Meaning in Fiction

Reading novels in high school English class is all about the meaning.  I remember my teachers asking us to write about what we thought the author meant.  And of course, after that, they then told us what the authors really meant.  It made me think, are the teachers just BSing their way through these lessons?  Do they really know what the author meant?

I’ve seen this meme going around often.

whattheauthormeantI wonder how true this is.  On the other hand, it’s quite possible that authors are trying to convey one message, but the teacher thinks it’s a completely different message.  And of course, the teacher is always right, even if the student got it right.  It’s that kind of English teacher I don’t like.  It’s much better if the teacher grades the work based on how well the student can explain why they think the author meant what they think.

But I’d like to ask you a couple questions.

If you’re a reader, do you like to find the message in the story?  Do you read for the meaning, or do you just read for the fun of it?  Deep meaning or an escape?

If you’re a writer, do you try to put meaning into your stories, or do you just write to entertain?  Do you discover meaning while you’re writing?  Do you just want to captivate your readers with a great story?  Or do you set out to deliver an important message to them?

Please leave your answers in the comments.

14 thoughts on “Meaning in Fiction”

  1. As a reader, I analyze everything, because I assume the author is trying to tell me something until it becomes evident that they are not. I also read pretty slowly these days, so I’m stuck digesting one chapter over more than one sitting as often as not — which lends a lot toward ruminating on messages.

    As a writer, I try to pick my details carefully because I like them to be indicative of various themes, thoughts and characterizations … but sometimes I just throw things in because I like the way they sound in the phrasing. I discover a lot of meaning while I’m writing, which I often then go back and try to weave into the earlier stuff, but I’m not really writing toward a philosophical purpose. If anything, I police my writing against the accidental creation of an Amoral Moral or some other apparent insinuation. I know it’s impossible to control the readers’ interpretations, and I have difficulties because some of my villains are both talkative and likable, but one must still try to be somewhat socially responsible…

    1. Thanks for the answers. I’ve found that the more I plan and write, I find that there’s a meaning I never intended, but it just develops and grows.

  2. As a reader, I read for escape, but I do enjoy “seeing” the meaning in something. That said, I understand perfectly well that what I might see as being the meaning behind the story is not necessarily what someone else might see, and subsequently not necessarily what the author was actually going for. That’s why I always hated those English teachers you mention. I had a few of them, and I always wanted to ask, “How do you KNOW that’s what the author meant? Did you ask them personally?” >.>

    As a writer, I tend to spend most of my time making my stories enjoyable, fun escapes…the kind of thing that I personally enjoy reading. However, I’m not immune to the allure of weaving a message into a story. My zombie apocalypse novel definitely makes a few points, though whether the English teachers of the future would draw those conclusions properly is debatable. lol

    Great post, by the way. ^_~

    1. I agree. My number one priority is to entertain, give readers something fun and enjoyable to read. But I also want them to get caught up in the story and feel for the characters. Meaning will be there, and there’ll likely be several messages in each book, but I don’t go for life-changing meaning.

      1. Precisely. I wouldn’t be opposed to delving into “secret meaning” territory sometime in the future, but for now that’s just not my style and requires a lot more brainpower than I am currently capable of giving. lol Besides, deeper meaning is great, but I truly believe that the most important part of writing is the entertainment aspect. I want to take people out of their world and into my own and have them fully enjoy the visit. ^_~

  3. I think if there isn’t anything beyond bullets flying and bodies dropping, the story is shallow and doesn’t resonate in any way with the reader. I also don’t like being lectured by an author. The balance is in having a meaning and asking questions. The three “what’s” of a story I was taught were 1.) What if…? 2.) What then? 3.) So what? If you don’t have a “so what?” then why are you even bothering to tell me this?

    1. I agree there needs to be a balance. I often think that I don’t want to be preached to by the author. Some stories come across more as a message than a story. If the message is too obvious, it’s as if the author is only writing to deliver the message. That’s not very enjoyable to read.

      The three “whats” make sense. Numbers 1 and 2 are absolutely necessary to even tell a story. Number 3 is what keeps the reader thinking.

  4. In high school, I was always in AP classes, so this kind of thinking was really instilled in me (it drove me fuckin’ nuts, especially anything of Joyce’s even though he was one of my favorites merely due to content). For a few years, I wrote that same way, trying to weave underhanded meaning into my works with devices and techniques. Now, I keep it pretty basic – not so base that I explain every goddamned detail to my audience, but it’s not so significant as to require digging.

      1. Thanks. I’ve always wondered about this. I wanted my teacher to ask the author if he or she really meant that. I imagined they’d reply and say they were way off.

    1. Keeping it simple sounds good to me. I’m not one to make it more complex than it needs to be. I don’t want it to be so convoluted that few can get it.

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