If you’ve been reading Christian fiction for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve noticed that some books are powerful and inspiring while others fall flat. What’s the difference? Any number of variables can be the cause, but one culprit is relying on certain Christian scenarios to communicate a theme instead of building it into the entire story.
As a result, readers skip the parts that are supposed to hold the most impact. When used carelessly or excessively, the conventions that are vital to spiritual growth in real life can undermine a story. So, what are some of these clichés and how can you avoid them? Read on.
1. Delivering Your Message Through a Sermon
Sermons are occasionally necessary and further the plot, but often they put readers to sleep faster than you can say hallelujah.
In real life, sermons are convicting and thought provoking. But in fiction, a sermon can seem like a sloppy attempt at Bible thumping. Your message will be more compelling if it is subtly woven into the story instead of all the problems and solutions getting aired in one giant sermon. If you’re writing for the Christian market, the majority of your readers will be Christians. This reduces the pressure to paint the spiritual picture in black and white so that every aspect is obvious. Allow readers to fill in the blanks whenever possible, and the message will resonate with them more.
If you do include a sermon in your story, aim to keep it short and sweet. No one enjoys slogging through an hour-long sermon when a single thought or verse would drive home the moral.
I once read a book where the main character attended church every Sunday. The author did a wonderful job with the first sermon. I immediately identified the theme and how it tied into the plot and character arc. However, the subsequent sermons emphasized the same point that had already been broadcast loud and clear, and I ended up skipping the rest. Too much repetition dulls a message’s power.
Church sermons can be helpful, so don’t assume you must exclude them at all costs. If a sermon will advance the plot, then go for it. In The Scarlet Letter, Reverend Dimmesdale’s Election Day sermon had the whole town astir. People were praising him as a great minister, then he confessed his sin with Hester Prynne, catapulting the plot forward.
You can also use sermons to develop character arcs. In one of my stories, the main character, Cannon, is hauled to church. He spends the entire service wondering if the people around him are crazy and planning how he’ll escape without having to shake too many hands. He never hears a word of the sermon. Later in the story, after several life-altering events have happened, Cannon tells a friend what he heard in church that week. I didn’t have to describe the sermon in detail—just enough to indicate the change in Cannon’s heart.
2. Letting Miracles Save the Day
Miracles do occur, but unless your setting is A.D. 30 and Jesus is walking around performing the wonders, you need to evaluate whether they belong in your story.
You work hard to create obstacles your characters will grow to overcome. That’s what makes readers root for the hero. But if you drag a character to the brink of transformation, only for heaven to reach down and rescue him, readers will feel cheated. They won’t respond with, Wow, what an awesome God. They’re more liable to think, Wow, what a lazy author.
In my opinion, a blatant miracle is difficult to pull off without sounding cliché. If you want to try it, my only suggestion is not to position it near the ending. Stick it somewhere in the middle, where it can be amazing without resolving all the protagonist’s problems.
We live in a world where small miracles abound. Our whole lives are miracles. But when was the last time the sky opened, heaven’s light shone down, and a voice from above, accompanied by an angelic choir, obliterated all your problems? I’m guessing that hasn’t happened to you or anyone you know.
You’re better off forgoing the miracle and finding a different way to express your story’s spiritual side. A book that shows a character struggling and then victoriously rising above his trials will have a stronger impact than one riddled with miracles and a character who doesn’t have to persevere through hardships. Readers are more likely to relate to character growth through ordinary means than miracles, which can lead them to mature in their faith as well.
3. Slowing the Action with Prayer
Have you ever read an intense situation where everything is crumbling and the characters don’t know what to do, so they stop to pray? That’s exactly how Christians should cope with challenges. But has a character’s prayer ever filled a whole page, halted the forward motion, and trailed off to ask a blessing on every side character, family member, and the food on the table?
Dramatic, lengthy prayers stifle the action and rob the beauty and comfort that communing with our Heavenly Father can bring.
However, you shouldn’t cut prayers out of your stories completely. That direct line to heaven is precious and demonstrates what a relationship with Jesus is like. Instead, mix prayer into your character’s thoughts as she’s moving, processing her surroundings, and making decisions—just like when you pray throughout the day in real life.
Prayer is an area where too much realism becomes counterproductive. It’s similar to writing dialogue, which omits the small talk and filler words that bloat real speech. People do ramble while praying, but view prayer as dialogue between your characters and God. Keep them focused on the issue at hand, then send them off to tackle it.
4. Overusing and Abusing Salvation
We want all our characters to be happily en route to heaven, but only those who accept God’s gift of salvation will receive eternal life. Conversion is a momentous event, and we cheapen it if we portray it as commonplace in our stories.
As a kid I read a book that took place in the 1800s. Outlaws attempted to rob a ranch, and the family managed to outsmart and capture them. While Pa rode to town for the sheriff, the rest of the family stood guard and started witnessing. By the time the sheriff arrived, all four outlaws had been converted and confessed their crimes to the sheriff, who patted them on the backs and wished them success at beginning their lives afresh.
That’s cute for a children’s book, but not true to life. God will not tolerate sin and calls Himself a judge. Sin must be punished, and salvation doesn’t magically erase the consequences of wrongdoing. Reality doesn’t work that way, so we shouldn’t present a false imitation in fiction.
Salvation also shouldn’t cure a character of every flaw. When a person is saved in real life, he’ll display a noticeable change but won’t become perfect. A new Christian might be able to easily quit drinking but still struggle with cursing for years. That doesn’t discount the authenticity of his salvation. We are trapped in a fallen body with a sin nature, and we need to remember to shape characters within those perimeters.
Salvation won’t revolutionize someone’s personality. Yes, you might stop making crude jokes or blurting foul language, but you are still you. In a book I read this past year, a soldier got saved halfway through. During the first half of the book, he was boisterous, quick witted, and prone to brawling. After his salvation, I expected him to purposely tell a clean joke or force himself to walk away from a fight. That would have still shown his natural impulses. Instead, he ceased joking altogether. He became the kindest, quietest creature ever. His behavior was jarring, and I felt like the book lost a character.
A Time and a Place
With effort, all of these aspects can be made unique and beautifully convey spiritual truths. If you’re writing for the Christian market, publishers will want faith-infused work. What would Christian fiction be, after all, if it didn’t contain prayers, salvation, and other Christian elements?
We hope our writing will influence people and help feed souls. But, to accomplish that, we must captivate readers. The same old strategy won’t produce different results. If you’ve ever skipped a page, scene, or chapter, rest assured that others have as well. As writers, we have the difficult and exciting task of presenting the wonderful gospel message in a new light so that readers won’t skim over it.
The gospel hasn’t changed, but our culture has. Back when Christian fiction first became popular, writers could probably get away with including entire sermons and hinging the plot on miracles. But the more a technique is used, the less distinct and effective it becomes. People are constantly changing, and we need to adjust our methods as needed so our words have an impact.
Remember, we’re not here to preach. People pick up fiction with the intent of being entertained. Don’t get so wrapped up in witnessing to your audience that you lose them. As writers, we frequently need to step back and stop obsessing about themes and morals. Each writer’s worldview will color her writing, whether intentionally or not. Tell the story. Have fun with it. And if you touch someone’s soul in the process, consider it a double blessing.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 19, 2018. Updated April 21, 2022.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.