A Three-Part Theory Of Media

I often analyze media, how it works, and what it means – which any regular reader knows. This isn’t just my generally obsessive and analytical nature; media is something many of us create from the instructional (yours truly) to fiction (like my friend Serdar). Right now if you’re here you’re probably interested in media creation, and possibly even doing it – so you’re bang alongside reading yet Another Crazy Steve Theory*.

But there’s another reason to analyze media beyond making it – and that’s to understand how it affects you and others. As we’re always consuming media (even unconsciously) in this wired age, understanding how it affects us is vital to being functional. Anyone who’s ever watched someone get a crazy and dysfunctional idea from a story or a biased newscast knows the importance of understanding media.

Lately I’ve been wondering how media influences people and how they take messages from it. In addition I’ve wondered how people can “read so much” into a piece of media that doesn’t seem to mean what they say. In time, I began to see media has three different sides to it.

Here’s my theory – that media has three components.

Tripartate Media

A speech, a cartoon, a video game, can have three interacting elements that compose that piece of media.

Evocative: The evocative part of media is that which generates feelings, reactions, and possibly¬†extent ideas. It may be horrifying or give one a sense of “aha, I understand.” It may be arousing or inspire intellectual curiosity. Not all media is heavily Evocative, but much is – because we seek given sensations, even if it’s “I now comprehend this business process.”

Directional: The directional part of the media is that which gives you guide to achieving something. It could be as simple as an inspiration to heroism via friendship, or as complex as a blueprint. Much of media has a component of “if you do x then y” – sometimes as a warning.

Informational: The Informational part of media is that which imparts facts and knowledge – or what we assume are facts and knowledge. A historical book is heavily Informational, historical fiction partially so, and a game world’s information may be relevant only to its fictional setting. ¬†All are information.

If we examine different forms of media, they focus on these three elements in different ways.

  • Horror films are first and foremost Evocative. In many cases a sense of Direction or Information actually reduces the Evocative element – horror often needs a sense of helplessness (lack of Direction) and understanding (lack of information)
  • Pornography is the flipside of horror, it’s Evocative nature is arousing. However, unless it’s Instructional there, may be little Directional or Informational components.
  • An inspiring anime may not be the most true-to-life, but may be both Evocative (in that it fires emotions) and Directional (in that it calls out a given virtue). A story of people battling against the odds because of their strong friendship would be an excellent example – and about 50% of all Shonen in the last decade.
  • An instructional guide is purely Informational and Directional – but may contain some Evocative elements to maintain interest and provide a visceral sense of direction. My own career writing tries to balance these elements.

Now if we have these three parts of media, how can we use this theory to get better at creating it?

Leveraging The Three-Element Theory

So with my concept in mind, how can we use it to improve the media we create?

Identify The Important Elements Of Your Media: Is your Media Evocative? Instructional? More than one of these categories? Identify the important categories to make sure you do them right.

Identify The Secondary and Tertiary Elements Of Your Media: Your media may not be evocative or instructional, but those elements my need to be there. You need to determine how they need to be done without eclipsing more important elements. Some of this may also be a bit of deception – such as creating false scares in horror or false narratives in fiction to surprise readers.

Identify The Interacting Elements Of Your Media: Does your media relay on the Three Elements to interact? Does the Evocative element inspire people to follow the Directional elements? Does the Instructional element provide vital information for the Directional? Your media needs to make sure the elements reinforce each other.

Do The Elements Right: You have to make sure the elements you focus on are done right – are you really calling upon the right emotions with your Evocative components, providing enough data in your Informational component, and so on? You could do them wrong, you could overdo them, you could underdo them.

Do The Elements Come Together Smoothly: The Elements of your creation need to blend into each other. To suddenly dump a lot of information in someone’s metal lap or to have a ten page “inspirational” speech is to disrupt your reader or player or viewer. Jarringly dropping elements into people’s minds is going to break the coherence of your world.

Moving Forward

So there’s my theory – media can have three components to it, and by identifying those components we can be better writers, artists, actors, and so on.

But this theory also helps explain some darker sides of media consumptions, which I’ll address next in an upcoming column.

* Potential Band name. Also considering being topical ad singing under the name “Steven Alternate Universe”


– Steven Savage