Lay Aside All Other Goals and Simply Aim to Tell a Good Tale
Hearing fingernails dragging across a chalkboard has never really bothered me. However, I can imagine how many folks feel about that particular sound every time I hear someone say something to the effect of, “Well, what’s the point of the story? What’s the novel’s message or moral?”
I think what gets me most is that these people assume that a novel has to have some “higher” goal than simply being a good story that engages and entertains readers. (Please note: I am still more than happy to give such individuals plenty of kindness and grace, because fiction just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s thus hard to connect with someone philosophically if you’re not at least somewhat a kindred soul with the person.) But can I say plainly that if you’re a novelist, the point of your story is THE STORY. To wit …
The point of your story is not to make sure people clearly understand some message you want to share with the world, perhaps about the dangers of deforestation in the Amazon, for example. If you have a passion about that subject, then by all means write a nonfiction book on it and let your passion emanate from every sentence you pen, finishing with a bold call to action for the reader.
At the same time, please note that it’s perfectly fine to write a novel about a team of environmentalists who are fighting deforestation in the Amazon—but THE STORY comes first. Yes, the reader may come away from the story inspired to do something about this issue, but THE STORY—the situation—is the key, not the message. (See John Grisham’s novel Gray Mountain, which shows the tragic dangers of certain methods of coal mining, but is still a STORY first and foremost.)
The point of your story is also not to lay down a moral for living, maybe about how patience is a virtue. Again, if you feel strongly about this, then go ahead and write a book about it. You could even use fictional stories—parables, if you will—and real-life illustrations to prove your point, but the life lesson will be the crux of your work.
As with messages, morals can surely come across in novels, as readers may glean some important life lesson from the characters in your story, but once more, THE STORY is the focal point: for the reader and for you as the author. (See Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park, in which readers may come to understand the foolishness of scientific progress without checks and balances, but most of all, readers discover an incredible STORY.)
Finally, the point of your story is not to download fascinating information/research to a reader—let’s say about heart transplant surgery. Maybe you’ve spent hours in the library and on the Internet discovering a lot of incredible tidbits about this specialized area of medicine. Can you work it into your novel? Absolutely. Should it ever dominate the novel in a way that makes the tale itself secondary at times? Absolutely not. All of this should be background material, and thus that’s where it belongs: in the back, behind THE STORY. (See Charles Martin’s When Crickets Cry for a novel with a lot of amazing stuff about cardiology, but all neatly woven into the fabric of an even more amazing STORY.)
Now, I suppose a skilled author may be able to pull off writing a top-notch novel that starts from a message, moral, or information/research rather than from a purely situational story idea—but I wouldn’t bet good money on it if I was a gambling man. These kinds of stories just end up sounding too forced, like the author tried really hard to get the message, moral, or info/research onto the table at the expense of actually crafting a good STORY.
So when you’re writing your novel, never feel ashamed or like you’re less of an author by keeping your story all about THE STORY!