129. How does a story mean?

The meaning of a story exists outside the text. I was struck recently by the way a story can be simple but its meaning can be perplexing.


A story is a set of events linked by causality—the kingdom withered because the king died of grief. The king was sad because the queen had died.

Meaning depends on understanding how things fit together. The meaning of an event in the story (the queen died) lies in the part it plays in the whole, what it causes (the king died).

Stories tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.

But the chain of meaning also extends beyond the story. To follow it, we need to know what a king is, what marriage is, what love is. This knowledge pre-exists and lies outside the tale. Meanings are social—they depend on how a particular community understands the world. These shared references and a stock of agreed narratives allow an audience to decode the story and clad it in meaning.

So, it is possible to create a story in which the chain of linked events is clear, but the meaning is opaque because it depends on assumptions that subvert social understanding of how to code events.

An example

This is what happened with a story I wrote. It imagines a world being destroyed by a race of giants. The giants are the offspring of people and angels. A man and his grandson are chased by a giant. The grandson says the angels have warned him a great flood is coming and that he should build a boat. The old man argues the important thing is not to survive the flood but to stop it by preventing the destruction of the world.  He believes the angels’ mischief is the root cause of the problem and decides the solution lies in taming the giants and putting their great strength to work in repairing the world.


Simple, right?

Yet many readers were perplexed. I wondered why. One told me he didn’t understand bad angels—angels, he felt, were good. The Noah figure, with his Old Testament resonances, who wants to build the boat is young and credulous rather than old, wise, and virtuous. This too creates what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—the discomfort caused by trying to hold two contradictory beliefs.

If we lack the key to decode the story’s meaning, the story doesn’t work for us, even if all the events and the connections between them are clear. This, I believe, is what happened with my tale.

Allegory, unreliable narrators, and allusion

The allegorical implications also perplexed readers. Did the giants represent machines, they wondered? Were the angels fallen angels? In allegory, the meanings necessarily exist outside the story itself since everything in the story is doubled by a set of mappings onto another space.

But there are other circumstances than allegory where a simple story may have an opaque meaning. An obvious example is the unreliable narrator, where not only the credibility of the narrator but also of the events is brought into question. Another is stories that make extensive reference to other stories, which may not be familiar to the audience. The use of classical allusion, once readily understandable among educated people, may be an example here.

Plot, Story, and Narrative

Here’s a simple way of thinking about this.

  • Plot is the causal sequence of a tale (the WHAT of a tale).
  • Story is the way this sequence is told (the HOW of a tale),
  • Narrative is what it means (the WHY of a tale), the interpretation of events and characters within the tale.

Note that narrative can only come into existence when a work is read or heard. The writer may have intended something, but the reader may pick up quite a different interpretation. Meaning comes in existence through an interaction between the writer and from the reader, not from the text. Both writer and reader participate in the creation of meaning.  In an important sense then, meaning must always lie outside the story itself.

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