Some of my all time favorite books are the ones with a strong message. The Chronicles of Narnia. A Wrinkle in Time. The Giver. Ilyon Chronicles. The message is what sets them apart from so many other books. What makes them stick with me. What makes them actually mean something.
Then there are all the cheesy Christian movies that seem to exist only to shove a message in your face. You know what I'm talking about. Those movies with the terrible acting and the bad filmography and the horrendous writing that doesn't actually tell a story, it just preaches at you for an hour and a half. The movies you feel obligated to like, but secretly can't stand.
Why are The Chronicles of Narnia so well beloved by Christians and non-Christians alike, but many Christians can't even bear to watch these movies, though their message may be just as relevant? What brings the point of The Giver home? Why does Espionage culminate in a powerful message of mercy and forgiveness but the Cassie story is cheesy and dry and boring through much of it?
The answer has to do with story.
I don't know how soon C. S. Lewis figured out the message to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I do know he didn't set out to write a sermon on redemption for children. That book started out with a mental image of a faun carrying an umbrella and packages in a snowy wood. He started writing a story based on that image. True, he didn't know where he was going with the story until, while dreaming a lot about lions, "Aslan came bounding in," but Aslan and his redemption of Edmund didn't come first. The story did. A story inseparable from its theme, absolutely, but it's only so powerful because it's such a good story. The Christian parallels are there for anyone to see if they wish, if their eyes are open to it, but if not, it's still a jolly good story.
When I set out to write the Cassie story, my premise was this: A girl who grew up in an outer space dystopian society ends up in another galaxy where she becomes a Christian. Then she returns home and has to stand up for her faith. Guess what happened. I wrote a book of Christian apologetics that pretended to be a novel.
Don't get me wrong, I love Christian apologetics. I'm a big fan of Ken Ham's work, and I also very much enjoy C. S. Lewis's nonfiction and Josh McDowell's books. I'm currently loving The New Answers Book which Ken Ham put together and I purchased at the Creation Museum. But the truth is, if I want to read apologetics, I'll pick up a book on apologetics. If I pick up a novel, I want a story. I'm not the type of reader who just wants fluffy entertainment; I want the book to mean something. However, I still want it to be a good story first. I don't want a book of apologetics pretending to be a novel. I want a deep, meaningful story that really is a jolly good story.
I'm not sad that I first wrote the Cassie story as thinly veiled apologetics because I needed that draft to meet some central characters, but there's no way I'm publishing that draft because it's not good story. When I set out to actually write the third draft, I'm going to focus on the story I have to tell. Cassie will still probably become a Christian in the first book of the trilogy. But it will be a story. And when it's a good story, the message will actually be meaningful and impact readers instead of annoying them.
I have an idea for a dystopian novel exploring the evils of taking the current gender identity debate to its extreme conclusion. If I manage to write it, I can't focus on the message. If I do, it will end up being a thesis on the evils of gender fluidity. And while that is the point I want to make—just how messed up that would make people and society—if I focus on the message, I might as well just write that thesis and be done with it. But I plan to focus on the story. If I put the focus on the story, the message will be far more powerful than that thesis could ever be.
Don't write fluff. It might be feel-good in the moment, but it has no lasting significance. But don't go to the opposite extreme and write novels of thinly veiled apologetics. Find the balance in the middle of writing a good story that actually means something.