I’ve ranted on this before. Time for a more detailed post that I can refer back to.
There’s a lot of rules of thumbs any aspiring storyteller can apply to generally ensure a higher quality story.
One of the easiest, yet most frequently violated I’ve seen is this: Keep politics out of your story!
Now some readers have probably already stopped reading this and hustled off to the comments to protest. So let’s address the obvious rebuttal first.
Political machinations can be used in a story as a plot tool – obviously. Alex needs Bob to come help him, but Chris hates Bob and Alex can’t afford to anger Chris yet – stuff like that? The interplay of human social actions? That’s fine. In fact, generally adding a bit of that can often enrich a rather dull story.
No, what I’m talking about is letting stuff from the real world invading the story.
Why? The first and most obvious reason is that such will date your work faster than even memes or pop culture references. For a clear example, take this blog post. I don’t know when you are reading this, but let’s imagine I wrote something about “Donald Trump doing X” or “Barack Obama doing Y.” Now without even looking at the publish date, if you have any memory at all you can probably guess the month and year this post was put up. Because that’s how fast politics move. Heck it’s more likely the reference won’t be understood at all because everyone will have already moved on – nobody makes any Ograbme memes nowadays do they? (reference)
The second, and more important reason, is that often what makes a good story, and what makes a good message will conflict, and it is too tempting for authors to choose the message over the story. This ends up weakening and making a worse story. Let’s look at a concrete example.
If you watch SFDebris’ “The Shadow’s Journey” note that in part 5 (around the -6:45 mark) he mentions that the writer on Return of the Jedi clashed with George Lucas on whether the Ewoks should be in the film. Now REGARDLESS of whether you like or hate them (heck I even have a soft spot for them), one thing that is undeniable is that their presence weakens the story of RotJ. Why? Because the focus of the Star Wars story had shifted to the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader with the fateful reveal of The Empire Strikes Back. Every minute we spend watching teddy bears ride hover-bikes through the woods is another minute not spent on exploring the temptations Luke and Vader are struggling with. It’s just a stronger story focused more on father and son. Be honest. If you imagine the movie we might have had, had RotJ focused on Luke’s fight FIRST, then add to it – is it not a movie you would prefer to see? It doesn’t mean the Ewoks have to be taken out, it just means they must answer the question, “how does it serve the central point?” What if Luke goes to Coruscant to fight the Emperor in his central throne room? Then we could have the Ewoks be the city’s equivalent of “gutter rats” – overlooked, lower class creatures who know how to get around and aid Luke in getting to his destination. Or look at it another way: if you insist on Woodland Ewoks instead of City Ewoks, put the Emperor and Vader on the moon. Invent a place like the cave on Dagoba, strong in the Dark Side of the Force, that the two want to lure Luke to. Have Luke befriending the Ewoks earlier play a role in him resisting the darkside and/or have them save him at a critical moment.
Let’s take a hypothetical. I know I’ve complained about Rogue One more than a few times on here. Previously I have said that there’s not one central flaw in the movie. Well upon reflection I was wrong, there is a big, central flaw in the movie: the villain. There isn’t much of one, and he really really sucks. Heck he barely inconveniences the heroes.
Now I don’t know the writing process went for this film, but let’s just suppose we were writing it from two different political perspectives with an emphasis on message. Suppose you’re a libertarian. The government must be shown to always be incompetent, therefore the villain is weak and sucks – and now so does the movie. Suppose you’re a radical feminist. Violence against women (and the lead is a woman) can’t be shown, nor men getting the best of women, therefore the villain is weak and sucks – and now so does the movie. See? Two opposite sides of the political spectrum* both still ended up making the same mistake to ruin the same story.
Worry about what makes the best story, first! Who cares what your politics are? Make the villain of Rogue One every bit as evil and dastardly and competent and scary as you can! Because then when the heroes finally do overcome the foe, it’s that much more memorable! Why do you think everybody loves Darth Vader? He was powerful, he was imposing. When the door opens to reveal him sitting at the table in ESB, the audience shit a collective brick. Ain’t nobody worried about seeing “Krennic” at their dining room table. Not only that, but reexamine the story now in your mind with this change. If you’re the libertarian, now your story shows that no matter how good the government might be, free people working together will accomplish more. If you’re the feminist, now your story shows that no matter how mighty the patriarchy might be, it cannot crush the female spirit and will fall. See? By putting the principles of story first, you can end up making a better point for your political philosophy and in a more memorable parable than you would have by sabotaging things with the message.
Now I can hear some ask, “what about those stories who’s point is the message?” I’d say, make absolutely sure the story works as a story and be sure you establish things in it to accommodate the message. A Christmas Carol may arguably be a political message story, but Dickens put ghosts and spirits into the story in order to make the message work. If the root aim of the story is to be a parable, then ask yourself, “what needs to be in here to make this the best story it can possibly be while telling the message?”
You want two examples of this? Compare two episodes of Star Trek delivering a message about racism: TOS: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and DS9: “Duet.” Both are pretty decent episodes, but to any fair minded observer, “Duet” is just much better and more powerful (heck I tear up just remembering it – and yes there is an SFDebris review of it). Both of them set up and work to tell compelling stories, in order to place their messages within, but one is a little less ham-handed.
And in case anybody is about to ask: YES this is one of my chief annoyances with a lot of explicitly Christian works. They get more concerned about delivering a message, then a story. (Of course other faiths or atheists may do it too, I just haven’t read or seen as much of their stuff.)
Just give it a try. If you honestly can’t see messages twisting your story, then get a good beta reader and for goodness sake’s heed their advice. You’ll be remembered for far longer because of compelling characters, engaging plots, and emotional scenes, than you will be sounding off on whatever was in vogue that week.
*At least, usually. I think there may be some libertarian radical feminists out there and if so, hi!