Entertaining the point.

Is it June already?  Wow.  Only four posts in the month of May, too.  Apologies for not keeping up with this thing.  Between sickness and apathy and writing and movies and gaming, I haven’t really given much thought to blogging, though I’m going to try and make up for last month by posting somewhat regularly this month.  With six days into June, I see I’m doing a great job already!


A friend of mine posed this question to Phill and I last night, and I thought I’d pass it along to you folks as well, because it’s an interesting question to consider.  He wrote:

What do you think the most important part of a story is? That it carries a profound message/point, or that it is entertaining?

Don’t cop out and say a mixture of both. I’m interested to learn which one holds more weight with you.

This was my response:

You made a good point about the entertainment aspect being a vessel for profundity.  I happen to agree.  Suck the reader in with an
enticing premise, engaging characters, and whatever else, and while they’re completely immersed, slip the “big message” in under the
radar.  Some stories are more subtle than others, but this is usually the end result.  The reader, whether they came for a lesson or just to
have a good time, is going to walk away with both, whether they realize it or not.  That’s the beauty of the entertainment vessel.
It’s sneaky.

I’ve found that, in my own experience, if I begin with a message but nothing else and have to construct the entertainment around it, it
will fall apart.  It’s happened a number of times.  That shitty story I wrote back around Christmas about zombies and
consumerism is a perfect example.  The consumerism came first.  The zombies were the vessel.  And it didn’t work.  It was too bogged down.
It wasn’t fun to read.

On the other hand, ALT was formed out of a number of entertaining scenarios (well, that I found entertaining at least), and the
“message” came later, facilitated by what was happening in the story. It’s rare that I’m able to make a story work with a message at the
start and nothing else.  There are a couple of exceptions (Suburbia and Jeff come to mind), but otherwise it’s all about entertainment
value front and center.  Maybe it’s naive of me, but I think the average John Q. Reader doesn’t want a profound message.  They had
enough of that crap in high school and college (I know I did), and just want an escape to another world, an extraordinary situation, and
so on.  Package a story or a book with a byline like “A profound message (with an entertaining story)!” and you’ll get tepid reaction,
but say “An entertaining thrill ride (with a moral at its heart)!” and folks will be more inclined to read it.

I think that’s why Dean Koontz is so successful.  Just about every one of his novels has a point at its center, whether it’s a moral or
commentary about a current event (Dark Rivers of the Heart is a good example), and the folks who read between the lines can enjoy the book
that much more, but most of his readers are the folks who see his paperbacks in line at the grocery store, are intrigued by the premise
and entertainment value of the tale, and so drop their six or seven dollars (when did paperbacks become so expensive?) to get away for a
few hours a night.

This is stuff I like to read.  I’m going to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk here because I don’t have a direct quote, but:  I wanted to write
stuff that I’d want to read.  So here I am.  You can preach and sermonize all you want, but unless you’ve got the entertainment to
frame it, no one will pay attention.

Oddly enough, my response was the complete opposite of Phill’s, as he argued for the message, and I argued for entertainment value.  Ultimately, though, we both leaned toward the cop-out answer in some ways, because I don’t think you can avoid it.  It’s almost like they go hand in hand.
So now it’s your turn, my fellow writers/editors.  What are your thoughts on the matter?


5 thoughts on “Entertaining the point.

  1. The question sparked a discussion between my boyfriend and myself. Basically, neither of us views art or entertainment as separate entities, nor do we think the purpose of art is merely to convey a “message.”

    But back to the question at hand, I would say that what I consider most important most people would define as the “message” end of things. But I certainly don’t want to be taught a lesson, nor do I think most novels can be reduced to a single statement of intent. I have rarely written a story with a single statement in mind, but I’ve also never written stories with much action or thrills. I can sort of halfass write comedy, but as you probably know from my comic, I’m more concerned with characters dealing with challenges, stuff like that. I never even think, “Oh, this character should go through this” in order to convey an idea. It just sort of…happens, and then some idea ends up getting conveyed.

    I do often go back and note ideas that are present and try to emphasize them in some way. I certainly had a general theme that grew as I was writing the comic (I only bring it back up because you’ve read it), but I have generally tried to focus on characters and plotpoints. I try to create as much like this as possible, always being partially unconscious.

  2. I tend to agree with you rather than Phill. I am suspicious of messages, just as in Keats’ famous quote: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.”

    In fact, I think “message” and “point” are the wrong words to use, unless you’re talking about those awful moral stories we were told as kids. Even religious texts don’t simply offer messages, they offer explorations of dilemmas through stories or tropes — some of the best in literature, if I may add.

    Novels are explorations, modes of enquiry, of partial illumination. And entertainment has much to do with it.

    A book /must/ entertain some people (it can’t obviously entertain everyone) and you can leave it at that, or take it forward. I used to judge people who read books “just for fun” and didn’t then fall into a great big philosophical contemplation about them. But lately I’m trying to jump off that awful elitist bandwagon. Read books for whatever reason you like. Entertainment is a good reason.

    I also think that you can read a book you don’t like just for the exploration of it, and later, the struggle to come to grips with the book can be entertaining. Why should “entertainment” have only one dimension? Why should it be the first step towards liking a book, or contemplating it?

    There is something else that we keep forgetting about. Thom’s question currently divides books/elements of a book into “entertaining” and “profound”. Clearly, all books cannot be entertaining. But can all books be “profound”?

    The common belief, I assume, is: “No, of course not. Tolstoy is more profound than Anne Rice. In fact, Anne Rice just writes rubbish.” Or something like that.

    On the other hand, literary theory has clearly moved away from that idea. Technically, anything can be considered, anything can be analysed. I remember arguing with Phill about this, because he seemed to think my writing was more “thoughtful” than his. Completely untrue. You can explore his work just as much as mine, and his work is infinitely more entertaining, which is a big bonus. My prose just sounds like it has something great to say.

    For something to be “profound”, you have to be able to think about it and come to certain conclusions. Something has to be inferred — right? You can do that with a billboard, an ad in a magazine, a silly Lear poem, a poorly written romance novel (poorly written by workshop standards, say), a flyer on the street, a photograph, a crappy horror film, anything. Theses have been written on the most mundane things.

    Ultimately it boils down to entertainment.

    (My two cents sound rather like a lecture. I blame a recent discussion on Joyce and his literary pyrotechnics at a lit forum. : P)

  3. Todd, I think it also depends on the reader whats considered a good book. I mean as in what phase in life are they? How old are they ? etc.
    This is all obvious I know but I’m saying this because I agree with you and not Phil. Yes morals are nice, yes we must all try and gain some sort of positive message and learn something. But DAMMIT I want to be enthralled I want to escape too. I also want to read about someone who makes mistakes as not even the most perfect person makes the right choice sometimes.
    Anyways.. I really dont mind when I am captured by the character and the story and then in the end a little surprise of some moral is learned. Just sneak it up on me, then I can dish it!

  4. The foremost message conveyed by a boring story is that boring stories are boring. Any other message will only get across to readers who count raindrops for fun.

    Having said that, I can’t say either is more important. I can only speak from experience. If a cool scene or premise is the first part of an idea to emerge from the gross birth canal of my imagination, so be it. Maybe a message comes later, maybe not. Maybe it’s only possible or relevant for the reader to infer his own when he reads it. If a message is the first part to emerge, so be it. The swaddling clothes (compelling narrative, characters, tension or what have you) come later. In every case they both eventually come together.

    Cop out? Beans to that. It’s a cop out to call something a cop out. (Yes, I know.) Each story has its own priority. And one reader’s boring is another’s entertaining; one’s message received is another’s that went over my head.

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