Every story has something to say and every story conveys a message to the reader, whether it’s something about the world in general, or about the human condition, and the kind of issues that relate to all of us. These are all relayed through the characters that inhabit the story.Any intended message can be overt, subtle or implied.
The moral of a story is not to be confused with the author’s personal thoughts and feelings, because as a rule, an author should never personally intrude a story. Instead, morals are the products of our observations and the issues that impact all of us, and how we can learn and grow from them.
Think of the snippets of wisdom given to you by your parents or grandparents – these are the basis of various morals adapted by society and used for generations. Our lives are dictated by morality, and fiction is no different.Even from the dawn of time, storytellers have included morals in their tales; they all want to give us a message of some sort, whether that message is about love or kindness, bravery, courage, loyalty or trust, behaving in the right way or learning from one’s mistakes etc.
Even the most basic stories have something to tell us, but, contrary to belief, constructing a story with a moral template isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Writers, on the whole, tend to make it complicated when there is no need to.So how it is done? How do you convey that important moral message?
To begin with, every writer needs to thoroughly understand the kind of story they’re writing because from that basis, the heart of the story and its central themes, and the character’s personal journey, form the moral(s) of the story.For example, if you have a story about betrayal or revenge, you may have a character that eventually comes to realise that, in the end, forgiveness is better than vengeance because although revenge might feel satisfactory in the short term, it doesn’t alter the situation in the long run. The moral of the story, therefore, is that forgiveness is better than vengeance.
Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ has many strong moral threads, particularly the injustice of slavery for the main character, by having a different coloured skin, and his struggle to become a free man in a land of white people. The morals here are that skin colour makes no difference; no man is master above another because we are all born equal and it is wrong to prejudge someone.Think about other stories. To Kill a Mockingbird also explores racism and prejudice.
Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a moral story about the brutality of and pointlessness of war. It’s a simple message.Throughout history, writers and poets have used morality within their tales. There are countless morals to ponder in Aesop’s fables, while Homer’s Odyssey is littered with moralistic dilemmas for Odysseus to overcome and learn from.
Probably the most famous examples of any moralistic stories can be found in the Bible and Koran. Many of the tales involve people who embark on a journey and learn something about themselves and the world around them so that they may become better people.Your main character’s story involves a personal journey. By the end of that journey they will have changed in some way, they will have learned about themselves, and so their behaviour will change too. All this is interwoven with the central themes of the story, be them love, hate, revenge, jealousy, murder etc, to form the moral thread.
As you write your story, you will see how such morals are formed by what happens to your characters and how they go about achieving their set goals. Sometimes we have firm ideas about the morals we want in our stories, while other times they naturally emerge as the story is written.The strength of voice as the writer also plays an important role in how effective the moral thread is with the reader. As already mentioned, such threads can be subtle, implied or even hidden within the story. These are far more preferable for a reader than having it shoved in their faces at every available opportunity. Don’t preach to your reader, but rather enlighten them. Readers like to figure out things for themselves – it’s one of the things that make reading a well written book so enjoyable.
Don’t get too caught up in trying to invent morals for the story because you think the story must have one. Often, the message emerges naturally as you write the story. And of course all that depends on the quality of the writing; the strength of the characters and the situations that evoke emotion and empathy, the kind of journey they undertake, the various themes running through the story, and of course the strength of the author’s voice. Your character must change by the end of the story/novel, and having shared the journey, the reader will too.
So, does there have to be a moral to every story? The answer is that every story has something to say.
Next week: Suspending disbelief for your reader