(Just to clarify, I’m not talking about erotica in this article. I have no problem reading, editing or writing erotica, but this article isn’t about that.)
Instead, let’s talk about meaning in your fiction. There are two main points I’d like to make. First, a word about how to convey meaning in your fiction. Second, a distinction between sentimental, easy meaning and more honest, adult level meaning.
First, how do you make sure your writing has a theme, has meaning, something to say? How do you inject meaning, rather than just feeling, into your story? Well, the short answer is: don’t. At least, don’t try. If you force meaning in, it will not ring true, and it will seem to hit your readers over the head. It’s the ultimate in telling, not showing.
I will make you a confident promise: if you work on having strong, multifaceted characters, faced by real obstacles and true struggles to overcome them, it will happen. What you have to say will come through. Your work is very likely to surprise you with how much it has to say, and how deep its truth runs. Let it find its own theme: it will be the right one.
What do I mean by deeper truth, having something to say? Well, that leads me to the second thing I want to talk about: adult level meaning, versus childish sentiment.
Real meaning is about dealing with difficult questions, rather than handing out easy, unrealistic solutions. Some books are very financially successful based on injecting childish, easy, quick ‘meanings’ into the story. For example, the apparent message of the story boils down to ‘we should all just get along’ or ‘love is all you need’ or ‘follow your heart and you can’t go wrong’… or the negative side, such as ‘people are awful and so it’s okay to be awful’ or ‘there’s no real meaning, just money, in today’s world’ or ‘things are getting worse all the time, so you’re right to be afraid.’
There’s a difference between giving your readers strong feelings, making them care about the characters, and handing out cheapo solutions to life’s problems. It’s good to have readers invested in your characters, and hitting them right in the feels is pretty much your job.
But messages that everything would be okay if we would all just do one simple trick tend to be clickbait for your soul. Like injecting fake sugar into food, it addicts without nutrition, appeals without teaching. It can be financially successful like Twinkies are: not actually good for anybody, but people are compelled to buy it.
But fake sentimentality isn’t the only nutrient you can put into your work to make it sell. Real questions, real lessons, real struggles about honest issues, have strong selling potential also. Don’t lose heart if you’re surrounded by meaningless stories full of whining or over-sweetness. They often sell well. That doesn’t mean they’re all that sells.
How can you tell the difference? Here are some examples.
Can’t we all just get along? Well, the entire weight of human history and evolution tends to suggest that no, we can’t and won’t. A deeper question might be ‘how can we continue, survive, help one another in a world where we can’t all get along?’
Love is all you need? Well, nope, for a relationship to work, you need to have both partners aligned in terms of core beliefs, you need a commitment to communication, and a thousand other factors individual to the pairing. A deeper question might be ‘how can we keep this love alive, despite needing so many other things, many of which we can’t give one another?’
There’s no meaning in life, just money? Well, no, or the richest people would obviously and consistently be the happiest people – clearly not the case, if you’re paying any attention at all. A deeper question might be, ‘why do we focus so much on accumulating wealth, and how can we find happiness in a world that showers us with messages that things are more important than people?’
In short, meaning is about the questions you ask, not the answers you have. A question is more complicated than an easy answer. But if your characters struggle with it in a real, multifaceted, honest way, then the story will form part of a dialogue between the author’s feelings about the issue and the reader’s feelings about the issue. Your message will come through, and the reader will have things to say also. That’s what it’s all about.