Meaning and Messages

1416eeba83b57976d815758b1d596c20I recently watched a program on TV – “POV’s High Tech, Low Life”, in which a blogger named Zola made this statement, “Readers with short attention spans like me just want to know six things about an incident – time, place, character, cause, development and conclusion. I let readers figure out the meaning for themselves.”

I’ve also been reading a book by James Michener, “The Novel”, in which Devlan, a teacher of writing, advises his friend, “Get the characters lined up first and make them real. Then have them move through the intricacies of plot and idea. Allow people to uncover the great truths upon which fiction rests, and from what you’ve been telling me, Karl, you’re not doing that. You’re putting your ideas, your message, first.”

In my writing workshop, I have a writer who is exploring racism and internalized homophobia – gigantic themes – in a two-character play. As she rewrites and reworks her piece, she continues to pare away at the scenes where the ideas lie far too obviously on top of the story, the parts where the hand of the writer shows. She is struggling with meaning and message. She wants to say something about both of her big issues, but she has to find a way to make them the underlying forces behind what her characters do and think. When she reads bits of the work aloud for the group, we sometimes see the dynamic between the two characters moving into second position behind her thesis. And it’s at that point that the drama begins to fail. She can see it – we all can see it, and we all have to deal with it in our writing. How do we fix it?

I like to do what James Michener’s character Devlan suggests – let the characters move through the plot and idea. As they do it, the audience will see how their behavior is affected by those large forces, such as racism and internalized homophobia. The audience can draw their own conclusions, their own meaning, from watching the characters make choices.

Those of us old enough to remember watching the TV sitcom “All in the Family” remember how we learned about bigotry from the character Archie Bunker. The message was never heavy, never imposed from above by the hand of the writer. We watched as Archie made messes of things, by acting like a bigot, and we drew our own conclusions. We want to follow that same path when we write about big issues and powerful forces. We want our meaning and messages to be inferred, not imposed.

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