Love triumphs over all. Dreams come true. Believe in yourself. These messages and more color the plots of books like a stained glass window, helping us see the world in various shades of the spectrum. When we reach the last page, we’re inspired to persevere and discover the beauty in life. I would never encourage authors to stop writing these kind of stories—I’ve included similar morals in many of my own.
However, a few months ago I was planning to write a short story with one of these common messages, and the direction shifted unexpectedly, which altered what I was aiming to communicate. This triggered questions that I began asking myself. What if someone wrote a story where love didn’t triumph? What if the character’s dream didn’t come true? What if the character shouldn’t believe in himself?
What would happen if a writer flipped her story’s message upside down and inside out?
Should Christian Writers Turn Their Messages Upside Down?
David Foster Wallace says that fiction’s job is to “disturb the comfortable.” A story with a common message typically won’t have that effect since most people already know and agree with its ideals to some extent. A slogan like “reach for the stars” may be uplifting, but it’s also simplistic and safe. Readers are unlikely to be offended, hurt, or disappointed by such a book, which isn’t necessarily a drawback. As writers and human beings, we’re sympathetic to our audience and want them to feel empowered after reading our stories. Yet we also aspire to offer a unique perspective that other books aren’t brave enough to explore.
The easy route usually isn’t the best one. As writers, we’re called to make people examine themselves. That calling is reiterated for Christians—the divine Author Himself frequently debunks mainstream beliefs. In Genesis, He reveals that promises may not be fulfilled for decades. In Job, He proves that the righteous can struggle and the wicked can prosper. In the prophets and kings, He illustrates the depravity and stubbornness of His chosen people, which leads to the destruction of Jerusalem. And in the Gospels, Jesus refutes the tenets of His day. He teaches that the road to life is narrow and rough, forgiveness can be extended to the worst of sinners, and faith is more important than rituals. Additionally, He challenges the Jew’s expectations of the Messiah—showing them a suffering servant rather than a conquering king.
As Christians and writers, we are doubly bound to disturb society. We need to put people’s cherished values under a magnifying glass. Is what they’re believing true? Are their dreams, hopes, and loves worthwhile? Do they have an idealized view of life that’s nothing more than a fairy tale?
How Does Turning a Message Upside Down Improve a Story and Benefit Readers?
One way to freshen up a story’s message is to ponder what its opposite would be and go from there. You may unearth a lesson that never occurred to you, a new plot twist, or a completely different angle from which to tell the story.
Universal messages are wonderful, but we’re reminded of them every day. We need stories that address realities people rarely think about—like death, unattainable dreams, and selfish love. These topics accurately portray life, which equips readers to handle issues that arise in their own lives. When Jesus turned certain beliefs upside down, He helped people comprehend the truth more deeply. We can do the same with our stories.
Maybe your message is “love triumphs over all.” Instead of writing about a woman encountering her true love after years of hopeless searching, have her alleged soulmate betray her. This warns readers about human nature and guarding their hearts from the wrong individuals. For a less sad example, I’ll return to the short story I mentioned in my introduction. The protagonist kept trying to persuade a seemingly lonely boy to open up, and I had intended for the story to convey that too much seclusion is unhealthy. But, in the end, the protagonist learned that solitude can be essential to other people’s happiness, and he shouldn’t attempt to change them into what they’re not.
To finish the quote by David Foster Wallace that I cited earlier, “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed.” Not only do inverted messages resonate with hurting readers, they cultivate empathy in others who have never experienced heartbreak or recognized an introvert’s contentment with his inner world.
How Do You Overturn a Message without Being Depressing?
Unfortunately, one problem with turning a message upside down is that it can result in a story so gloomy that even a pessimist would be appalled. This is particularly challenging for me because I tend to write lighthearted stories and dislike endings devoid of hope.
Some messages won’t be depressing when they’re flipped. My lonely boy story wasn’t bleak either way; one version just highlighted a different truth than the other. But many messages, like “dreams come true,” would be. How can a story about unattainable dreams be cheerful? One option is to provide the character with a relationship, opportunity, or knowledge that he wouldn’t have gained if he’d succeeded at his goal. Maybe he dreamed of being an architect, but he became a bank clerk because he couldn’t afford college. Instead of describing all the mundane tasks he does every day, focus on the devoted wife he met through his job. Or, in the case of the heartbroken woman, she could find fulfillment in serving others rather than in her true love’s embrace.
Our own lives don’t always play out as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to be unhappy. Weave hope, peace, and joy into otherwise disheartening circumstances, and you’ll transform those disasters into blessings, redirecting readers (and characters) toward a better dream.
Another strategy is to retain traces of your original message, perhaps recycling it as a subplot or secondary theme. My short story still hinted at the importance of social interaction even though it emphasized the opposite aspect. Another example is Inside Out, one of my favorite movies. Although the film showed that sadness is a natural and necessary emotion, it didn’t discredit a positive attitude. Riley’s parents were proud of her for cheering them up in a stressful situation.
When you convert your message from “love triumphs over all” to “love can be fleeting,” or from “dreams come true” to “dreams can fold,” you don’t have to make your original message seem foreboding or untrue. You can even uphold those ideals while pinpointing their weaknesses.
When You Shouldn’t Turn a Message Upside Down
Sometimes switching a message around would require extensive rewriting or severely damage the story’s core. If you feel compelled to write about true love, dreamers, or believing in oneself, don’t let my advice hinder you. However, don’t apathetically choose a trite message without at least contemplating how flipping it would impact the story. Even if you decide against it, you might brainstorm alternate endings and viewpoints for your characters.
In other cases, an inverted message may be wrong or even sinful. A story centered on “crime doesn’t pay” would lead readers astray if reversed. When this occurs, look for other avenues to present a unique perspective. Perhaps you could demonstrate that crime pays in the short term but not the long term. The same precaution applies to messages such as “light triumphs over darkness”—your story can end with evil victorious, but only if readers realize that it’s temporary.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine How and When You Should Turn Your Message Upside Down
This subject has prompted me to analyze my stories and motives over and over again. Flipping a message is a difficult decision, and all the possibilities should be considered carefully. Here are a few questions to help you figure out where to head with your story:
- Is your message unique already?
- Would inverting the message increase or decrease its power? Why or why not?
- How will your message change readers?
- Can you display hope through the inverted message?
- How can the inverted message reveal an alternate truth? And what’s the best way to incorporate this truth?
- Would you lose your enthusiasm for the story if you turned the message upside down? Why?
- Were you intentional when choosing your message, or did you haphazardly land on it?
Shake Up the World
When Christ walked the earth, He flipped the culture’s philosophies upside down. Writers are here to shatter ideologies too, but instead of leaving readers with jagged fragments, we need to pick up the pieces and form them into a new lens that will help readers see reality more clearly.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 20, 2019. Updated April 7, 2022.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.