Does fiction have to have a message?

I was browsing a writing forum recently when I came across an interesting post. Basically, the person who wrote it was asking “Does there need to be an overarching message with all writing?”

The author of the post wrote a story that their tutor didn’t really like. They were asked, “what’s the message?”

The author had written a short story that was really purely for entertainment. To their knowledge, they didn’t know a story had to have any sort of deeper meaning, even though their tutor seemed to insist it did.

So, does fiction have to have a deeper meaning?

From what I understand, it depends.

It depends what you are trying to achieve.

The beauty of stories is that they operate on different levels simultaneously. Each level compliments the other, and if you get them all right, then you are able to create a masterpiece.

I’d have to do a bit of research on what all of these different levels are, but a few are obvious.

The first level, that’s at the surface, is entertainment value.

For a novel, for example, to sell well and be well-received, 99 times out of 100 it has to be entertaining.

Entertainment value is the first level because without it most stories fail to achieve commercial success. And while you may not think commercial success is important with a book, it is a pretty strong marker whether or not it resonates with people.

To be entertaining, there’s a lot of things that have to be in place. We could write a whole book on how to entertain, but we’ll keep it brief.

In the case of fiction, the story has to interest the reader, progressively increase in tension, and move from sequence to sequence.

This structure is most obvious screenplays, that more than most forms of writing, follows a relatively strict structure and cannot afford to waste any time.

But here’s where things get a little tricky.

Yes, a story should be entertaining, but… it depends what you are trying to achieve.

If you are trying to write an entertaining read that’ll hook readers, get them excited, and then be quickly forgotten after they have finished reading, entertaining by itself is enough.

You can see this the generic stories that populate most genres. Novels and films that tick all the boxes, do a good job, hold your attention, but don’t leave you with anything after you have finished them.

You can quite quickly pick up another book or watch another movie with a similar structure and not really notice a difference.

Action movies are a pretty good example of this.

The plotlines and conventions seem to get borrowed and repeated a lot, the characters are often relatively shallow, and the movie doesn’t actually say much about the human experience.

Sure, it can hold your attention with the quick dialogue, the gunfights, the car chases etc, but in the en,d most of them all seem to look the same.

Many writers perfect the ability to write on this level, and no other. They can write stories that are interesting, that hold your attention, that hit a lot of your emotional buttons, yet once you are finished with them there’s nothing to really think about.

Significance — A deeper level

Then there’s another level. It is beneath entertainment, and a good name for it might be significance.

In English class, the sort of books they got you to study were likely to be “classics,” that had significance.

Another word for this level would be themes or motifs. Lessons that can be learned from the story. The implications that we carry with us into our own lives.

Some books actually have little to no entertainment value and instead operate from this level instead.

One that seems to be a good example of this is Ayn Rand’s . I haven’t read this book, but from what I have read about it, the actual writing is pretty dry and some of the usual fiction stuff can actually be laughably bad.

Yet the power of the book is in the ideas that it is trying to get across. The deeper level.

Often a lot of writers try and start here.

They try and write stories that “are deep” or express some angst that they have about the world.

The superficial attempts at creating significance nearly always fail.

If a writer has a real grip on something important and can express it, that’s when they create something of actual value.

Books we want to have read but don’t want to read

There are plenty of books out there that people want to have read but don’t want to read.

These are the books that have big ideas, that have significance but don’t have entertainment value.

We know that we’d be better off (apparently) if we read these books, but because they aren’t designed for ease of reading, we avoid them.

Then there’s other books that are like a guilty pleasure.

We rip through the pages quickly and easily, but we don’t feel nourished after we’ve done it. We wouldn’t want to talk about these books in a literary circle or write an essay on the underlying themes within them.

These are entertaining books that don’t really have any significance.

The Great Story — Multiple Levels

When a story stays with us, it is simply a story that is entertaining and that has significance.

While there’s nothing wrong with a purely entertaining story, after we’ve finished with it, our mind isn’t enriched, and we are able to quickly forget it.

And while there’s nothing wrong with writing a story that’s not really that entertaining as it is educational, these stories can be hard to read and often have to be approached more like a textbook than a novel.

Great stories, on the other hand, entertain us while also providing us with significance and meaning, that enable us to better operate in the world and have a richer experience of our lives.

I’m reminded of a recent interview with a marketing expert who spoke about the success of the TV show 60 minutes. He quoted someone as saying that the reason 60 Minutes was a success was that it tasted like a hotdog but nourished like broccoli.

That’s really the perfect ideal to strive for with a story, in my personal opinion. You get the fulfillment of writing something that matters and also the possibility of commercial success as what you have written can be easily enjoyed by others.

That’ll do it for this post. I might follow this one up with a bit of a “how-to” on writing stories on multiple levels.

If you want a guide that will help you become a better storyteller, then you head here and download the free pdf resource.

The resource is about 7 Deadly Assumptions that writers have, and how to get rid of them so you become a better storyteller.

The guy behind, the website for serious storytellers who want level up their fiction-writing ability.

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