When I started submitted my manuscripts to agents and editors a couple of years ago, I collected a relatively large pile of rejection e-mails. While they stung, these rejections also gave me a gift: they offered me enough information to figure out what was lacking in my stories. See if you can determine what they were trying to tell me: “Your writing is not emotive enough.” “Needs more emotion.” “The story lacks depth.”
I couldn’t argue. They were right. I had been trained as a journalist—taught to remain objective and unbiased. Because of this, my characters’ spiritual journeys— their quests to fulfill their hidden needs—felt stilted, predictable, and … I hate to say it … preachy.
I love to hear my pastor preach a good sermon in church, but I don’t enjoy reading sermons in novels. And yet there I was, writing mini sermons every time my characters happened to get themselves into difficult situations. The common thread in my proud collection of rejections inspired me to buy a book so I could learn how to create compelling emotion in a story while weaving a faith element into the plot and characters. Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias was actually written for screenwriters, but I highly recommend that every storyteller read it in order to learn the art of conveying emotion.
One of the most important things I learned from this book was that we don’t need to explain faith or God or salvation to our readers. We need to show them examples in a character with whom they’re connected. Our characters’ purpose is not to preach to our readers, their purpose is to build a relationship with our readers and invite them to participate in an experience.
As Iglesias says in his book, “Preaching is frowned upon in dramatic writing because it’s telling. Most writers know that they should ‘show, not tell.’ Show your theme in action, and make the reader feel instead of telling him. You do this by dramatizing your deepest beliefs about human beings and the best way to live their lives” (39).
This concept changed the way I write. I realized I could let my characters live their lives. I could let them mess up. I could let them make the wrong decision. No. Let me rephrase that. I had to let them. If I had not made so many mistakes in my past, if I had not experienced darkness and pain, I would not know the pure joy and freedom that is found in redemption. And the same is true for our characters. Instead of fighting those things in my writing, I started to embrace them. I’m learning how to get emotionally involved in my stories.
“We learn best when we’re emotionally involved, not when we’re lectured. Great movies teach us about life while moving us emotionally. The more meaningful the theme, the deeper the emotions.” (40).
As writers who are also Christians, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to write stories with meaning. For me, developing a spiritual thread in my novels has been about learning how to deepen my characters’ emotions and invite the reader into their experience. This means leaving out a lot of jargon. It means reliving some of my own pain through their struggles. It means showing the darkness so our readers can walk with our characters into the light.
A lifelong storyteller, Sara Richardson is passionate about communicating reasons for hope. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, an Internet communications manager, and a whitewater rafting guide. In addition to writing fiction, Sara has published nonfiction articles in parenting and family magazines. As a member of MOPS International, Sara enjoys speaking to moms’ groups. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from Regent University. Visit her at www.momstories.org.