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The Meaning of a Story: Worth Overthinking?

April 30, 2012

Stories often contain more meaning than is readily apparent at a first glance. Many literature classes are devoted solely to unwrapping these layers, but do writers intentionally fill their pieces with hidden messages?

I spent some time thinking about this recently. When I was younger, I assumed that writers did not consciously put deeper meaning into their pieces and that literature teachers were always stretching things when they had us do close readings, analyzing the smallest details for clues to the writer’s true thoughts. At one point I even wrote a poem purposely to seem like it meant much, much more than it actually did. It is fairly easy to do this since almost any adjective can be made to represent a much more significant idea.

As a writer myself now, I have found that writers do put larger ideas into pieces than may be evident by the words on the page. This was pointed out to me recently. Here’s about how the conversation went:

“So, what’s your book about?” someone asked.

I gave him the standard answer, “Oh, it’s a typical fantasy adventure story with magic and the like.”

“That’s it? Aren’t books supposed to be more meaningful?”

I shook my head, laughed, and told him, “It is what it is.”

He frowned and looked at the back to read the blurb. Then he laughed and asked rather slyly, “Are you sure there’s nothing more to this? Just take a look at the first sentence.”

I read it again, probably for the thousandth time: “Trapped in a world of corruption and endless war, the young spellcaster Caleth Rictanson breaks all precedents by befriending the enemy and seeking to right the wrongs of his ancestors.” “Yeah?” I said.

“You’re telling me this isn’t a social commentary on the state of the world?”

It seems there is more to my story than I even knew. There are writers who explicitly insert deeper significances into their stories, but it seems to me that all others simply weave it in unconsciously. These ideas are in our thoughts, and it is almost impossible to prevent them from slipping out onto the page, whether by our consent or not. Next time you read a story, it might be interesting to take the extra time to see not only what the writer has to say about the story but also what the story has to say about the writer.

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