Thursday, August 12, 2010

When Christian Fiction Becomes Preachy

We have all read them. Fiction that preaches a message that just makes us want to toss it into the nearest recycling bin.

Otherwise known as Agenda Fiction.

And AF should be avoided like the plague.

What is the purpose of good fiction? To entertain and to so thoroughly draw a reader into the center of the story they never want to leave. To provide an escape, a chance for release for the reader. When we read a book, none of us want to be bashed over the side of the head with a message that is well... obvious.

"Preachy" comes in many different forms and all of them can be fatal to our fiction's shelf life.

Ways of being preachy:
~ A gospel/ salvation message that is tacked on, that has not grown organically from the story.
~The author has an agenda that they must get across, and thus come across as a pushy argument instead of entertaining fiction.
~Everything always comes out the way the author wants. They have set up an agenda and then to make sure it always comes out their correct way, do everything within their power to make it happen, even if it doesn't make sense for that character to do that.

In short, like I said above, all preachy fiction is agenda fiction.

It is true that when we start a story we have an idea of the message we want to get across to our readers. And that is the joy of writing in the CBA market. We can talk about our faith and show the love we have for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but the truth of the matter is, it has to make sense. I have read book after book that is agenda driven fiction for the word of God. A salvation message after salvation message meant to draw the reader to Christ, when all it does is push them away, because it isn't real.

Fiction has to have believability to it. It has to make sense and before you can have a conversion scene, you must build that character up. Make him or her aware of their spiritual depravity. Then give them the full benefit of a good sermon. But even in that moment, you must be careful to not preach. There doesn't need to be play by play scripture of the full conversion experience, in fact you are going to get across to the non- Christian reading this a lot better if you show the character after his transformation and his obvious change of attitude.

Think of it this way: who do you know has walked into a church for the first time in their life, with no spiritual training and bent their knee in the first service? Not. Many. And your readers know it.

I heard this story once: an Christian author was trolling the web, visiting chat rooms and came across a non-Christian chat room about a recent best selling book. And one of the visitors was talking about a preachy section in the novel that thoroughly disgusted them with the author's hidden agenda, that wasn't so hidden. The readers thoughts: "Gag me with a spoon!" (this was a secular book).

The reader always gets it. Every. Time. They cannot be fooled. Don't think they can.

So how do you fix those trouble areas, those areas where you really want to teach something to your reader about the value of life or the importance of salvation?

You give them an opposing character. If your character is against abortion, give them a counter character that is pro-choice.  Show both sides of the issue, but in the end make it clear that pro-life is the only answer.  Don't debate the character, let the reader do that within their imagination. They will get the point and understand the message you are trying to get across.

But you still might be thinking, "But this is what my story is about, I have to tell my reader this!"

Then write non-fiction.


Agenda writing should only be for non-fiction. If you are set on getting a message across to your reader that you have to tell them what you are trying to get across, then you shouldn't be writing it. A reader needs to walk away from the read, good about the time they have spent, but if you have spent that entire reading time trying to argue with them over an issue, you are just going to push them away.

One of my favorite historical authors is Siri Mitchell. Every time I read something written by Siri, I learn something new. In She Walks in Beauty, Siri made it very clear that the custom of corset wearing was killing the women who wore them. But she didn't preach at me. It mattered to the story, it played a vital role in the heroine's health and the course of the story. I understood and loved it. She didn't preach at me, she let me see what was happening to the character and in that, I willingly let her take my hand and lead me on that journey.

So often in agenda fiction we tack the message on and hope it sticks. And in the CBA market we do have the freedom to show the Christian viewpoint, but we also have a greater responsibility to make sure we don't push readers away. This plays into showing not telling. Tell your reader your argument and you won't get very far. Show the reader the message behind your fiction and you will grab them every time and here is the greatest part of all: they won't even realize they are being taught something new until they close the book and think back on the story. The shocking realization that in their entertainment they actually learned something will take them completely by surprise. And you will have succeeded.

So, I had preachy fiction in my first novel, (thank goodness it is now warming my mattress), but what about you? Or have you read preachy fiction (no titles please), what did you find distasteful about it?


Sidney W. Frost said...

Excellent overview of preachy. It was a fear of mine while writing Where Love Once Lived to have it come across as too preachy. I think I made it now that I've read this post. Thanks.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Amen, preach it, Casey!

I think what irritates me the most is when there are pages and pages of what is basically a sermon plopped in.

Another thing that used to irritate me (particularly in older Christian fiction) is the fact that characters often became perfect after they became Christian and it seemed as though many of their problems would dissolve a bit too quickly. Instead of sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Pepper said...

Great post, Case. And I LOOOVE Siri Mitchell's book, She Walks in Beauty. One of my favs of her books.

It's easy to get lost in the message instead of the story. Writer have to walk a very fine line between the two.

Julia! SO RIGHT!!
Even after YEARS AND YEARS as Christians, none of us are perfect.

Also, if we're going to have a Christian message, those faith elements need to be sprinkled THROUGHOUT the book. (notice, i worte 'sprinkled' not 'slathered' :-)

I get almost mad when there is hardly a mention of the characters' Christian faith until the last page when they 'stare off into the sunset and look forward to the future guidance of God's hand."

WHAT? If we're writing Christian fiction, believability is vital. God can't just be tagged on at the end and it be believable.

Oops, sorry. Went off on a tangent.

Anonymous said...

I thank you for this article on being too preachy. You have some good points for the majority of genre writing. However, I am writing a pastoral christian novel and I find it diffcult for my main character - a Pastor- not to reveal what drives her toward her goal without scripture being the motivation.

Amber Holcomb said...

I think this is a wonderful post! I remember one book especially that I just couldn't get into because it was just so "preachy" and unrealistic. Authenticity is so important in a story--from the questions the characters' ask themselves to the situations they find themselves in.

She Walks in Beauty is a wonderful example of a beautiful story that felt so natural, like the reader is really in that world and has become best friends with the protagonist.

Thank you for the reminder, and I'll have to make sure I avoid being "preachy" in my WIP, too! ;)


Casey said...

Sorry I am late popping in guys, just got in after driving all day, coming home from vacation. One more day and my own bed, yeah!!

Sidney, so glad you liked the post. Thanks for stopping by to read it!

Casey said...

LOL, Julia, did I get preachy about preachy fiction? Me? No! *grin*

I know what you mean, tacked on message and problems that just poof, went away! It isn't realistic and struggling Christians are not going to view it as a realistic either. It doesn't paint a good view of the Christian walk either.

Thanks for coming by!

Casey said...

Amen, Pepper, preach it!

I loved SWIB too, why do you think I used it as an illustration. :D Siri is my favorite author for teaching me something I didn't know before AND entertaining me.

Casey said...

Deborah, I think there can always be the exception, so since your novel is more "preachy" (and I am using that term lightly right now), you will have to give your character harder goals to overcome and a stronger spiritual battle to show that she isn't perfect. Just my two cents. I wish you the best with your WIP! :)

Casey said...

Good for you Amber! I hope that WIP goes well for you and that the information here was helpful! :)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks Casey! Preaching is a component editors notice right away. By your addressing this issue here, you have caused us to focus on this timeless issue. thanks

Krista Phillips said...

I think *some* of this, to a point, differs with genre and audience (i.e. some an older audience tends to prefer more of a preachy book than the younger audiences)

But you've got the definition down well, Casey!!

I do think it's important, at least for me, to have a spiritual theme in my books. I don't call that agenda fiction though, because the theme and the plot intertwine in a natural, hopefully realistic way.

My first book is about leaning on God and overcoming fear. The plot is about an introverted accountant who meets a guy on the internet but then thinks that he is stalking her, and later finds out after that he's the man of the dreams, only to eventually come face to face with her fears... and the REAL stalker.

Another book is about trusting God, and features a newbie Christian who wants to be reunited with her little brother but everything keeps happening to keep them apart, and tests her trust in God to the limit, especially when, at the moment when it looks like she might finally have a chance, the unthinkable happens.

Okay, sorry, this is a long comment. My point is that i agree with you:-) You can have an agenda or a theme... as long as you show it with tact, make it realistic, and have it mesh organically with your plot.

Oh, one last comment (I know, then I'll shut up!) Preaching scenes are my PET PEEVE in books. If I want that, I'd read non-fiction. But... I put one in one of my books. I found that it went MUCH MUCH better when I only showed snippets of the sermon and focused more on my character's reaction to it, both bodily, emotionally, and mentally. Of course, I also made it short and punchy, which helped. :-)

Okay, NOW I'm done. (I LOVE THIS TOPIC, by the way, if you can't tell...)

Casey said...

Mary, thanks for coming by! So good to see your comment and so glad you liked the post. You are welcome and thank you! :)

Casey said...

Krista, yes, yes and YES again! I agree. We have the amazing chance to show our faith in our fiction. To take our readers on a faith journey, but when we drown them in details, all we ask for are peeved readers. So I agree 100% with you too! Thanks for taking a few minutes to visit again here.

I just read Annabelle's post and she will be in our prayers. She is precious in God's sight.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

You might be interested in "When a Nice Jewish Girl Reads a Contemporary Christian Novel." Chip MacGregor linked to it on his blog.