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  


Nicole said... August 2, 2009 at 5:45 PM  

Athol, your comments, advice, and instructions are priceless, but you give them from the position of being what the gurus call a "literary" writer. You search for and pull the right words in order to create lovely layered prose, rich in all the things you mentioned.

However, for the "average reader", and I'm not being insulting or derisive here, that effort can go unnoticed or unappreciated. The average reader rarely notices how a book is written, but story is everything to them--whether it's written "ugly" or "pretty". If they like it, they just do. And if not, they'll usually say it's because they didn't like what the characters did. To "diagnose" or discern a theme--not necessarily gonna happen. Yes, they'll get something out of the book if they like it, but it's questionable whether or not they'll grasp all the noble intentions. JMO.

But then, you're probably speaking to those who desire to write with specific readers in mind who appreciate the writing itself.

Kay Day said... August 2, 2009 at 6:23 PM  

I agree with you. I think when the theme is "heavy handed" then it is insulting to the reader. I don't like reading books where the author assumes I won't get it.
But as Nicole pointed out, there are different readers and fortunately there are different styles of writers.

I love it when the theme whispers to me and maybe comes to me when I'm doing dishes the next day.

Athol Dickson said... August 3, 2009 at 7:04 AM  

Nicole, thanks for the compliments, but to the sales and marketing folks (who matter more than “gurus”) I'm considered a suspense writer, not a literary author, so this advice is for any novelist who wants to communicate important truths about life. (I assume that includes most Christian novelists, whether they think of their work that way or not, because most Christian novelists I know want to help their readers somehow through their work.) Chick Lit can communicate great themes, as can Romance, Suspense, Mystery, Sci-Fi . . . you name it. In fact, regardless of the genre all good novels have powerful themes. That's a given. The only question as an author is whether I want to be intentional about the thematic elements of my novels, or whether I prefer to let the themes arise subconsciously, a question I had planned to address in my next piece on this subject.

Keep in mind I’m writing here mainly to writers, not offering advice to readers. Of course you're right that most readers don't consciously analyze novels on the thematic level, and of course, that's exactly as it should be. Just as a painter doesn’t want people in a gallery to gaze at their work and think about the canvas underneath the image, so we authors don't want readers to be drawn out of the story by thoughts about the theme. That's precisely the mistake every "preachy" novel makes. So you’re right to say character and story are indeed the most obvious elements of story from a reader’s point of view, but that doesn’t mean they are the only essential elements of a story. Good novels—all good novels—communicate an underlying message in ways the average reader may never consciously notice. As I wrote above, we want readers to remain immersed in a fascinating story, only to find that the theme arises in their thoughts after they have put the book away—perhaps while doing the dishes, as Kay said sometimes happens to her.

Nicole said... August 3, 2009 at 7:29 AM  

I agree with you and Kay. Totally.

And I know what "preachy" feels like, reads like.

Theme is very important to me, and although I know the theme for most of my stories, it's an organic approach as to how the characters and I discover when and how it makes it into the story.

There can be added beauty when a reader finds something in the story which speaks to them--something unintentionally visible by the unseen hand.

"Suspense" writer? Doesn't do you justice.

Tim George said... August 3, 2009 at 7:31 AM  

I think we give the "average reader" way too little credit. The problem is many readers of Christian fiction today are getting one extreme or the other in the stories they read.

Over the past months I have either given or recommended The Cure to a number of people who had never read anything by you Athol. Without exception, they understood the theme and identified with Riley Keep in some way.

One, as you said, loved the story but didn't even recognize any theme until weeks later when she picked the book back up and started looking up some specific scenes that were, as she put it, "haunting" her. She meant that in the best way possible.

Athol Dickson said... August 3, 2009 at 7:52 AM  

"...it's an organic approach as to how the characters and I discover when and how it makes it into the story." Excellent point, Nicole. There's no question many great novels have been written this way, maybe even most of them. As it happens, I take a different, more intentional approach from the start of the process, but that's just me. I'd never suggest it's the only way to go, or even the best way. There are pros and cons to both approaches, which I'll discuss in my next post on this series.

And Tim, thanks for the sharing that about THE CURE. As you know, it's my favorite of the novels I've written so far, so really warms my heart to hear about your friend's "haunting."

Rebecca LuElla Miller said... August 3, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

Excellent article, Athol.

Interestingly, I think authors advocating the organic development of theme ("A Lost Art", an interesting article posted Friday at Break Point, while helpful in many ways, shows this line of thinking) may share some of the responsibility for the current non-theme trend in Christian fiction. It's almost as if some writers think that their Christianity will have out of itself, so they don't need to think about it.

I compare that to a novelist deciding not to work on developing characters because they innately know what people are like.

While some themes may "emerge" unintentionally, I suggest those will not be ones that explore faith in depth.

I'm enjoying this discussion a great deal.


Rebecca LuElla Miller said... August 3, 2009 at 11:01 AM  

Oh, and I found something I disagree with, Athol (contrarian that I am! ;-) You said Of course you're right that most readers don't consciously analyze novels on the thematic level, and of course, that's exactly as it should be. (emphasis mine).

I don't think it is exactly as it should be. I think readers should understand that writing is communication and they are being exposed to ideas. I think readers should be measuring those ideas with Scripture.

I understand that you do want readers to think about the ideas once they've closed the book, so I don't think we're really in disagreement.

From my perspective, a reader won't really know what the ideas are until they've finished reading a book, because those often come about through character growth and change. So this analysis isn't an ongoing thing, and it isn't necessarily a formal process. But I think readers need to be challenged to be active participants, not just opening wide to whatever an author wishes to pour into their gaping minds.


Nicole said... August 3, 2009 at 12:01 PM  

"I think readers should be measuring those ideas with Scripture."

Becky, I understand exactly what you mean here (especially in light of your treatise on The Shack), and I agree in context. But I've found so many Christians who neither apply this most basic of principles to their lives, let alone their reading.

And as far as organic production of theme, you might be right for those you described from reading the posted article you mentioned, but it definitely does not apply to me.

And, Tim, I'd be happy to concede that I'm not giving the "average reader" enough credit, but I just haven't found it to be so. However, I will give all the credit to the One who reveals things from even the worst, least, or unexpected of places.

Lori Benton said... August 3, 2009 at 12:06 PM  

Wonderful post, and timely (for me). I'll be looking forward to more on this subject.

Dayle James Arceneaux said... August 9, 2009 at 8:56 PM  

Ever since I decided to write novels, I've been perplexed by those who say never choose a theme first.

For me, theme is the germ of the story. I ponder a theme and then try to develop a story which "shows" it through organic happenstance and not "tells" through preachiness.

Is it possible that authors who say don't pick theme first are assuming too much about the intention or ability of writers who do?

Anonymous said... October 17, 2009 at 2:55 PM  

Where does that beautiful primitive stained glass image of St Francis feeding the birds come from? I would love to know.


Athol Dickson said... October 17, 2009 at 5:24 PM  

I'm having a "senior moment," and can't remember where I found that image right now, but I always check to make sure the images I use are in the public domain, so it's probably readily available on the Internet. If you go to Google Images and search for "St. Francis" + "stained glass" I'll bet you can find it pretty quickly. Just from the appearance of the work, my guess is it's Marc Chagall, but it could be several other artists.

Anonymous said... October 18, 2009 at 4:23 AM  


Thank you very much for replying so quickly. In fact I found the image while searching in google images for "st francis of assisi stained glass". It came up in the context of your blog but there does not seem to be any other entries for it. No matter - I will try Chagall but if you do remember let me know.

All good wishes,

Emma (England)

Athol Dickson said... December 30, 2010 at 8:49 AM  

I'm still receiving questions about the stained glass image above, so I did a little research. Turns out it's quite old, from Sainte Marie Madeleine, a Romanesque church in the village of Taizé, in Burgundy, France. Apparently all that is known about the artist is that he was a Franciscan friar.

Post a Comment