How do we inject meaning into our stories? Do we even care about meaning, over and above writing a rollicking good tale? We should. There is a specific meaning to every story, whether we intend it or not. Let me explain.
If we have a theme or moral premise in mind—such as greed leads to unhappiness, or unfettered technology leads to the destruction of the natural world, then we can point our story in that direction through the actions of our characters and their consequences. But even if we haven’t thought about the theme at all, choosing instead to concentrate on the surface layer of the tale—its plot, meaning will nevertheless arise in the story by virtue of what happens to the characters who hold certain views.
“The winner of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist ‘proves’ the theme or moral premise, which in turn provides the meaning of the tale.”
If, say, our protagonist espouses self-sacrifice and nobility as virtues and he defeats the antagonist who espouses selfishness and vengeance, then you as a writer are saying that self-sacrifice and nobility trumps selfishness and vengeance. If the antagonist defeats the protagonist then your claim is that selfishness and vengeance defeats self-sacrifice and nobility. You are saying that the world is a place where the ruthless and self-serving win—a Godless world devoid of transcendent values.
If that’s what you mean to say, well and good—it’s your story after all. But if you haven’t thought about the ending of your story as the place where the final clash occurs— where one character who represents one set of values defeats another who represents contrary values, then you risk saying something you never intended. Like a ship without a radder your story could end up on the rocks.
The meaning of a story is coiled up inside its theme or moral premise. It manifests through who wins or loses in the story.