I used to do an experiment on author visits to schools. I’d ask a group of students, How many of you have ever started reading a book that’s a story, that’s fiction, and you pretty quickly realized the writer was trying to teach you a lesson? Between between half to three quarters of my audience, however small or large, would raise a hand. Then I’d ask, How many of you finished reading that book? Now about one in ten kids raised a hand.
The difference was always that dramatic. No one goes to a story for message; along with entertainment, we go to a story for meaning. But that is very different.
Message is something a writer tries to slide in, and it makes for a bad and/or boring story. Even if the writer was clever enough to disguise the message, when you realize it’s there it leaves a bad taste, like you’ve been fooled or manipulated. Meaning is what, beyond enjoyment, we most hope to find in fiction — and it’s not something the writer can insert or disguise. Meaning can only develop inside the reader, when that one person’s emotions and experiences connect in some deepening way with the story on the page. It’s not something any novel or short story will ever make happen in every reader, because the reader is half of this relationship, and every reader is different.
I’ve noticed that writers of YA fiction like myself tend to think differently than teachers about this. On a visit to a high school, I saw the rubric that a wonderfully good teacher, whom I had known for many years, had developed to help her students write their own pieces of fiction. One of the steps was that the writer should decide what is the theme. I wondered, How many working writers even think about theme? I understand that educators have to help students break things down and understand, and this is important; but the creative process is usually much less directed or analytical. I think what’s regarded as theme is a dimension that grows or develops along with the work, and is noticed more after that process is complete.
A good story deals with things that are difficult, challenging, meaningful in life — and this dealing-with later looks like a theme. But really it’s just what the story, its writer and its characters, were dealing with, what brought tension and suspense and coherence to the narrative. The writer didn’t choose it, I bet, as a component part: He or she just built the story, draft by draft, from the seed of an idea where the tension was already there.
To a decent story, message is death, but meaning is life — it’s what we most hope to find. And it’s always personal. This is, I think, why stories matter so much: not because they preach at us, but because they speak to us.