I wish reality obeyed the rules of a fairy tale, rewarding every protagonist with a happily-ever-after at the end of a season of growth. But our world is a shambles, and monstrous problems bloat every crack. Gun violence. Domestic abuse. Mental illness. Human trafficking. Divorce. Unemployment. The list goes on.
Jesus didn’t shut His eyes to the suffering around Him. From hypocrisy to idolatry and worse, He confronted sin head-on with God’s love—sometimes in everyday conversation, but more often He couched His teachings in parables. Christian storytellers need to practice the same wisdom and extend the same grace.
My newest release, Inside the Ten-Foot Line, provides one example of how to gently reach hurting readers. Although the novel features a lot of volleyball action (it’s sports-centric), a dash of romance (it’s YA), and humor (because I’m the author), it touches on a struggle many teens face. I could have approached eating disorders from a variety of angles, and in the process of choosing which one was best for my story, I learned the importance of three values.
Jesus could discuss dealing with temptation because Satan had tested Him from every direction, including a bout in the wilderness when He was weak from hunger! His warnings and encouragement demonstrate an understanding of the tension between flesh and faith that His followers experience on a daily basis. To build a rapport with our target audiences, we need to bring ourselves into their circumstances like Jesus did—or else we risk alienating them.
A friend of mine tried to write a story with a plot point that hinged on a diabetic’s behavior. But she failed to accurately predict how the character would respond to different types of stress and food intake, which made the results unrealistic for readers like me who share this chronic illness. Even if she had never interacted with a diabetic, she could have avoided the misrepresentation by interviewing others and conducting thorough research.
My relatives and friends have battled (and overcome!) eating disorders. I’ve visited them in hospitals, talked with parents, and previewed available programs. Because of my direct involvement, I can recognize red flags in someone’s habits and show them where to turn for help. But I didn’t rely solely on my own observations when drafting my novel. I also dug into reliable resources online to convert my insights into the complex thoughts and emotions of a teenage girl. The combination of my familiarity with eating disorders and the ability to empathize allowed me to create a character who embodies the issue in a genuine manner.
Consider the delicate areas in your own work-in-progress. How much do you know? Is it enough? And where can you collect more information?
In John 4, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He didn’t point His finger and call her an adulteress. He asked questions. He listened. He hinted at her mistakes before He mentioned all of the men she’d been entangled with. By then He’d established a relationship that made her receptive to a discussion.
Storytellers, by nature, use words to elicit emotional reactions. When we address difficult and controversial topics, we’re bound to hit nerves. We can’t sugarcoat the lasting effects of domestic abuse, broken marriages, and other forms of trauma. However, readers don’t need to see all the bruises or hear all the arguments to connect with a character. Somewhere between reality and sanity, we must strike a balance in our portrayals.
Instead of describing all the gore and pain, we can reference it indirectly and include only enough detail to resonate with readers. Instead of letting despair run unchecked, we can contrast it with glimmers of redemption. And instead of resorting to lectures, we can incorporate consequences and poetic justice to distinguish between right and wrong.
I still remember a scene from when I watched Happy Days years ago. Henry Winkler’s character, the Fonz, sat alone in his garage, eating beans from a can for Thanksgiving. That short, ten-second segment spoke volumes about the state of his family, finances, and social life.
Evaluate how you’re depicting your character’s poor decisions and hardships. Can you trim portions so that readers aren’t overwhelmed?
Anyone can tromp around in a mucky puddle until they’re filthy, and unless our goal is to stir the waters, without hope, that’s the mess we’ll leave readers in. We don’t have to resolve every challenge and question, but as Christian storytellers, we should allude to the true source of peace. Jesus Himself mapped out a clear path to God.
Hope is the underlying force in our faith. Not the modern interpretation of hope—longing for a favorable outcome—but the biblical definition: trusting that God will fulfill His promises. That reassurance should influence our stories, because we can be confident that no matter how dire the situation, God is with us. No matter how tragic, God can use it for good. No matter how far we fall, God, in His infinite mercy, can restore us.
The upcoming second book in my series, Offsides, contains the same sports action (except the focus is on soccer), romance, and humor as Inside the Ten-Foot Line, but it highlights human trafficking, which is the hardest, most insidious topic I’ve ever tackled. I didn’t dare dive too deeply into it for my own mental stability. In fact, if the Lord hadn’t nudged me, I would have opted for a simpler plot. Yet the story is powerful because it increases awareness, casting light into dark corners.
Where does the darkness lead in your story? If it lingers, do you provide at least a chance for relief in the future?
Don’t Forget Prayer
Jesus never shied away from ugliness, and neither should we. But we also must keep in mind that without a connection, readers won’t listen. Jesus healed the lame and the blind while He explained how to heal the soul. If we take time to understand an issue, empathize with victims, exercise tact, and emanate hope, we can write the impactful stories that readers need.
But the final key is prayer. We need to ask for the right words. For exposure to the right people. And for wisdom to maintain the right mindset. Too often we rely on our own strength to lift a heavy load. We need the God who meets pain, betrayal, and faithlessness with comfort, forgiveness, and joy to come alongside us.
What topic is heavy on your heart? How will you respond to that call?
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?