Reading Between the Lines: Sending a Message to Readers

Everybody’s got a point to make.

That’s how it often seems, anyway. From movies to television, ads to periodicals, there’s almost always some kind of takeaway message. Some are subtle: others much less so. Thus, it is only natural that books should follow the same pattern. Authors have their ideals and opinions too, after all, and while many are not out to make a point, many are. So, the question left open is, if you are among the latter, how strong should your message be?

The fact is, as with so many things in writing, it depends. Mostly it depends on your audience: who you’re planning to market to. If you’re going after academia with some high-level concept, presenting your point and supporting ideas up front is ideal. In fact, this is ideal for most nonfiction, in which the purpose is primarily to inform the reader (sometimes at the expense of entertaining the reader). In fiction, however, it can be much more difficult to determine your angle of approach. In this case, genre can be almost as important as audience. Science-fiction, for instance, almost always contains some kind of real-world message or warning. Fables and fairy tales likewise contain moral lessons aimed to make children functional, morally upright members of society.

The biggest concern authors might have about being too overt about their message is isolating an audience. Most authors who aim to be a commercial success also aim to appeal to as broad an array of readers as possible. If you get too deep into politics, religion, social criticism, etc. then the chances are you are going to lose readers who don’t necessarily follow those views. Even if you just decide to let loose in one book, then never rant again, it could be enough to get you type-cast as an author (something I’ll discuss from another angle next week). To a few big-name authors, this doesn’t matter much. But to the vast majority out here, the difference in sales could be a matter of make or break. The younger the age range, the more delicate the issue. For instance, say you write a book that is ostensibly for children, but that covers some seriously controversial topic. The children may like your story whether your message gets to them or not. If their parents (i. e. the buyers) find out, however, they may see fit to avoid your name on the shelves in the future.

This brings us back to the main question: How does one still make a point while reaching as wide an audience as possible? The answer is subtlety. While you may feel very strongly about an issue, in order to be commercially viable, it will probably be necessary to water down your message. That’s not to say you should dilute your message so much as to be virtually nonexistent, nor to simply adopt generic moral lessons throughout your writings that just about everyone agrees with (though this is a viable strategy for some authors, especially of picture books). However, nor do you have to scream at your readers to the point they are eager to put your book down never to finish. The key, as usual, is to adopt a middle road. Make your message clear, but not overly distracting. As always, story comes first.

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Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and Knights of Aralia, as well as the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children. Several of his shorter works have also appeared in various print and online periodicals over the years. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favorite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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