Looking for Meaning by Gayle Bartos-Pool

A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.” For more information about Gayle, visit her website!

For the past several months I have written blogs on the 5 Elements of a Story as outlined by Aristotle in The Poetics. Mine weren’t deep, philosophical discussions. They were just good, solid writing tips and techniques. So far we have covered Plot, Character, Setting, and Dialogue. Each of these is an integral aspect of a good story.

Without Plot, you have your annual Christmas letter. Without Character, you have a travel guide. Without Setting, you have an essay. And without Dialogue, you don’t have much reality to your story.

The final element is Meaning. Or: “What is the point to your story?” If you don’t have a point, why write the story? You might think the plot is the meaning, but the plot is simply what characters do in a specific time and place, enhanced by what each character has to say about it.

The Meaning is a higher concept. It’s the theme. There aren’t all that many concepts out there: Man against Man. Man against Nature. Man against Machine, Man against Himself, Man against God. Even if you have a dog as your hero, it would be Dog against Man, Dog against Dog, or Dog against Nature or Machine. (God loves dogs so there wouldn’t be any conflict between them. Sorry, I digress.)

Any good western has a guy in a white hat battling a guy in a black hat. Even in good, old-fashioned detective tales you have man against man (hero against killer) or maybe it’s hero against femme fatale.

The new movie, Everest, has men battling that mountain. My latest book, Caverns, coming out in October, pits man against nature until the heroes realize the rats in the caves underneath the city of Chicago aren’t their biggest problem.

The silent movie, Modern Times, has man battling the machine age. Or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey when the human is trying to outsmart the computer. (Obviously in real modern times and the real future, now, every gadget used in a CSI TV show works, nobody’s cell phone ever loses a signal or runs out of battery power. But that would be a different story. Sorry… Again I digress.)

Then there is Man against Himself. This is often a psychological tale where the man is trying to find himself or save himself. The Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend pit an alcoholic against the bottle in his fist. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or maybe a nymphomaniac female and her cravings, they are each fighting a battle against their addiction. And since they are the only one in the room, it’s the character against himself or herself. Society really doesn’t have a place in that scenario.

There are tales of man (and I use the term facetiously in this case) against God as in The Screwtape Letters. The devil is definitely having his issues with God.

And as in some instances, the man or woman doesn’t have to win. The Tale of Two Cities ends with Sydney Carton walking to the gallows. The plot might lead him to Madame Guillotine, but it’s his self-sacrifice that takes him on his final journey and the ultimate meaning of the story.

It is up to the writer to find those obstacles against which his or her characters can struggle. The writer creates a character with traits that either defy and overcome the odds or succumbs to them, because in the final analysis all stories are really about man vs. himself. 

Can the hero triumph over his limitations? Will the hero find himself, his courage, and his soul in that struggle?

What is your story trying to say?  What are you trying to say?

16 thoughts on “Looking for Meaning by Gayle Bartos-Pool”

  1. Gayle, what an EXCELLENT post! So seldom does one hear/talk about Meaning, and you are so right how important these concepts are–and to me the underpinning of a tale that draws me in. And Man against Himself is what intrigues me the most–our own struggles and searches for “meaning.” Thank you! Driving for a couple hours this morning to Arcadia area, and you've given me some things to think about along the way.


  2. Gayle, I love your digressions! And thanks for this important reminder. I am struggling with this very issue in my new project; I have the characters, the plot, etc., but I'm trying to resolve the “so what?” aspect. You have given me some excellent possibilities–great post!


  3. Goodness, Gayle, you manage to get right to the point. We do sometimes get so wrapped up in one area, that we forget essential parts in our writing. Rather like walking into a room and thinking, “Now what did I come in here for?” I always learn so much from your ideas and comments. Now – back to the drawing-board….


  4. I loved how you gave illustrations of plot, character, setting and dialogue in your second paragraph and what our writing would be without these elements. The “so what?” element you saved for last. It's the reason we keep reading books, because they have meaning for us, teach us something, strike a chord, help us to identify (like the Bible does so well). At lot of my writing is missing this, so I will try harder with this aspect. Thanks again, Teach!


  5. Gayle, your posts are mini-classes and this one is no exception. Whether you call it meaning, or theme, it reminds us of a critical aspect of writing that's often neglected or forgotten.


  6. It's all about the fascination we have for conflict; if nothing happens, who cares? But the meaning is in the give and take, and I love your take on this! Thank for another terrific lesson in writing!


  7. Madeline, You are so right about Man Against Himself. Because when you get right down to it, we (or our main character) are our own advocates and soldiers.


  8. Jack, It's funny, but when I started writing the outline for the Anatomy of the Short Story class that I was to teach, I learned a great deal. Some things I already knew but didn't realize I knew them. Some things I frankly learned as I was writing the syllabus. I hope other writers get a few tips from Aristotle and me.


  9. Rosie, I think writing short stories helped me hone my craft. Get to the point, get it on the page, and get on with it. Now back to the drawing board for both of us.


  10. Jaxon, Saving the best for last is right. The meaning is really what we take away from anything written or viewed or even heard. A character might be likeable or good looking, but the reason he or she did what he or she did makes the character memorable.


  11. Kate, I always feel getting to the meaning like is crawling inside a character's skin and seeing what he wants and why. The bad guy in a mystery has a goal. Usually self-centered and murderous. There is a similar line in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus is talking to Scout. Writers should try seeing the world they created through the eyes of their characters to see what they see. They just might find the ultimate meaning in those thoughta.


  12. My comment is a bit late – – just got back from Huntington Beach – – so maybe nobody will read it. All I have to say: Oh boy, rats in the caves underneath the city of Chicago! Can't wait to read that one, Gayle.


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