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What's Your Story Worth? An Abstract Post

Apologies ahead of time if this sounds incoherent.  This is a tough subject.

The difference between a narrated event and a story is that a story is meaningful.  Events fill our lives, but almost none of them make stories.  Every once in a while, though, something happens that feels imbued with meaning.  We know or sense that a truth has been revealed, or, at least, we were on the edge of a truth if we just had the wit to understand it, and when that happens we have a story.  The meaning or truth is what makes the story have worth.

That's what I want my stories to do, to reveal or hint at truths, to somehow explain away a bit of the mystery that surrounds existence, and that's what I try to teach to my students in class.  But teaching how to make a series of events into a meaningful story is tough.

Thank goodness that the natural operating mode for human beings is to see and seek meaning.  We find meaning everywhere, especially when we notice correlations or connections.  Something as simple as a conversation that begins and ends in the same place can appear suddenly meaningful:

    "Do we have Coco Puffs?" he said.  The empty bowl sat in front of him.
    "How can you worry about Coco Puffs when your daughter hasn't decided whether to go through with it or get the abortion?  If we have any, it's in the cupboard."
    "I checked there."
    "Not that cupboard.  The other one."
    "Not there either."
    "Have Wheaties instead."
    "What can I tell her?  She hasn't listened to me since middle school.  Wheaties give me indigestion."
    "It's the fiber.  You don't get enough.  She does listen to you.  She just doesn't believe you anymore."
    "That's not my fault.  I inherited my dad's digestion.  He couldn't eat Wheaties either."
    "There's a piece of work."
    "You never liked my dad.  I guess he wasn't likable.  How about Pop Tarts?"
    "No cinnamon-sugar.  Just strawberry.  How about toast?"
    He tipped the bowl on its side.  If there had been anything in it, it would have spilled.  "Are you sure we don't have Coco Puffs?"
    She opened the pantry.  "No, I told you.  No Coco Puffs.  He wanted me to abort her.  Did you know that?  Our own daughter?"
    "Yes, he told me much later, before he died.  He said he admired you for standing up to him."
    "Really?  He didn't.  He never said a word."
    "Maybe I shouldn't eat breakfast today."
    "No, you stay there.  I'll go to the store.
    "Sometimes it seems all I do is eat breakfast, for whatever use I am.  Who'd listen to a grown man who eats Coco Puffs?"
    "She does listen to you."
    "Yeah, but does she care?"
    "Oh, here's the box.  It was behind the flour."
    "Thanks."  He filled the bowl.  "Do we have milk?"

What the mind does is listen to a conversation like that, and it tries to make meaning.  So in some ways, the writer doesn't have to strain terribly hard to make a story have meaning.  The reader is already working to make the story meaningful.

Stories are told because they are meaningful events.  Any compositional position different from that ignores what makes stories interesting.  A story without meaning produces a "what was the point of that" reaction from a reader.  A story devolves into a simple event without the meaning component.

This ramble comes from a student asking me today, "Why does a story have to mean anything?  Can't it just be enjoyable?"  It's a question I asked when I was in school, and it's a question I hear several times a year.
   

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
the_flea_king
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:07 pm (UTC)
Great post.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jeremy. I started thinking about this in the shower this morning. It made more sense in my head then. *g*
redwill
Nov. 7th, 2007 09:30 pm (UTC)
By the standard of meaning you're applying, most novels are not stories. They have no meaning other than entertainment, do they? They seem to be for the purpose of allowing a reader to temporarily live in a world other than their own everyday reality. They generally are not about changing a reader's point of view or showing a truth about human relations.

Is an unmeaningful narration necessarily not worthwhile, not worth reading? Which, come to think of it, sounds suspiciously like the question your student asked you.

jimvanpelt
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
I would argue that any story you read, including a novel, that doesn't leave you scratching your head and saying, "What was the point?" has a point. It has meaning. Deciding what meanings are there is a daily activity for the academic lit crowd, but it's also very much a part of a writer's job.

Sometimes the meanings are so obvious, though, that they don't even need discussion. The meaning could be "love conquers all," or "an underdog of good will can defeat a much stronger but morally weak opponent," or "the universe is stranger than you think," or (if you write horror) "something awful is going to get you."

"Meaning" isn't why most people read, but without it the reading seems pointless.
david_de_beer
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:25 pm (UTC)
novels do tend to move in a definite direction, even ones meant purely for entertainment and fun still have a goal, an arc of movement, a point of departure and arrival. There is a point to why people do what they do during the course of the novel.

Meaning in a story is not necessarily transcendtal, life altering, thought provoking, etc. It simply has a point of some kind, a reason d'etre of why the story exists.
There is a reason, of whatever kind, of why the writer sat down and wrote this specific story in this specific manner that I'm reading. At least, I hope there is, I hope there was some idea/ spark/ motivation behind the story.
A surprisingly large amount of SF short fiction this year, my initial reaction was precisely "what in hell would make somebody write this?* just to put words on paper and sell it?"

*no reflection at all on premise or execution or direction taken, but the reason why the writer wrote the story to begin with. These ones inevitably all have the same reaction in me - pointless, meaningless, aka a complete waste of my time.

I agree with Jim's point that a story needs to have meaning, purpose or reason for existing. But the above is purely my own take on it, can't say whether he agrees or not.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:35 pm (UTC)
I agree. Nicely put. "Meaning" isn't all there is to reading a story, of course. The journey and enjoyment along the way are a big part of it too. But it makes for a bad reading experience for me if the meaning is facile, banal or presented unconvincingly. This is why some people hate IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Clearly the movie overflows with meaning, but the folks who hate it believe the meaning is presented poorly, or that it's a story where the meaning beats you over the head.

Many of the stories I like best I have a hard time pinning a specific meaning down, but I feel like I've just experienced some kind of meaningful event. I think that is a cool effect that writing can produce. I want to be able to produce it.

The how to produce it is the challenge.
redwill
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
Strictly speaking, a story doesn't need anything, but what the reader needs or desires is an individual preference, not an absolute. I do not sit down and read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while expecting to derive anything but a few hours entertainment, but if I read a dialogue by Plato, I expect to be doing some serious thinking about the nature and meaning of reality. Both types of narrative-reading experiences have value to me.

It seems to me that Jim is expressing a preference for all his reading of narratives to be more serious, to result in provoked thought that will leave him feeling he has not wasted his time on something frivolous. However, to me, that does not mean that a narrative is not a story, so I'm thinking that we may be getting into a semantic issue here rather than actual conflict of opinion.

You said:
>
A surprisingly large amount of SF short fiction this year, my initial reaction was precisely "what in hell would make somebody write this?* just to put words on paper and sell it?"
>

Well, of course. I suspect that the motivation of more than half of all written works is precisely to produce income for the writer of it. Not all writers really have anything to say. Many may not even want to have anything to say in the sense of expressing or interpreting or clarifying any part of reality for themselves or anyone else.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 7th, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)
I disagree that "not all writers really have anything to say." If they don't say anything, the story isn't interesting or entertaining. Writers who do it purely for money (and I don't know any who do, at least not "purely") learn to fake meaning. I mean, they learn formulas that produce meaningful, interesting text, even if they don't particularly think about the meaning. STAR WARS has meaning. INDIANA JONES has meaning. Heck, even DUMB AND DUMBER has meaning. Meaning is inherent in stories.

I read to be entertained, not taught, but if there isn't any content, no "theme" or whatever you'd like to call it, the text is quite literally, meaningless, and uninteresting. As I said in one of the comments, the meaning can be so obvious that it doesn't bear discussion. I like Robert Howard, for example, even though the meaning of his works are often similar: somewhere in the territory of "the world used to be stranger and more wonderful than the one you live in now," and "wouldn't it be great to be powerful and full of moral certainty." I didn't think about that when I was reading, nor was that what I wanted out of the reading, but it was there nonetheless.

Every selling writer that I know has quite a bit to say about what they are "saying" in their work. Their stories reflect a world view that they hold, however temporarily, during the performance of the book.

But as you said somewhere else, we might just be having a semantic disagreement. I do know that writers who can't figure out what there stories are "about," have the hardest time finishing them.
redwill
Nov. 7th, 2007 11:38 pm (UTC)
I see that we have different definitions for the word 'meaning'; mine is much more restrictive. I haven't seen Dumb and Dumber, but I suspect it would neither have meaning by my definition, nor have entertainment value for me. Which is probably why I've not seen it. :)

The difference between personalities and circumstances has great effect on our views, too; I am old, and I have a lot of free time for elective reading, so a lot of meanings that I've already seen hundreds or thousands of times don't cause even the slightest blip on my significance meter, yet I may still consider them worthwhile for entertainment, for transporting myself temporarily to another reality than mine. Some of the truly serious writings that directly concern the meaning and nature of life also were read and considered by me a long time ago, and have ceased to have interest even if they do still have meaning, and so they are not even entertaining to me anymore. For meaning, for life-changing ideas, I've turned to new areas I've not investigated before.

I suspect that the writers you know, the ones you choose to associate with, are the very ones who also value their writing for what it says, what it means. You would not likely associate with hacks.
amberite
Nov. 8th, 2007 04:31 am (UTC)
Entertainment, itself, is a particular type of meaning-processing activity.

Meaning is most obvious when it is serious. But it does not need to be serious to exist. For years and years I read books of jokes precisely because I was amazed at how small and giggly you can make something that does a major narrative function: the bait and switch, the underdog wins, difference of viewpoint and how it resolves or fails to resolve -- heck, they take on sex and death as often as not.
david_de_beer
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:15 pm (UTC)
>A story without meaning produces a "what was the point of that" reaction from a reader.

I will amen that till I can amen no more..
(Deleted comment)
jimvanpelt
Nov. 7th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The little dialog came out better than I hoped.
joshenglish
Nov. 8th, 2007 01:32 am (UTC)
I see what you mean
This may be part of my frustration as a reader, as well. A search for meaning where there isn't any. I've been rereading the line

>He tipped the bowl on its side. If there had been anything in it, it would have spilled.

Part of me is convinced that this is a significant line. It's one of the few pieces of direct action in all that dialog so I want it to be important. It underscores everything he's said.

I do think there is a place for purely entertaining stories. Tarzan of the Apes doesn't have a lot of meaning that I can remember, but it's a fun ride.
jp_davis
Nov. 8th, 2007 12:18 pm (UTC)
Nice post. I especially like the point about how it is naturally human to look for meaning. We are pattern-detectors, it's what we're born to do, and we fill in the gaps in incomplete patterns on our own. Personally, I think that's something of what's wrong with some paranoid schizophrenics-- their pattern-detection ability is haywire, or at least their internal check of it is off, and they see patterns where none exist.

After reading through all the comments, though, it got me wondering what the take-home here is. If we're willing to accept that all novels, etc., have meaning, then where does this get us? The question is then, does a story by virtue of being a complete story automatically assume some type of meaning?

Leaving that last thought aside, I've concluded, or at least the meaning I picked up from this post, is that we should use meaning as a guide when editing. Not just the story as a whole, but every little part of it, like your micro-story above, should have some kind of meaning. And if you read back over a section of something you've written and think "hey, this section here is essentially pointless," then that section should probably be for the chop.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 8th, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank goodness that that is what you got out of the post as the "take home" message. As I said, I felt a bit incoherent as I was writing it.

For me and most of the writers I know, at some point in the writing of the story we have to start thinking about why the material we're handling is meaningful. Once we decide that, then progressing to the end is easier, and certainly thinking about meaning will guide editing.

For some writers, though, they don't think about this in term of "meaning." They're more into thinking about the story's effect (will it make the reader sad or happy or scared or thrilled, etc.), and that guides their editing. Then there is a small group of pure but instinctive story tellers who don't bring either "meaning" or "effect" into their thinking. They're just trying to tell a story whose importance to them is clear but they can't or won't try to articulate the importance to themselves. They edit by feel, mostly. More power to them!

That sense of when a story is right or not is present in a greater or lesser degree in all successful writers, I think. Sometimes all my chat about theme and meaning sounds like bullshit even to me. The story has to work on a gut level first before anyone would even bother to dissect it thematically.

Sigh. It's the classic split between knowledge and knowing that is the curse of western culture. If only I was a bit more Zen. *g*
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )