Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What makes a story meaningful? (04/15/09)

Featured writer: Don Edgers

Contributors this month:
Glanda Widger
Betty Rodgers
Bree LeMaire
Christine Falcone
David Hoag
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Joan Zerrien
Lilia P. Westmore
Nancy Wallace
Susan Bono

Meaning What?

by Don Edgers

In my opinion, in order for a story to be meaningful it needs to have function, and/or purpose. The primary purposes are: to inform, to convince, to stimulate, to entertain. (Political rally, anybody?)

The content (what the story's about - ingredients) for its genre, should have an audience that will appreciate the topic (audience appeal), and recognize the writer's skill in its preparation.

Some questions the author might ask about making a story meaningful:

Does the story have literary worth?

Is it memorable?

Does it awaken the senses?

Is it believable?

Is it interesting?

Is it understandable?

Can the reader identify with the story?

Bernardine Kielty, editor of A Treasury of Short Stories says that in order for stories to be meaningful, "something happens—-there is emotional impact. The reader is moved--to laugh, to cry, to exclaim--the mood envelopes him."

Having said all this, my question to Nobel laureate William Faulkner, if he were alive today, would be-- what's the meaning of, and why did you write Mosquitoes?

Don Edgers writes his stories in Port Orchard, WA

Read some of his meaningful stories at

What Makes A Story Meaningful?

  by Glanda Widger

A story that touches me in some way is what makes it meaningful. Does it make me laugh? Does it make me cry? Does it make me say, been there done that?

A meaningful story shows me the way, parallels parts of my own life, or explains the feelings that I cannot explain. Some just make me wish I was there. They inspire me, allow me to dream, and give me hope.

Good stories that make me care about the characters are ones in which the words are applied to the paper like the colors in a fine painting. They make me visualize the scene or the action or the setting. They put me there. They relate to me in some manner. To me, these are meaningful stories.

Glanda is a humor writer from the Carolina hill country. She has been blessed lately with the winning of an essay contest for a national magazine and, at long last, has sold, for real money, a story to a writer’s association for an upcoming anthology series.

What makes a story meaningful?

  by Betty Rodgers

One of the first lessons an author learns is that a story becomes meaningful when the writer adds information that will evoke an emotional response from the reader. If there is no response, the reader will not remain engaged, may not continue to "The End," and will not go on to think about what he/she has read.

Let's start by telling you that Sam showed up at my office today. Okay, so what? So, he's 88, is a widower, and shuffles with a stooped posture. There are probably millions like him. Who would look twice?

You may become a little more engaged if I were to explain that he always wears his WWII ball cap and bolo tie, flirts with me outrageously, and loves to recount stories from his past. He also philosophizes about life from his December vantage point.

I would certainly get your attention if I were to tell you that one day, as he turned to enter my colleague's office, I glanced down at the hole in his back right pocket through which the barrel of a handgun protruded. Further, he eased himself into a waiting chair and sat squarely on the gun.

At this point, we don't yet know why he carries a gun, what sort of reassurance it gives, and why he feels the necessity to wander around with said firearm in back pocket. I have at least opened your curiosity valve by now.

If you are still reading, you learn that Sam was a bomber pilot during the war, after which he became a hit man and a bodyguard. His late wife never knew the nature of his occupation. He went on to great wealth by crafting business deals employing his observations of human behavior, and built a small empire for himself.

One day Sam pulls a chair up to my desk. He tells me he's dying. Due to his odor, I suspect it's cancer. He makes a trip to the Veterans Hospital almost daily. Then Sam sighs and says we all need to practice the 3 Cs: Never criticize, never complain, and always compliment. He then bows his head and confides it will be a relief to die because he lives every day with a guilty conscience. As his hearing aids squeal, I come to my own conclusions but ask the aged confessor, "What do you mean?"

Sam lifts his head, fixes his eyes squarely on mine with a clear, blue stare, and says, "There were some I should have killed, and some I shouldn't."

The End

Betty Rodgers writes from her home in Boise, Idaho.

A Poem about Meaningful Books

  by Bree LeMaire

Capture my heart,
I'm yours to the end.

Share gossip
celebrities with sordid pasts
You have me.

Educate, tell me factoids
I don't know
Capture and take me
to unknown worlds.

Hold off flowery descriptions
Just a good story
Seduce me with plot twists
or unusual views.

Make it gut wrenching,
Tell me grave secrets,
I'll dog-ear the pages.

A good mystery is my forte with
Earl Grey in a cup and my Snuggie
We're best friends forever or
until the last page.

Bree LeMaire, E-Mail, continues with her mystery. The current task is to salt her tale with red herrings, so she'll be doing a lot of fishing.

What Makes A Story Meaningful?

  by Christine Falcone

Conflict, a satisfying resolution, strong characters, an original plot all make a story memorable, but what makes it meaningful? For me, the answer is this: it has to touch my heart in some way. Just like the story I heard last night about the man who lost his legs in a hiking accident, then became the first paraplegic ever to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro last year. I watched the footage of him on TV ascending the snow covered peak with these modified "ski crutches" and felt my face burn with shame as I recalled complaining to my ski buddies last weekend about a short 20-minute hike.

A story has to grab me by the heart, has to sink its teeth into me before it qualifies as meaningful. It has to make connections, lead me to understanding, expand my world, even just a little bit, so that I develop a better sense of what it means to be a human being, alive on this planet in 2009. It has to leave me changed in some way, show me something that I may have known before, but perhaps in a new way.

Christine Falcone is doing her best to write meaningful stories in Novato, California.

Meaning in Story

  by David Hoag

Meaning in story is crucial to its success, for a reader won't trust a writer for whom meaning is not the central thread to which all other filaments are attached. Further, a meaningful story carries itself along, with showing and telling intertwined, whether it is spiritual literary fiction, drama, tragedy, or creative non-fiction; and, each would have Logos, Pathos, Ethos, and Aristotle would like it. Theme, Major Dramatic Question, or Objective Correlative are some other terms dancing around the gist of this essay. Most importantly, meaning is linked to theme that can only come out of a scene that is populated with characters engaged in sensory experiences that immediately evoke emotion.

A theme unifies a chronicle like a melody determines one of the themes of a concerto. Hemingway, in A Clean Well-Lighted Place, bestowed upon us a scene: "In the daytime, the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference." The rest of the story and the other two characters, the waiters - one young, one old - are tied inextricably to this view.

A great fictional narrative can be read, enjoyed, digested whether the meaning is understood or not. The descriptions of its characters, dialogue, and sensory details in scenes give traction and make for accuracy, freshness, visceral compassion, and exigency that lead to meaning and truth. Upon first or second read, the meaning can be murky, but the elements demand further investigation.

My goodness, this all sounds pretty gaseous and I'm only a bit closer to answering the question of how meaning is gained.

Hemingway in the four-page story, Hills Like White Elephants, writes almost all dialogue but grounds us with two scenes. The story begins, "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was not shade and not trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun."

Just past half-way in the story is the second scene: "The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

‘And we could have all this,' she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'"

These are two stories that keep inviting me for a return visit, due to craft of scene, and I've wondered for years whatever happened to the old man from that clean, well-lighted place, or to the girl - did she move toward the hills like white elephants?

David Hoag, is an Eagle, ID writer trying to figure out, “By what craft do master writers find meaning? He reads Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, and Alice Munro in order to discover methods for finding meaning. E-Mail David Hoag

What Pirogue Super Glow and Shucker Mean to Me

  by David S. Johnson

Clad only in my boxer-briefs splattered with images of orange and lemon-wedges, I stood barefoot on the riprap with my hands on my knees and staring at the water. When two large men arrived, my friend in the water looked nervous. When they got out of their truck, I looked back over the top of my ass and smiled. When I said, "Howdy! How y'all doing?" they looked at each other.

My friend, I'll call him Shucker, was nervous because he was collecting oysters off the side of the road in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, without a permit and these men were officers from the Division of Wildlife and Fisheries. Granted, he was collecting oysters for scientific research, but he was collecting them before the glacially slow and snarled bureaucracy of the Louisiana government granted him permission to do so. Fines can be levied and jail time can be given as a result of collecting oysters without a permit. I wasn't worried. In retrospect, I probably should have been. While my supernova-bright white thighs, pipe-cleaner legs and half-caved in torso are not that appealing, going to jail in my underpants in south Louisiana should warrant some worry.

"You boys coonin' oysters?" The white officer asked. I mention race because one officer was white and the other black and the term ‘coon' can be used a pejorative for black people. It can also refer to the varmint that steals. The black officer didn't seem to care about pejoratives or varmints.

"No, sir," my other friend said. Oh yes, an aside here. There was another friend in the water. He was in his very white Banana Republic tighty-whities. I'll call him Pirogue (sounds like pee-roe) Super Glow. Shucker was the only one with a full complement of clothes.

So, Pirogue Super Glow said, "No, sir." Shucker continued, "We're from LSU collecting specimens for experiments," and pointed at the LSU van with an LSU vessel on a trailer behind it.

"Y'all ain't eating them are ya?" No, we explained, they were for science not eating. The officers, who looked quite suspicious of our intentions with the oysters until then, were quickly satisfied by our answer. Of course it's reasonable to think that three young men - two barely hiding their own oysters - on the side of Highway 1 in south Louisiana would be collecting research specimens.

When I'm with Pirogue Super Glow and Shucker and we retell this story, it has meaning because it's a shared experience - both the event and the retelling of it. Often stories are meaningful because they are remembered for some quality and this tends to leave an itch at the back of your head that surfaces from time to time. Sometimes that itch turns into a smile. Sometimes it turns into an annoyance that makes you ask over and over, "What the Hell were they doing in their underwear?" I can't exactly tell you the answer, but I will say that it was for science.

So what really makes a story meaningful? Hell if I know. All I know is that sometimes you just had to be there.

David Samuel Johnson has on more clothes but doesn’t find many oysters in Massachusetts where he now lives.David Johnson's Website

Meaning What?

  by Don Edgers

In my opinion, in order for a story to be meaningful it needs to have function, and/or purpose. The primary purposes are: to inform, to convince, to stimulate, to entertain. (Political rally, anybody?)

The content (what the story's about - ingredients) for its genre, should have an audience that will appreciate the topic (audience appeal), and recognize the writer's skill in its preparation.

Some questions the author might ask about making a story meaningful:

Does the story have literary worth?

Is it memorable?

Does it awaken the senses?

Is it believable?

Is it interesting?

Is it understandable?

Can the reader identify with the story?

Bernardine Kielty, editor of A Treasury of Short Stories says that in order for stories to be meaningful, "something happens—-there is emotional impact. The reader is moved--to laugh, to cry, to exclaim--the mood envelopes him."

Having said all this, my question to Nobel laureate William Faulkner, if he were alive today, would be-- what's the meaning of, and why did you write Mosquitoes?

Don Edgers writes his stories in Port Orchard, WA

Read some of his meaningful stories at

Ordering the Universe

  by Joan Zerrien

A story is meaningful when it reminds me that I am not separate, that I am part of a collective consciousness experiencing itself through diverse particularities. When a piece of writing reminds me of something I once knew and have since forgotten, or reveals to me something I've always known and never quite realized, it speaks in the universal tongue. When I see myself in the universal and the universal in myself, I am moved, into a place of meaningful balance.

Joan Zerrien lives and writes in the mountains behind Palm Springs. She shoveled a great deal of snow this winter, and when the plow didn’t come, she sledded down the road.

It Takes Two

  by Lilia P. Westmore

Two persons make a story meaningful. First, the writer who pens the story; and second, the reader who enjoys it.

The writer creates an idea that is dear to her heart. She develops it into a full-blown tale that starts with a beginning that catches the eye and interest of a reader. She continues the development of the tale into a conflict that excites and keeps the reader's attention. As the reader's interest is aroused, the author pens the most delicate part of the story: the resolution of the conflict.

The writer keeps tabs of every single event in her manuscript, describing, dissecting, and editing the story to keep the reader's interest at a high level. It is the writer's responsibility to show the reader who, why, how, where, and when a conflict is resolved.

A writer becomes involved in her story; her heart is in the story; her feeling of either love or hate is part of the story; the story is the author. She is consumed with the story, a total dedication that comes through the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs the writer uses to convey the core of the story. The author makes it her responsibility to make clear the meaning behind her story. She is involved in the story because her one aim is to make her reader feel the tears and joys that she felt in writing it.

A reader is not only a part and parcel of the story,she is the very soul of the story. The words, sentences, phrases, and paragraphs that move the story become a reader's guide to keep her interest and high level of involvement in the story. A reader completes the story; she is the personality that gives the story meaning, because without her judgment on the validity of the conflict and its resolution, there is no story. A reader gives meaning to a story when at the end of her read, she finds satisfaction in the courage of the storyline. A reader is as responsible as the writer is in giving meaning to a story.

Lilia P. Westmore is five feet tall (if you call 5 feet, tall), small-boned and getting on in years (in her 70s!). She writes flash fiction (her favorite genre), articles, essays, and short fiction. Her ambition is to write a children's book one day. She has been published in Sacramento for an article on boomeranging, a poem on graduation, and several short essays and articles. She is published in ezines, including,,,,

Yearning for Redemption

  by Nancy Wallace

What Makes a Story Meaningful:

S Setting
T Tension
O Opportunity
R Reprieve/Redemption
Y Yearning

These words summarize what I believe makes a story meaningful.

When I speak of setting, I, of course, include the physicalities of where,when and how a story happens, but more important for me are the emotional and spiritual make-ups of each character which create the interior setting for all actions and interactions. A meaningful story quickly draws a reader into its setting, and seamlessly convinces him that characters are behaving in ways completely natural to the world they inhabit.

Once the reader has come to live within that story's world, the storywriter has to provide enough tension to make him decide to linger. That tension can be internal to one character, but the story's more likely to become meaningful to the reader when it involves multiple characters, either as they work to solve the first character's personal dilemma, or as the tension becomes interpersonal. The meaningful story must then provide a believable opportunity for that tension to be resolved.

These three elements of "setting", "tension", and "opportunity" are important to the unfolding of a meaningful story, but, for me, the elements of "yearning and "reprieve"/"redemption" are what determines how deeply the story will stay in my reader's mind.

"Yearning" is perhaps the strongest determiner of human behavior, and a gnawing yen is likely what caused the tension and created the need for the character(s) to seek resolution. Few opportunities in life, however, present themselves neatly or simply. Bungled opportunities abound and provide some of life's juiciest moments.

Misused opportunities also necessitate redemption with its potential humiliation and relief.

Moments of redemption from the hubris that yearning can create are complex, and difficult to weave into stories. It's how believably and uniquely the writer reveals his characters'process through yearning and reprieve that marks a story "meaningful" to me, and ensures that I will return to it often.

Nancy Wallace is a Mendocino writer who just keeps seeking redemption.

Pennies Saved

  by Susan Bono

A few Saturdays ago I found a wooden box of pennies in my dresser. I was making room for some of Mom's jewelry now that Dad's died and renters will be occupying their house. I thought about sending my son to the Coinstar machine at the Safeway, figuring there would be about five bucks in it for him and one more jewelry box for me. I transferred the money into one of the big plastic drink cups we got in bulk at Costco a few years back and have regretted ever since—an impulse buy one afternoon when we were fantasizing about throwing more parties, not realizing that even if we made good on that dream, we'd never use these cups. I set the red cup full of pennies on a bookcase when the phone rang and forgot about it.

I looked at those pennies on Tuesday, the morning after my husband got laid off. They looked different. I won't go so far as to say they seemed more valuable. If anything, they were another slap in the face—why couldn't it have been a kegger cup of dimes or quarters? But I didn't want to give them to my son anymore. The meaning of this money changed because I had, and now I was thinking about my relationship to all the loose change hiding in couch cushions or sitting on the rim of the washing machine, the paper money shoved in the pocket of some windbreaker or slipped into my sock drawer, how that all meant something different now, how it all could mean something else later.

Susan Bono is considering her relationship to the meaning of her story in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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