Have you ever set down a book, startled that the author turned your outlook upside down with tiny black marks on paper? Do you want to write stories that have the same effect on others?
As I stared at the blank page beneath the title of this article, my mind revisited all the stories that have given me a transformative experience. I love when my heart skips a beat and I pause to process the exhilarating symphony that the words are orchestrating in my imagination. Or when I come to an ending so satisfying that I’m amazed.
At the beginning of this year, I taught an English camp in Spain, where I spent most of my daily commutes focused on memorizing the unfamiliar streets. If I took a wrong turn, I might not have been able to reroute myself, so several days passed before I looked beyond the signs and noticed the gorgeous mountain backdrop. Sometimes I slip into the same habit when I’m writing and editing. I miss the big picture because I’m preoccupied with all of the complicated, troublesome scenes.
Sometimes the biblical ideals that inspire grand visions for our stories also weigh on us like boulders we must carry uphill. The prospect of imitating God’s design is as challenging as it is invigorating. How are we supposed to influence one person, much less the hundreds who will read our stories, when our own time, energy, and knowledge feels bleakly scarce?
The Great Commission tasks us with a heavy responsibility—not just to proclaim the gospel but to witness to others through the testimony of our lives, our work, and our relationships. As storytellers, we face a unique challenge: How can we universalize our message when fiction encompasses a broad audience with a wide range of beliefs?
The Bible’s language can sound harsh to modern ears. When God commands Adam and Eve to “take dominion” in Genesis 1:28, the images that phrase conjures up may make a few readers cringe. How does aggressive behavior align with the New Testament’s exhortations to be humble and meek? The instruction raises even more questions for us as writers. If God wants humans to rule over the whole Earth, shouldn’t that encompass fiction? And what tactics are we supposed to use when claiming the territory for His kingdom?
“Bearing” the image of God ought to be an active verb, because it’s a mad dash with no finish line. To steal from C. S. Lewis, it continually guides us “farther up and farther in.” God has bestowed this gift and responsibility on all of mankind, but not everyone intentionally pursues it. Even Christians are confused. We assume image-bearing means that God physically resembles us, or that we share His attribute of creativity, so we don’t need to invest much effort. We can just “be ourselves,” throw in a few Scripture quotations, and call what we’ve created good.
A NYT-bestselling author I heard once argued that readers tend to “read fiction to escape. Authors are entertainers,” and whether we like it or not, we need to give people what they want. But is this really accurate? Or is there a deeper reason for why people read fiction and what we need to thus provide them as storytellers?
Although Christian readers enjoy consuming material from authors who share their faith, some of it can be difficult to digest. Maybe a turning point in the protagonist’s arc fails to evoke any emotion, or the attraction between two characters involves awkward prolonged glances and tingles. How can people who understand God’s design for life and the sin that tainted it botch those portrayals so badly?
As a Christian storyteller, trauma scares me. I want to touch readers and leave them with more hope than they carried in. My concern makes me hyperconscious of how they might respond to unsettling content, and I’m tempted to cushion gore and grit.