This is a hard topic for me but not because it isn’t important to me. I don’t think I could write a book without a spiritual thread even if I wanted to.
The problem is, I live in mortal dread of . . . I’m gonna whisper it so it doesn’t sound so scary . . . preaching.
Ack! Run away! Run away!
Seriously, I think preaching should be afforded the same status as telling in our critique groups. That is, whenever it crops up in a manuscript, critiquers should circle it, highlight it, cross it out, draw skulls and crossbones in the margins, and otherwise call attention to its horribleness.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, torturing myself by reliving instances of preaching in my own writing. Inevitably my wincing and cringing leads to dramatic vows never to smack my reader in the forehead with a . . . wait for it . . . Important Lesson.
But how do we avoid the detested P-word in our writing?
My critique group suggestion was not completely insincere. I’m blessed to be in two fabulous critique groups, and members of those groups have called me out on preachiness. One critiquer in particular—whose authenticity as a Christ follower I find compelling—won’t hesitate to raise the red flag when I lapse into Christianese. He seems to have a radar for it, so I highly respect his opinion. As with other bad habits in our writing, sometimes another reader can see it more clearly than we can.
If we’d like to stop extraneous preaching in our manuscript before we get to critique group, I suggest applying Jeff Gerke’s formula for when to use exposition. You can find this in his book The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction.
“. . . your reader can tolerate telling to the degree that she is interested in what is being told and to the degree that the story can’t advance without the information.” (The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, 185)
To me this means that if I’m going to include an outright reference to God, Scripture, or Christian doctrine, I better have earned that moment by making my readers care enough about my character and story to tolerate an undisguised message and by making that principle integral to the plot.
In case you’re wondering how I choose to weave a spiritual thread into my writing—I try to let it happen organically. Is that an oxymoron? TRY to LET it happen. As I brainstorm a novel, a spiritual theme presents itself. For the last novel I wrote, the theme was ‘to love is to serve.’ For the novel I’m working on now, the theme is forgiveness. As I write, opportunities arise for my characters to experience events that relate to those themes.
As my characters move through their arcs, I seek to develop my theme and hopefully leave my readers with a glimpse of one small aspect of the character of God or a deeper understanding of our continual need for Jesus.
That’s my approach. Sometimes I’m too subtle. Sometimes I need the megaphone wrested from my hands.
Evangeline Denmark has storytelling on her heart and in her blood. The daughter of novelist, Donita K. Paul, Evangeline grew up living and breathing good stories. She has co-authored two children’s books which are under contract with Waterbrook Press and also writes adult fiction. Evangeline is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers, serving as chapter secretary.