Christian Fiction, “Show, Don’t Tell,” and Edginess

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Reblogged from “Southern Angst: An Author’s Blog” at Google+

The problem with much Christian fiction (with the exception of fine writers such as Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker) is that it often descends to preachiness–to “telling” rather than “showing.” Fiction writing is primarily telling a good story with strong characterization and plot. Still, there is nothing wrong with fiction reflecting the world view of its author. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, stated that The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic novel, explicitly so on revision. Yet he tells, rather than shows, so that we do not see that the “Secret Fire,” to which Gandalf refers when confronting the Balrog, is a reference to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Christian Trinity.

Yet even Christian fiction that shows often fails to capture enough of the complexities and temptations of life in its attempt not to offend its predominately Evangelical Christian readers. Sometimes it will not do to merely say “John swore,” or “David cursed.” The author should show this through dialogue even if the work has “bad words” in it. There are times that violent scenes are integral to the plot. There are even times in which explicitly sexual scenes are integral to the plot of the story. When that is the case, “telling” alone will result in a poorly written story which deserves the disdain of the secular critic and the general public.

I would consider my novel, Unpardonable Sin, to be primarily a horror novel. Yet it is also a Christian novel in the sense that it clearly reflects a Christian world view. It has cursing, blaspheming, swearing. It has violent scenes. There are scenes of masturbation and of sexual intercourse, including an older woman having sex with an underage boy. Now I do not approve of underage sex, even if it is “consensual” and even if the underage person is “mature for his age.” Yet it is a scene that is integral to the overall plot of the story and reveals the main character, Jeffrey’s, failure at spiritual warfare against a demonic entity. Now Jeffrey may or may not recover and win the war–read the book to find out–but the novel is a horror novel about spiritual warfare against not only a supernatural demonic entity, but against the temptations that arise during puberty and early adolescence. Another theme is the threat that an overly legalistic religion poses to spiritual development. The edgy scenes do not take one iota away from the overall theme, but they add to the plot and make the atmosphere of the story more vivid–that that vividness is an important part of horror fiction. Now it is fair to say that my book is not for young children–probably anyone below sixteen would find it too disturbing. I believe it is a good story for adult eyes to see the horror of a boy facing both an outer demon and his own demons in a world that, while flawed, still offers hope.

Christian writers need to remember that the world they describe is a fallen world, and a fallen world is not always pretty. It is sinful, gritty, and often reveals the worst in people. If fiction is to “tell the truth” about the world, it must tell the whole truth, not just what is palatable to the too-often overly sensitive eyes and ears of Evangelical Christians. This will broaden the appeal of the literary work and encourage others to think about the story more when they have completed the work. Show, don’t tell. Show life in its fullness.

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How “Christian Fiction” Can Improve

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Adam (2008 novel)

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Christian fiction” is a problematic term, for it raises the danger of literature becoming preachy rather than being good art. Good fiction does not tell; it shows. Didactic fiction is usually poorly written, as the overrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals. There are writers in the Christian fiction genre who write very well–Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker immediately come to mind. They get their message across without being preachy, they have read widely in contemporary mainstream fiction, and they have worked hard on the craft of writing. When I look through fiction at a Christian bookstore, I turn to the first page, then a few random pages, to check the quality of the writing. Most of the time, it is so bad that I have to put the book down. Some books are preachy. Others have dialogue so unrealistic that it strains credulity. Dialogue tags are misused: “He said excitedly”; “She shouted angrily.” This is an elementary mistake that novice writers often make. Adjectives and adverbs are overused. H. P. Lovecraft had the skill to get away with using a plethora of adjectives; most writers do not. Modifiers should never replace images.

On the other hand, some books are so conservatively edited that they come across as stiff. Good style in a novel is not the same as good style in an academic piece, and not all authors or editors understand this. It is obvious that some Christian writers, and most likely some editors, are unfamiliar with contemporary literary fiction. They should read classic modern authors such as Hemingway as well as more contemporary authors such as Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff. A good writer knows the basic rules of writing, but also knows when to break the rules. If Christian fiction is ever to rise to a higher literary level, writers should become skilled enough to know when to break the rules and when to abide by them.

The main temptation for the Christian writer remains didacticism–preachiness. It might be a better strategy for traditional Christians involved in writing to write “mainstream fiction” and show their world view, rather than preach it. Ted Dekker’s fiction, though more suspense than so-called “literary” fiction, has broken through the mainstream market due to its excellent quality. I have heard people who would never darken the door of a church praise Dekker’s fiction. Who knows? Perhaps Dekker’s books, by showing rather than telling, can do more to communicate the Christian message than a didactic work. Flannery O’Connor once said that the Christian message can only be communicated indirectly for modern secular people to understand it. Perhaps contemporary writers in the Christian genre can take her advice.