We read books and stories for a variety of reasons, but one thing is true about all of them — they change us.
That is, you’re never exactly the same person after you read a story as you were before you read it. But does that mean every tale needs to have a moral?
Before we answer that, a quick definition …
What Is a Moral?
In their “for students” section, Merriam-Webster has three definitions for moral:
1: the lesson to be learned from a story or experience
2 morals plural : ways of behaving : moral conduct <They have a high standard of morals.>
3 morals plural : teachings or rules of right behavior
While those second two meanings do show up in literature on a fairly frequent basis, it’s the first one we’re concerned with.
So the question becomes, must every story contain a “lesson to be learned”?
It kind of depends on your point of view.
What the Author Intends
Sometimes, you definitely have a moral — or lesson — in mind when you set out to write a story.
Maybe your protagonist is a nerdy kid who overcomes the adversity of being bullied through 13 years of public school to become a computer genius and a billionaire before he turns 30. Your intended moral in that case might be that we’re all different, but that we all have inherent value. Or it might be that perseverance can help us overcome our obstacles.
On the other hand, maybe your story is just that — the telling of events for entertainment purposes.
Your ghost story might be just a collection of scary happening that you don’t envision teaching a lesson to anyone.
What the Reader Takes from the Story
No matter what your intentions are as an author, though, every reader is entitled to his own interpretation of your story.
Maybe Sally sees your tale of the tech wiz above as nothing more than a series of events leading the main character from Point A to Point B with no overarching lesson to be learned.
But maybe Tim reads your ghost stories — which you intended to be just scary — and sees something deeper. Perhaps the setting and dialogue resonate with him, and he remembers a long-dead relative. For Tim, your story is a reminder that our time on earth is short and that we should appreciate our loved ones while we can.
You just never know what your story will mean to your readers.
Every Story Has Multiple Morals
Whether you like it or not, your story has a moral for someone.
And the same holds true for every other book, comic strip, joke, and short story out there.
While you don’t necessarily need to target a specific moral or lesson in your writing, rest assured that some reader, somewhere, will find one.
If you do want your moral to shine through, then you should make sure it’s not buried too deep in the fabric of your story.