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Meaning in the Literary Fictional Story Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Meaning in fiction is often conceived as an element of writing that may or may not be inserted into a story, like a plastic baby doll in a Mardi Gras king cake. But meaning, its presence or lack of, is ubiquitous in a literary story, like the taste of sugar in a meringue. Writers seem to disagree, or at least not seek uniformity, on what meaning actually is in a story. Some seem to believe meaning equates with morality; others seem to think that it is equated with significance and, as a result, subsequently means ponderous and difficult, perceived attributes that make them avoid meaning altogether. For some, meaning has an existential twist—the worth of life. In speaking of great literary stories, however, it is most helpful to agree that for meaning to be memorable and to last in the human consciousness, a great literary story has meaning embedded in a defined environment: a story that is character based, has a beginning, middle and end where something happens to the character who progresses through time, and at the end of the story, the character and the reader change to see life and humanity in new ways. In Misery (sometimes translated as Heartache), in a few pages Chekhov reveals change in a character that focuses and enlightens the reader about grief and humanity, aspects of love and grief they had not thought of for some time, if at all. It is an awakening for these readers. And it provides unique satisfaction.

Many beginning writers tend to assume that meaning imparts a thou-shalt-not-kill or do-not-commit-adultery message; but a simple, clear change in perception about how the world and humanity is viewed can be significant and transfer meaning that has impact. To achieve this, there is a change in the way the reader (and the character) perceives the world after reading (and, for the character, acting in) the story. This is, of course, the beautiful potential fiction gives to a writer, and that nonfiction can not achieve because of the restrictions of the necessity in describing what happened.

So this meaning, which can be associated with Joyce’s epiphany although it probably needs broader thinking to be effective for a contemporary writer, is essential for a story to have impact, be remembered, and persist on to future generations of readers.

Useful meaning for writers occurs in a variety of complex ways. As scary as it may seem, metaphysical questions are essential in literary fiction where it is not sufficient for the reader to simply discover who killed whom, or if the crack in the dam will rupture and flood the village. In essence, the development of every fictional character directly or obliquely addresses difficult, unanswerable metaphysical questions such as: Who are we? Why are we here? What should I do? At the core, great literary stories deal with what it means to be human and the anguish of confronting omnipresent metaphysical questions. Where do I go when I die? Is there a God? Does God care about me? Why do I suffer? Readers learn from seeing how fictional characters struggle with their humanity, their lack of perfection, their doubts and fears. It is reasonable to conclude that any well-written literary story that is memorable will be significant in what it demonstrates through story action about enlightenment of the human condition. It often is not simply right/wrong morality, politics, or issues of conformity. Rather, it most frequently considers moments of grace, illuminating thoughts, or revelations of the significance of actions among humans. It always deals with human interaction on a concrete level in the story line with metaphysical abstractions permeating the prose. And it is always best expressed through dramatization.

Rarely is meaning determined in a story before the writing begins. The perceptive writer sees the meaning in every good story as a process of discovery from inside, not predetermined and inserted. And, for respect of the story, the writer then allows the discovered meaning to permeate and solidify within the prose, but avoids hammering the reader through overly forceful prose focused only on meaning.

Meaning often requires the complexities of fictional prose to transfer maximally effective meaning to the reader. When a reader is engaged, the reader feels rather than just contemplates. It is imaginative character development and plot construction that permits fiction to engage a reader in a story with meaning. Nonfiction, and fiction dependent on description of happenings without imagination, does not engage with the same potential of fiction for significant meaning.

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4 Responses to “Meaning in the Literary Fictional Story”

  1. Shankha Says:


    Being a fiction writer is my last goal of life. Your post has contributed significantly to my knowledge.

    Will surely come back for more.

    Thanks, Shankha

  2. William Coles Says:

    Many thanks for your kind comment. WHC

  3. Davel Says:

    I have done some writing and a lot of reading.
    Usually I do not have particular 'meaning' intended when I write a story. However, there always seem to be one by the stories end.
    Those who have read my story sometime agree with my interpretation of meaning, but others declare they found another.
    I have decided that most readers will come to their own conclusion as to a stories 'meanin.'

  4. William Coles Says:

    Thanks for your comment. Appreciated. I agree with your thoughts. Meaning often does, maybe always, blossom with the writing. It is a healthy writing process that creates meaning. And multiple interpretations are also a strength. Every story has special meaning to each reader that is unique. And multiple meanings are also desired, especially as multiple character enlightenments emerge. Here too, every reader should take away his or her own meaning. But there is a caution needed. All you've said (that I've repeated above) should be in control of the writer. The structure of the story, the prose, the syntax, the narrative description, the internal reflection, and especially the dialogue, should be created so the reader is directed to their own interpretation of the story. That is the strength of fiction. And writers get in control of meaning with repeated drafts, pondering alternatives, and meticulous revision. Most writers, even successful writers, do not accomplish this to their full capabilities. And their writing fails to reach its maximum potential. For example, if a writer is rewriting a segment of narrative or dialogue, and does not have a clear purpose related to story and meaning for the segment, the effect of the segment on the reader overall is only a percentage of what it might be if the writer has established a clear purpose and has a general meaning for the story that is to be expressed through conflict, action and resolution. When is feisty better than plucky, or ballsy? When should a character react to the death of a friend with anger, fear, sadness, ironic humor, sarcasm, etc. The writer is always subconsciously evaluating every decision based on purpose for writing (segment and story) and the relationship to meaning, character, and logical motivation. There needs to be a flow towards meaning created by the writer that is not necessarily specific. But it should also not be too obscure. Good writing should bring out meaning rather than obscure it to be guessed at. Working with these intricacies, as you are, will undoubtedly improve your stories no matter how your opinions crystallize. I hope this helps. WHC

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