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The Meaning of Meaning

What does it all mean?

There is nothing like a time of crisis to provoke us to ask that most profound of questions, isn’t there?  Oh, wait…we’re in such a time right now.  Lucky us.  So, let’s take a day off from baking gingerbread loaves, helping the kids with online learning, second draft revisions, and searching for toilet paper.  Let’s look at the very idea of meaning and how it arises in stories.

Do stories have to mean anything?  Isn’t the point to simply capture the human condition, or entertain?  Stories can, of course, do only that but when that’s so their impact is lower.  They are easier to dismiss.  Think back to prior seasons of generic TV crime dramas.  Pick one.  Remember Season 3, Episode 7?  Wait, you don’t?  It kept you watching for forty-four minutes back then, but now it’s forgotten.  Why?  There wasn’t much meaning in it.

Now, by contrast, what is your favorite scene in To Kill a Mockingbird?  Miss Maudie’s house burning down?  Visiting Calpurnia’s church?  Atticus shooting the rabid dog?  Mrs. Dubose’s gift of camellias?  The lynch mob shamed by Scout?  Atticus’s summation at the trial of Tom Robinson?  The Negroes in the courtroom balcony standing in respect?  Boo Radley behind the door?  It can be hard to pick.  So many moments in that novel stay in mind.  Why?  Because each one means something.

Breaking Down Meaning

In Man’s Search for Himself (1953), Rollo May wrote, “the chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.”  People not only don’t know what they want, they don’t know what they feel, except powerless.  That’s as good a place for us to start as any.  Emptiness is good because it is a vacuum to be filled and you have plenty of things to fill it with.  You are a storyteller.

What is the purpose of a story?  What vacuum does it fill?  I believe we spend time consuming stories because they address what we most profoundly need to deal with.  Conflict and problems.  Facing our fears.  Elevating our spirits.  Delighting in our folly.  Affirming our faiths.  Validating our values.  Challenging our misconceptions.  Forgiving our failures.  Finding hope.  Overcoming our aloneness.  Reconciling to death.

We want to understand.  We need to order the chaos.  We seek to explain the inexplicable, most especially our suffering.  The psychological roots of our despair are many: the trauma of birth, separation from parents, conflicts inherent in sexual desire, social isolation, political oppression, alienation, loss of faith.  Stories give us a way to understand, order and explain.  When we’re lost, they can tell us what to do.

In our era, we are suspicious of moral purpose.  We’ve been sold it too many times.  We’ve signed on to too many schemes, believed too many lies, and have found that the platitudes on motivational posters do not actually change us.  We’ve learned that our destinies are an illusion.  Our decisions are made before we think and our opinions are baked into our genetics.  We are less self-determined than we think and more subject to manipulation than we would like.  We are helpless in the face of terrorist bombs and microscopic viruses alike.

Given all that, why should we trust stories to tell us anything of value?  The fact is, though, that we do turn to them.  Stories are our lifelines, medicine, scripture, hope.  If they didn’t give us something essential to our living, we wouldn’t bother with them.  In a world we mistrust, we can trust stories.  They take us somewhere.  They tell us the truth.  They don’t feed us our thoughts; they force us to think.  They show us a way to overcome what worries us.  They assure us that we can prevail.  They show us a way to live well.

Great stories don’t preach, but they do have a moral purpose.  They don’t divide us, but connect us.  They don’t instruct; they illuminate our behavior.  They don’t promise us anything except the possibility of achieving wholeness, healing, courage, compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and selfless love.  They fill the vacuum with what we need more than anything: meaning.

Three Components of Meaning in Fiction

Fiction presents meaning first of all by imposing order on the disorderly.  We see that when story worlds break down into dichotomies, the most durable of which is good versus evil.  Good is a dubious concept in our morally relativistic times, just as evil is an easy label to pin on what we don’t understand.  Not too many novelists nowadays would embrace that dichotomy in an absolute way.  Even quasi-Medieval fantasy epics have grown more sophisticated than that.

Still, organizing our world in ways we can grasp is useful.  Every story, in essence, says that things are this way or that, maybe both, but there’s an easy way to think about it.  People break down into camps.  (Optimists versus pessimists.)  Society sorts itself into strata.  (Rich versus poor.)  Dilemmas can be boiled down.  (Chose this or that.)

One thing may cancel out the other but, happily, there are only two things to consider.  Even morally gray tales—think Jodi Picoult—in the end force a choice.  What is right must be decided.  A conclusion must be reached.  The story ends and, when all is said and done, one outcome is indisputably better than another.

Thus, if you are telling a story then you are—sooner or later—reducing the essence of your story to a dichotomy.  You are also, finally, making a judgement.  You are showing a truth, taking a stand, and showing a way.  Conflict has two sides—and only two.  No novelist wants to write an unsophisticated story, but the effect of novels is strongest when the dichotomies they enact are clear.  Understanding and defining your novel’s underlying dichotomy is good story craft.

The second major way in which fiction achieves meaning is through what its characters represent.  We like to think of characters as being realistic.  Much work is done to make them so.  Humans may be a mess, but we want for stories to make sense of that.  We want to know that the characters about whom we’re reading can tell us something about ourselves.

It is perhaps no wonder that the first identifiable characters in the history of storytelling are heroes.  (Odysseus.)  Second, they are us.  (Everyman.)  Literature is rich with types; types which often highlight one dimension or another of human nature.  (Scrooge—miserly.  Gatsby—tragically romantic.  Bridget Jones—fucked up.)  No one is in favor of stereotypes, obviously, but everyone pays attention when characters reflect something that we recognize about ourselves.

The third major way in which fiction achieves meaning is that the problems that protagonists face are either problems that we all face, or that we all fear.  Far-flung times and faraway cultures nevertheless can be settings for fascinating stories, partly for their differences from our own world but also because of the similarities that we see.  Simply put, human problems are universal and universal stories are profoundly human.

Genre stories endure because they touch things that we all feel and desire.  Justice must be done.  Love must win.  The world isn’t safe.  Dark cellars are scary.  Mainstream and literary stories may aim at less obvious feelings and desires, but nevertheless get to truths we can believe.  Secrets must come out.  Home is where you make it.  Crazy people are actually sane.  People suck.  People are great.  Existence may seem meaningless, but how you get through it is not.  Great stories are ones to which we can strongly relate.

Meaning Made Practical

Right.  Time to turn all that into something you can use.  Here are some reductive questions to consider, and a simple suggestion for employing your answers.

What is the essential dichotomy in the world of your story?  Who are the haves and have-nots?  What’s the biggest social or political issue causing conflict?  What historical struggle is taking place?  What religious issue does your story raise, or what philosophical question does it pose?  What necessarily divides everyone in your story into two categories?  How can you make that more obvious?

What is your protagonist’s human flaw or weakness?  What is his or her strongest belief?  Who in the story is strong in the way that your protagonist is weak, or who believes the opposite of what your protagonist believes?  What human quality does each of your secondary characters represent?  How does each stand in contrast to your protagonist?  How can you make that more obvious?

Boil down your story’s central problem to its essence…what is its root human difficulty or fear?  Why would you not want to be in your protagonist’s position?  What is the most horrible, hideous, ugly, cruel, or inhuman thing that you can imagine happening?  (It happens, right?)  Why is your story one that everyone should pay attention to?  How can you make that more obvious?

One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve seen in our quarantine times is an old—but good—saw: Don’t chase happiness, seek meaning.  Great advice, but what does it mean for fiction writers and their fiction?  What do we mean when we say meaning?  What we mean is the ways in which stories help us to understand, to identify, to face up and to cope.

Stories have a purpose and pinning it down in your own work is, above all things, a matter of grasping your story’s meaning.

What does your story mean?  How does it order the chaos, portray what is universally human, and enact what we all fear and hope for?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].