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How to Subtly Deliver a Powerful Message in Your Story

May 14, 2018

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. If you fall into it, your story will be difficult to salvage.

 

But your story doesn’t have to fail.

 

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

When a mentor introduced me to the concept of experiments in living during my freshman year of college, my writing life was revolutionized.

 

An experiment in living is a set of beliefs 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 taking 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 to 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 never concerns himself with 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 of 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 ends.

 

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. Simba then 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 choices.

 

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.

26 Comments

  1. Ariel Ashira

    Thank you so much, Josiah!!!

    Reply
  2. Jane Maree

    Theme posts always make me happy. xD

    Seriously, though, discovering these two things has totally changed my writing life forever and I’m always, always thankful that I signed up for Theme Mastery.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      One of my goals this year is to write more of these theme pieces. I’ve got a cool Adventures in Odyssey themed one that’s on the top of my list of pieces to write in the next couple months.

      It’s amazing how much simple concepts like these can revolutionize writing lives!

    • Anne of Lothlorien

      Adventures in Odyssey?! What?! You really really really really should do that one. SOON. Adventures in Odyssey was like… my whole childhood. I cannot remember a time when I did not know who Mr. Whittaker was. 😀

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I’ve had an outline for the post since February… It’s taken a while to actually sit down and write it, though. 😛 Currently working toward publishing it here sometime during the summer. 🙂

  3. Grace Johnson

    Thanks for sharing! This was written so clearly, I think I’m finally starting to get this concept, lol! XD

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hey–glad to hear this is helping you clarify things. 🙂 Sometimes the second or third time is the charm.

  4. Hallie Jenkins

    This was fantastic! It gave me a whole new outlook on the themes I’m trying to weave into my story, even though it isn’t explicitly a Christian story.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear you found this helpful, Hallie!

  5. Coralie

    This one was kind of difficult for me to wrap my brain around. I’d be interested to learn more about the experiment in living idea. Maybe diving deeper into it will help me understand it better. So excited for the resource library!! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      The theme document in the resource library should be helpful on this. 🙂 I will also be sending some emails out in the next couple weeks that delve into the concepts of theme & experiments in living in more depth, so keep an eye out for those if you’re on our mailing list!

    • Coralie

      I am and I will! Thanks! I just raided the resource library and am scouring the docs now.

  6. Bella D.

    This was super helpful to me! I’m engaged in writing a bit of a darker story, and the MC is dealing with a lot that I wasn’t how to bring out of him. Now I know I need to hash out his worldview thoroughly before sitting down to write!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear you found it helpful, Bella! That sounds like a great plan. 🙂

    • Bella D.

      🙂

    • Parker Hankins

      Are you the Bella D. from the YWW?

    • Bella D.

      @Parker Hankins Yes, indeed I am!

  7. Tabitha

    ‘ve noticed your emphasis on poetic justic in many of your articles here and on Kingdom Pen (sites which I just discovered this afternoon), and it’s contrasting strongly with my pastor’s sermon this morning where he said that a common misconception is that bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. The problem being that we are often disappointed in God when bad things happen to Christians (not that anyone is good).

    I’m guessing both you and my pastor would agree that you are both right: God will bring ultimate justice in eternity. Good will be rewarded, and wrong will be punished. However, here on earth, problems and rewards don’t always directly correspond to one’s morality.

    I absolutely think that fiction (and fantasy in particular) should be giving us a longing for that ultimate justice. However, my question is: are Christian writers ever in danger of perpetuating a prosperity gospel through the use of poetic justice?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      This is a really good question/objection to this theory of storytelling. I certainly do agree with your pastor that the prosperity “gospel” is dangerous and we don’t always see this sort of justice on earth. Here are two key distinctions I’d draw between prosperity Gospel reasoning and poetic justice:

      First, as you alluded to, I believe that, in some ways, storytelling depicts the world that should be more than it depicts the world that actually is. While storytelling certainly needs to do the both, a story that simply depicted the world that is would have a lot of jumbled story threads and unresolved plot threads. The goal of storytelling is to take singular story threads and view them in isolation from beginning to end, which doesn’t always happen on earth.

      Second, poetic justice is primarily present at the end of the story as opposed to the middle of the story. In that way, it’s more analogous to the final judgment than to our current lives on earth. If things always go your protagonist’s way and he always gets good things whenever he does the right thing, then I would agree that you have a problem. This could present prosperity Gospel types of reasoning–plus it just wouldn’t be a good story. Even if the protagonist is doing the right thing, he should suffer and go through difficulties for much of the story. But the end of the story is more concerned with justice.

      It’s certainly possible to misuse poetic justice and, by doing so, to present a form of the prosperity Gospel. Several Christian films do this when they show believers succeeding with reasonable-ease and non-believers constantly coming into trouble (and suggesting that the only reason they suffer is their lack of faith). I address some aspects of this in an article I did last year at Kingdom Pen (http://kingdompen.org/five-questions-to-ask-yourself-when-your-storys-theme-lacks-subtlety/). So, to sum it up, I agree that this is definitely a danger Christians can fall into, but I think that the problem stems from an exaggeration of poetic justice or a use of poetic justice in the wrong places rather than from an issue with poetic justice itself. 🙂

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Welcome to the site, BTW. 🙂 Hope you’ve been finding our articles on KP & SE helpful!

    • Tabitha

      Thanks! That’s helpful. It also goes along with some of the other thoughts I’ve been thinking about in regards to how much the subversive or morally ambiguous plot that is popular now can really have a resolution. I’m glad God created us to long for poetic justice and to create stories to remind us of that longing.

  8. Parker Hankins

    WOw!! This was very helpful to me and my writing!!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear it, Parker!

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