If Necessary Use Words

“Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” While this famous quote of St. Francis of Assisi was intended to guide us in our daily living, it is also marvelous advice for Christian novelists. Many of us have been guilty of using words to preach unnecessarily in our novels through the years. Much has been written in lamentation of this fact, going back at least as far as 1969 and the collected essays of Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. By now every Christian author knows, or ought to know, the danger of a heavy-handed theme, so on that point we need no further criticism. On the contrary, what we need today, it seems to me, is a reminder that Christian themes remain essential even if they have been seriously abused. Also, it would be helpful to consider a few constructive ideas on how best to achieve a proper balance.

“The storyteller must render what he sees and not what he thinks he ought to see, but this doesn't mean that he can't be, or that he isn't, a moralist in the sense proper to him." ("The Teaching of Literature," Mystery and Manners).

True to human nature, having once identified the problem of overstated themes (often bemoaned as “agendas” or “propaganda”), many Christian literary critics and authors immediately made the mistake of fleeing all the way to the other end of the spectrum. They now advocate a level of restraint that would render theme completely invisible to all but the most psychically gifted of readers. This is nothing but another form of excess, and it is equally lethal to good literature.

As with almost everything, moderation is the key to success. The Christian novelist must not allow the pendulum to swing from overstatement past subtlety into nonexistence, because it is impossible to write a great (or even a good) novel without giving careful consideration to a story’s underlying and unifying meaning. The trick is to do that in proper proportion to all of the other fundamental components of good storytelling. After all, a heavy-handed theme is not the only way to ruin a novel. One can also write a story that is too narrowly focused on the plot, characters, setting or style. On the other hand, imagine the disastrous result if an author decided to abandon one of these aspects of fiction, or reduce it to such obscurity as to be indiscernible. Successful novels always include them all in proper balance. This does not mean they must always be present in the same proportions, of course. Some novels are most notable because they makes us feel we know the characters as well as we know ourselves, while others intrigue us most because of their fascinating plots, and still others are best loved because they transport us to a lovely time and place or amuse us with the author’s clever turn of phrase, but in every case the successful novel will not allow any one component to rise or fall too far in relation to any of the others, and that includes the theme.

With so much debate about the proper level of thematic influence on a story, the writer’s first task in this area is to find a way to judge whether she has gone too far, or not far enough. For that the standard is very simple, really. We know a proper thematic balance has been achieved if readers tell us they did not rise up from the story to think about the theme while they were actually reading the novel, but they did feel compelled to think about it when the book was put away.

Unfortunately, in literature there is a long time between the writer’s act of creation and the reader’s experience (unlike other fine arts such as music, dance or drama) so it is very difficult to use the reader’s experience as a feedback loop to help us keep theme in proper proportion while we write. How can a writer know if she is maintaining a proper thematic balance as she goes? I have three suggestions.

First, the author must gauge it through honest self-examination. Is the writer predisposed to overstate her underlying point? Then let her pay particular attention to subtlety, even if she has the constant feeling that she might not be expressing the moral of her story quite plainly enough. Is the writer prone to understatement? Then let him write with the constant feeling he has gone a bit too far. By pushing past our personal preferences this way, we have a better chance of finding equilibrium.

Second, it is helpful to distribute copies of early drafts to several trusted readers—I suggest five or more, if possible—asking them to note their thoughts and feelings in the margins as they go. In that way one can connect the reader’s responses directly with the passages in question. The readers chosen should be experienced in reading fiction, should appreciate the multiple levels of communication in fiction, should understand the role of theme in fiction, and should understand that unmerciful honesty is required for this kind of feedback to be helpful. The author is the final arbitrator of balance in the novel, of course, but if the majority of one’s advance readers find a particular passage overly didactic, or perhaps even simply “slow”, it is usually worth cutting.

Third, we can achieve thematic moderation with the assistance of a skilled editor. Before a developmental or a line editor goes to work on a manuscript, the writer and editor should discuss the story’s thematic goals thoroughly. This will better equip the editor to determine if those goals are being met. It will also give the writer a better comfort level with the editor’s thinking in this area. (If the writer is uncomfortable with the editor’s grasp of the thematic goals of the story, it may be worth the awkwardness involved to ask the publisher for another editor.) Once the writer and editor have reached an understanding in this way, the writer should trust the editor’s instincts. With the possible exception of style, theme is the most subjective of the fundamental components of fiction. This makes it extremely difficult for the writer to assess dispassionately, which is why it is essential to trust one’s editor in the matter.

Hopefully we have now moved past the question of whether Christian fiction ought to deal with theme and are now solidly into the question of how best to deal with themes in a well balanced way. We have reviewed three ways to gauge that as the story moves through the creative process, but how do we go about communicating theme in the first place?

The writer has many thematic tools at his disposal. They include the various forms of symbolism, use of the grotesque, contrast, repetition or refrain, and the careful selection of words to establish mood. Probably there are others, but these are the ones I know best, and I believe mastery of them is more than enough to accomplish the goal. I hope to discuss each of these techniques in future posts. I also have a few thoughts to share on the interaction of theme with style, setting, plot and character. Look for posts on these topics in weeks to come.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:56 PM 15 comments