reported to have said, “All I want is a story. Let Western Union take care of the messages.” But even when you want to produce lighthearted entertainment, you’re still sending a message.

An example is the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels. Hollywood director John Sullivan tires of his successful screwball comedies and wants to create a movie about the downtrodden. He even disguises himself as a homeless person so he can experience their suffering firsthand. Through a series of misadventures, he realizes how important comedy is. He says, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” A movie intended to criticize heavy-handed preaching in other movies wound up having a strong message of it own.

Every creative work has some sort of message. Horror movies with jump scares? I’ve written before about horror offers moral lessons. An action movie with lots of explosions and elaborate stunts? They often tell us violence is the only way to defeat evil. Erotica? They can tell us sex is enjoyable and good. And there are creative works where being entertained is the goal itself. Their message is that we all have a right to set our troubles asides for a few hours and enjoy ourselves.

We don’t telegraph our messages in our stories, which is where the reference to Western Union fits in. We weave our messages into the stories themselves. We see them in our characters, the situations they get into, and how they resolve them. Who we designate as heroes and who are the villains set the moral code of our story. And how the story ends provides the moral lesson we want the audience to leave with.

That’s why we need to craft our message with care. We can have a fun tale, but we can ruin it with an ugly theme. I can think of a lot of movies and TV shows that didn’t age well because their themes were based on prejudice and ideas we now see as wrong.

My personal preference is to provide a positive message. We should treat each other with compassion and empathy, and we should do the right thing even when it is hard. I think my message is getting across. Carolyn Geduld, whose novel Who Shall Live is coming out October 14, said something kind about my novel The Remainders. “The worldview of the novel encourages the belief in the goodness of ordinary people, even when villainous parents cause great pain.”

Think about the message and how you will craft it in. Every story has a message. Make yours a good one.