A Garden of Words

A writer friend and I have been discussing the role of theme in novels. He seems to believe an author ought not deliberately set out to convey a Christian truth between the words, for fear of spoiling the integrity of the story. We have some more talking to do before I can be sure, but I think he's really saying it's important not to be "preachy," which is of course, quite true. But in the course of our conversation, he mentioned his son-in-law, a gardener, and said he writes stories the way his son-in-law gardens, as a Christian for sure, but without "a motivation of changing lives." That got me thinking.

How is a writing a novel like planting a garden?

In a gardener's world, integrity and attention to excellence means one doesn't go about planting just anything haphazardly, simply because it's pleasing to the eye at first. Some plants thrive in shade; some don't. Some require good drainage; some like wet roots. Such things must be given as much consideration as aesthetics, or else the end result is less than excellent, regardless of whether it pleases the eye at first, because the plants will quickly die. This is similar to plotting a novel.

Excellent gardeners also consider the interrelationships of shape, height, color and so forth of a plant to the others before deciding where to place it. One doesn't place taller, bushier plants in front of low flowers, for example, or else the flowers are not seen. One puts plants where they do their best work, be it as a centerpiece, or in a supporting role. This is similar to characterization.

But the very best gardens, the ones that are so excellent as to be inherited by future generations of gardeners who carefully and lovingly attend to them in order to keep their beauty alive, are also planted with a sense of something more. As we stroll through them we feel we have been somewhere like this before; we are certain these plants and fountains and winding paths are telling us something true about another world; they instill a longing for something beyond words, a subconscious belief that things could be glorious again if only we could understand this feeling beyond words. In short, they remind us of something wonderful that we have long forgotten. If you've ever been in a world-class garden, you'll know exactly what I mean. And this is tantamount to theme.

It's possible to plant a perfectly acceptable garden without this third design element, of course. In fact, most gardens don't have it. They have the same pretty flowers and shade trees and so forth, but that indefinable quality is missing. People still enjoy them while they're there, but once they are beyond the garden's boundaries the pleasure they felt is quite forgotten. I want to take my readers deeper, to leave them something when they close the book. I want to try to capture the magical quality of a world-class garden, a sense of God's limitless love, an ache within the reader, a feeling that this love one senses is true, and could be restored if one only knew which path to take to reach it.

My friend calls this propaganda. If that is true, it's not the usual "do as you're told" kind. I'm looking to awaken truths that are already there in the reader's heart, not plant a new idea or further an agenda. In a small way with every novel that I write I want to take readers back to primal memories they already have, back to a certain garden as it was before the fall.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:46 AM 14 comments