Saturday, September 7, 2013

On Marketing and Matching the Message to the Story

Ender’s Game is one of my all-time favorite books. So you can imagine my excitement about the upcoming movie. I’ve been watching the process since the production company was doing open calls for battle school classmates of Ender back in the spring of 2012. I vaguely considered driving my battle-school aged son down to New Orleans just so he could have a chance to be part of this exciting work.

(image from I.F. Sentinal website - the official website for the Ender's Game movie.)
If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, warning: there will be spoilers. Sorry! The book’s been out since the 1980s, if you haven’t read it yet, what have you been doing? Read Ender's Game. Then read this.

Intense is the word for Ender's Game. Aliens have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed the human species. To make sure humans win the next encounter, the world government has taken to breeding military geniuses -- and then training them in the arts of war... The early training, not surprisingly, takes the form of 'games'... Ender Wiggin is a genius among geniuses; he wins all the games... He is smart enough to know that time is running out. But is he smart enough to save the planet?

So you get the premise? Kid goes to Battle School, where, no big deal bro – we just want you to save the planet. This message unfolds to Ender as the book goes on. At first he is just really good at the games. He doesn’t understand how much the Powers That Be are pinning their hopes on him and him alone. How much they are manipulating things behind the scenes to shape him into the kind of fighter they need. How much he is a pawn.

Okay, you with me so far?

The movie previews I’ve seen (which you can find here) are excellent. Harrison Ford as one of the Powers that Be, amazing, right? The look is stunning, the young actor who plays Ender is convincing.

But the facebook marketing campaign? Oof. (They use the same content on Google+ if you prefer.)

It seems to me some marketing executive who has NEVER READ THE BOOK is writing marketing copy to accompany images from the film. And it’s killing me. One tagline reads: “From battle room to battlefield, he’s an underdog who finds a way to win.”

First, that smacks of something a freshman-level high school writing class may turn up. Second, underdog? The idea of an underdog is that it’s someone you want to root for, someone you want to see succeed. The really wild and tricksy part about Ender’s Game as a work of fiction is the way Orson Scott Card manages to get you, the reader, to a place where you’re wishing for Ender to FAIL, because you want him to not be manipulated anymore. You want him to break free of all the expectations and crap he’s been put through.

This tagline accompanies a new video preview on Instagram: “He'll risk everything to keep us safe.”

Look, I’m thrilled to see mainstream media embracing today’s social media tools like Instagram, but couldn’t they at least try to get the messaging right? Ender isn’t in this because he wants to risk everything. He’s been manipulated and shaped into a kind of killing monster, something which plagues him throughout this book and into other books in this series. He’ll risk everything because he wants to keep his sister, Valentine, safe. She’s all he’s fighting for. Which is a perfectly compelling and exciting element of the plot. Where is that messaging in the ad campaign?

To take this from the lala land of Hollywood to our own writing, here’s a fair point. We need to be aware of the kinds of messages our fiction carries. The important themes.

For some of us <ahem> discovery writers (aka “seat of the pants” writers), we don’t always know or recognize the themes and messaging of our stories until we’re done. And even then sometimes we need to take a step back or talk with others who have read the story to fully understand what people take away. But we need to do that, and we need to strongly consider these overarching messages when we’re building our own marketing materials or even just pitching our novels to agents, publishers, writing the blurb for the back of the book, etc.

We need to be clear on what the work is trying to accomplish, even if we have to reverse-engineer it and come up with this after the fact. What mismatches between what a book or movie is actually about and the marketing campaign that accompanies the work?

I know I, for one, will never again cavalierly write marketing copy without closely considering the theme and message of the work I'm writing copy for. After all. I'm the only hope I've got.


  1. Yay Ender's Game! i can't even remember the last time I was so excited for a movie--maybe the first Harry Potter, and that was such a disappointment for me. But I have high hopes for this one.

    I loved your post. This facebook campaign kind of reminds me of politics, or at least the way the media talks about things. It is like they think we are too stupid to understand anything that can't be put in a 30 second sound bite.

    This has given me a lot to think about when marketing my books. I'm terrible at figuring out my themes, but you've convinced me I need to do a better job. Great post, Karen!

  2. Wow, this is a great post, and I couldn't agree more with it. I don't like to think about themes (although I know they are there) because I just want to tell the story not preach. I feel that my subconscious handles the whole theme thing better than my conscious.

    But you make an excellent point about how in marketing we need to know what our stories are trying to accomplish, to make sure we aren't selling the wrong story. Not that any of this is easy, just like everything else in writing. :)

  3. I FINALLY read this book earlier in the year, and I loved it! More importantly I started freaking out when I saw the movie trailer--right after I finished the book. Awesome.

    On themes, I finally figured it out. You want to know what your theme is? Look at your final statement--the very last line you write before "the end." There it is--the message your subconscious was trying to pour into this work. Still not sure? Go back and look at the way each of your major conflicts or chapters end. You'll see it again and again.

    First drafts are meant to be crap. They're for discovery, and I think anyone who goes in with a preconceived "message" will probably come over a little heavy handed. (Unless they are total masters.) It's not until the second draft (or later) you're really empowered to build all the subtlety of a powerful message in.

  4. I favorite, and least favorite, is the marketing line, "if he succeeds he'll be remembered as a hero."
    That is such an awful blatant falsehood, that it almost brings it back to awesome.


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