Reading Fiction for Meaning

Reading Fiction for Meaning

Obviously, we should read for fun!

There is nothing wrong with reading purely for entertainment or escapism.

Having said this, you can read non-fiction for entertainment or escapism as well, and one can read fiction for meaning. Sometimes you must read fiction for meaning.

Above all, the more you gain from reading anything, the more pleasurable and rewarding it is.

The ideas below are intended to help you get started on the road to extracting more from your fiction reading. When you are ready to start using them, set up a file on your computer or other device, or get a small book/scribbler to keep track.


One of the first things to do is to begin setting up a character chart or list. There are many styles, so you will need to try a few to see what works for you.

I like to have just a few main characteristics for each listed character, and I usually draw lines or arrows to make connections – similar to a family tree.

No matter what method you use, leave space to add characters and/or characteristics as you progress in your reading.

The example here is not exactly as I would do it because I use pencil and paper most of the time and “draw” the map. (Often, I will draw this kind of chart right in the book at the front if there is a blank page.) Still, here is a short example with just a few characters from the novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Character Chart

  • Holden Caulfield (protagonist – narrator)
    • Sister

         Phoebe (10 years old – intelligent – Holden’s consistent source of happiness)
      Brothers    D.B. – older (writer)
      Schoolmates    Stradlater (handsome, popular, “secret slob”)
      Ackley (pimply, bad hygiene)
      Old friend    Jane Gallagher
      Mr. Spencer    Holden’s history teacher

You can see how easy it will be to glance at this chart if you need a reminder or if you are preparing for a quiz or test. When writing an essay, too, you have easy access to the major characters. This is not complete, I would add characteristics to the chart as I progress.

Plot Points

Picture2It is good to keep track of the most important events in the plot. I recommend jotting down a few points for each chapter. (In a play, look to do so for each Act and Scene. A short story can be divided using any breaks or major changes in setting for example.)

If the chapters are small, as in the case for The Catcher in the Rye, read the whole chapter before taking notes. In this way, you won’t interrupt the flow and enjoyment of reading, and you are less likely to note too many unnecessary details.

If the chapters are quite long, you might need to break them down for yourself. It all depends on how many salient events occur in each one. Although the chapters are quite long, they might have a lot of description or unimportant details that add to the picture in your mind but not to your notes, so you can still read the entire chapter first.

Track New Words

Define new, unfamiliar words, particularly those that are used frequently by the author. You could create a mini-dictionary for yourself within the notebook or device document you created for easy access. In this way, you will expand your vocabulary while, at the same time, improving your comprehension of this author’s message.


Picture3Some of the following ideas could enter into your notes, too; however, these thought processes should be far more involved than you would ever want to note. As you think, let your mind go wherever it needs to and make connections that make sense and those that don’t. During the thought processes, you will be discarding a lot of dross – so don’t note everything! Perhaps, a few of the distilled bits could enter note form.


Network knowledge to your world. What characters do you identify with? What characteristics within each main character have you experienced yourself? What characteristics do you see in people you know?

Ask similar questions about the plot. Do any of the events correspond to something in your life – presently or in the past?

Network knowledge to current events. Related to the points noted above, see if you can make connections between characters or plot points in the fiction work and current events. Does one of the characters remind you of the Prime Minister or a local hero, or a murderer in the news? Does one of the events seem similar to a robbery in your town, a parade, or a festival?

Network knowledge to historical characters and/or events.

This does not work for every text or for every person. Still, think of this to see if you do have any connections to people or events of the past.

Network knowledge to other stories. Think of other novels, movies, television shows, and so on. In all cases, look for similarities but also think about differences, working through both will strengthen your understanding and retention of the material you are reading.

More importantly, these methods dramatically increase the enjoyment and fulfillment levels gained in the whole experience of reading fiction.

Keep reading - keep looking for meaning. Above all, enjoy the process as well as the outcome.

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