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Have you ever read a Christian novel with a message so preachy that you wanted to shut the book, walk away, and forget about it?
Have you ever worried that you’re committing the same mistake in your writing?
Preachiness is the Achilles’ heel of Christian stories. If you can avoid it, your story has the potential to be awesome. But if you fall into it, your story will be difficult to salvage.
But your story doesn’t need to be this way.
If you survey some of the greatest Christian storytellers, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (sans some works theology), and Flannery O’Connor, you’ll see that each writer used two tools to subtly but effectively deliver powerful messages.
Mastering both these tools and using them in conjunction with each other will help you become a better writer.
Tool #1: The Experiment in Living
My writing life was revolutionized when a writing mentor introduced me to the concept of experiments in living during my freshman year of college.
An experiment in living is a set of beliefs that a character lives out. My mentor Christina Somerville describes it in her book, The Literary Toolbox, as “a choice that a character makes to act and live according to particular beliefs.”
What might an experiment in living look like? In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes’ experiment in living is the belief that exacting revenge on wrongdoers is acceptable. In “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Goldilocks’ experiment in living is the belief that using someone else’s stuff without asking is fine. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers’ experiment in living is his belief that freedom is better than security.
This idea—that protagonists live out beliefs via experiments in living—can be found across fiction. If you pick up any book from your shelf and search hard enough, you’ll notice the main character engaging in at least one experiment in living (probably more if he has a character arc!). Stories are meant to mimic real life, and since human beings make decisions and take actions because of their worldview (whether stated or assumed), your characters should do the same.
How do experiments in living pertain to subtly delivering powerful messages? Hang on for a moment and I’ll explain why experiments in living are crucial for your story’s theme. But first we need to examine our second tool.
Tool #2: Poetic Justice
By themselves, experiments in living may not enhance your story’s message. But they become extremely valuable the moment they’re combined with poetic justice.
Poetic justice is the principle that dictates that virtues and vices are appropriately recompensed. In storytelling, it means that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.
This concept is present across literature and Scripture. The theme of poetic justice permeates the book of Proverbs. “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” (15:15). “Whoever keeps the commandment keeps his life; he who despises his ways will die” (19:16).
Likewise, classic literature utilizes poetic justice masterfully. In The Odyssey, Odysseus displays cleverness in avoiding his enemies and values home over glory. As a result, he succeeds in regaining his wife and kingdom. In The Song of Roland, the protagonist shames his uncle in front of the king and sends him on a suicide mission. Because of this, his uncle allies with the main villain and their joined forces kill Roland.
Poetic justice is founded on the idea that, in real life, certain actions generally lead to certain consequences. As the book of Proverbs suggests, virtues tend to be rewarded and vices tend to be punished, often deservedly and naturally. This idea pervades literature, and it’s the second tool we need to convey powerful messages subtly and effectively.
Combining These Tools to Create a Powerful Message
Stories often become preachy because authors explicitly state that the protagonist is partaking in a good or bad experiment in living. If a protagonist attempts a wrong experiment in living, authors may have characters rebuke him, which can feel stilted. But what happens when authors apply poetic justice to experiments in living?
Suddenly, authors no longer need to define a character’s actions as right or wrong. They just allow the character to live out his worldview, then show readers the natural consequences (poetic justice).
For example, if a character flees an enemy out of cowardice, perhaps that enables his enemy to severely hurt his closest friends. If the character believes he doesn’t need to care for others, perhaps others don’t help him when he needs it. In these situations, we don’t need to proclaim that courage and care are virtuous. By demonstrating the negative consequences for cowardice and apathy, we subtly warn readers against pursuing such paths.
Showing moral truths instead of telling them is much more impactful.
Applying These Tools to Your Story
To subtly deliver a powerful message, give your characters experiments in living and follow those experiments to their natural end.
How do you choose experiments in living for your characters? That’s where your story’s theme and focusing question will come in handy. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, we have a worksheet in our resource library that will help you discover them for your story! Once you have a theme and focusing question, give every major character an experiment in living related to the theme, bring each journey to its logical conclusion, and you should be set.
I could elaborate more on these tools (that’s one of the reasons I have a whole course about this subject), but sometimes the best way to grasp a concept is to observe it in practice.
Toward the middle of The Lion King, Simba begins to believe that he can live happily if he ignores his worries. He tries to abandon his heritage, creating an experiment in living. But it also leads to clear poetic justice—the Pride Lands are decimated by Scar’s rule, putting his friends and family in dire straits. As a result, Simba realizes that he needs to take responsibility to live well. This forms a new experiment in living with radically different poetic justice as Simba returns to the Pride Lands, defeats Scar, and is crowned king. Thus, The Lion King reminds us about the importance of responsibility by illustrating it in Simba’s life.
Chaucer, Dostoevsky, and O’Connor were potent Christian storytellers because they showed rather than told truths. If you understand how to do that properly, you can achieve greatness as well.
Writing stories with this method is hard. Explicitly telling readers what you believe is easier than forcing yourself to subtly show it in the story’s framework.
But few techniques can create messages as powerful.
Josiah DeGraaf is the editor-in-chief of Story Embers and the fiction content manager of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him helping writers here or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.