Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Strengthening the Spiritual Thread of Your Novel

Have you ever read a book with a piece of a sermon right in the middle of it? I love reading books with strong Christian content, but when I come across such a scene I skim it.

I have been working on strengthening my spiritual thread in my novel during my editing time lately.

One of my sideline characters, Lillian, shares her salvation and transformation experience in the form of a story. I ditched this scene, by the way. Though we may occasionally share our salvation stories with others at length...is this how we usually share our faith?

In our town there was a church that used to witness on the streets, shouting and holding signs about hellfire. I'm not against street evangelism, but I noted the reactions from people around them. I don't think they were pulling much interest. Did people want what they had?

More likely its a verse shared here and there, trying to match our actions up to what we believe, extending grace. People need to see our lives match up.

That's also what they need to see in our characters.

Here's a scene from my WIP. The main character, Rachel has escaped from a dangerous cult. Rachel is not a Christian, but is living with Lillian, an older lady who is a believer. Rachel's stepdaughter, who escaped with her becomes injured in this scene.

I pulled out Lillian's round metal trash can  and Ruthie and I picked the transparent shards from the carpet.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched a crimson-streaked piece of glass sail past me into the basket. “Ruthie.” I grabbed her hand tenderly. She winced slightly. The long streaks of red reminded me of Christ’s hands bleeding out in the picture of the Cross in my Grandmother’s living room. That Jesus stared at me from across the room, eyes glistening with tears.

 “Do you have any bandages?” I shouted several times at increasing decibels to drown out the dust-generating Hoover.

 Lillian turned off the vacuum and disappeared into the bathroom, returning with antiseptic, cotton balls, and a stiptic pencil. "Come in the kitchen, Ruthie.”

She held Ruthie’s hand in the kitchen sink. The blood spouted out in all directions, like a fountain. I thought of my Grandmother rocking me in the big chair, chocolate chips melting into my hands as I listened to her clear voice.

“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;

And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains."

As Grandmother’s voice rang in my ears I rubbed my fingertips back and forth over my eyes to stem the tide of tears. I counted the spices in Naomi’s spice rack and listed their names in my head: cardamom, cilantro, coriander seed, cumin.

Memories. We all have things from our past that God used to bring us closer to the point of salvation and we all have things that we struggled with guilt and shame over. Without using major flashbacks we can share a hint of these and help the reader see a glimpse into our character's spiritual landscape.

I wanted a spiritual thread throughout my novel. My character is not a Christian believer through the majority of the novel. Also, she is living in a culture that is toxic and isolated. She wouldn't even hear the Gospel message in a way we might expect.

She remembers a Christian grandmother rocking her in a big red rocker, singing hymns, and giving her chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. In a tragic childhood and early adulthood, these memories bring her hope. While I don't want to overdo flashbacks, tiny snippets of these songs are often a part of the novel.

ACTIONS. This is the most important way to get across spiritual truth of course. Brainstorm the ways people in your life showed their faith to you before you became a Christian. Did their actions draw you closer? Were there occasions where they turned you away?

Lillian gently cleans Ruthie's wounds with soap and water, showing Christ's love in a very gentle way.

Visuals. When Rachel sees the streaks of red on Ruthie's hand, it reminds her of a painting. The washing of the wounds is like a fountain, bringing to mind Grandmother's song lyrics. Can we use our description to create a spiritual picture?

What is your character's spiritual love language? What speaks love to your character? What sins do they struggle with that have caused them to believe they can never be forgiven? What lies keep them from believing the truth of Christ's love? What would it take for your charac to believe in a loving God who died for their sins?

Sanctification of your character and others. As your character becomes a believer show the tension between her old life and her new life? What does it take to help her believe she's a new creation? How does her lifestyle begin to change when she realizes this? Think of the changes in your own life. The reader doesn't need to be told, they can see the difference in a chnaged life.

Tell me about the spiritual thread of your novel, or about that of a favorite novel? What sins does your character struggle with and increasingly overcome as s/he grows in faith? What can you add to your novel to strengthen this spiritual thread?

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk, a Christian review site.


Angela said...

Thanks Julia for sharing this information. The points you made are very helpful.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I'm glad it helped with your MS, Angela!

Anonymous said...

Oh Julia, you so busted me. :) I know some of my truth speakers speak too much truth in my wip. I need to find ways for these truths to come out. I know I'll be referring back to this. Thanks for sharing what you've learned!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Thanks for this, Julia. When I think of my friends who have accepted Christ, it seems to have happened most often because they saw the truth lived out in others' lives...and the way they loved.

One of my MCs struggles with a decision she made in the past. She feels now that she has to work hard (volunteering for anything and everything at church, being perfect, etc.) to atone, to earn God's forgiveness. She knows about grace but can't really accept it for herself.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I SO bust myself EVERY single time I post. Yes, I have had spots that are over the top for sure. God has a way of having us share the things we most need to learn.


Yes, that is so true in my own life and others I know. I love your example, because its something I'll bet a lot of your readers will be able to relate to (I know I can). We so often struggle with wanting to "do" for God.

Angie Dicken said...

So much to think about, Julia! Great example and points.
My heroine struggles with guilt of her words to her deceased husband, thinking it's too late to receive his forgiveness. But what she really needs is to forgive herself and accept God's forgiveness. My hero has cast off God because of the death of his wife, resorting to depending only on himself to succeed in life because God failed him when he tried to help his ill wife. Both threads have to do with forgiveness of themselves and finding God's forgiveness.
Don't ask me how I am going to get them to this point! :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


I love your themes! So relatable, how often do we struggle with accepting God's forgiveness...or need to re-learn God's goodness as we go through trials. I can't wait to see how you get there :)

Rebecca Gomez said...

Julia, this is wonderful stuff! Thanks for the reality check. I've been working on this very thing in my own writing and learning how to work the spiritual themes in without getting preachy or using "Christianese." The last thing I want would be to scare away non-Christian readers.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

It's so tough to do this right. I know I've been guilty of falling into "preachiness" in the past. I love your example.

Kathy Bosman said...

Thank you. What lovely advice and I loved your excerpt. I have a tendency to either be too preachy or just leave out the spiritual altogether. I'm going to work on a good balance between the two.

Anonymous said...

My whole memoir is a spiritual thread. I was severely abused as a child (incest, beatings, and other things), so when I was eight, I gave up on God. Just finished editing that chapter where I decided God didn't answer prayers so I would never speak with Him again - instead I squirreled away some Draino so that I could have a poison. As a young adult, after other negative God experiences, I turned to paganism. God used paganism to save my life until I could come to Him - He knew I wouldn't come to him so the pagans he sent my way gave me unconditional love and caused me to desire life instead of death. I also tried therapy, drugs, and other negative behaviors. I went full-tilt into the occult, and then the Holy Spirit (though I didn't know it was the Holy Spirit) dropped the idea in my mind to give God one last chance and read the Bible from cover to cover. Then He let me cross paths with a wonderful pastor who introduced me to God, the loving Father. It took two years of counseling and dealing with father wounds before I came to the point of realizing I needed a savior. I am hoping my memoir will help others who are hurting to find God.

The name of my memoir is Tell me what He did. It has a double meaning. After each incest visit of my father my mouther would say, "I heard him in your room last night, tell me what he did." She filled up two notebooks of details of his visits and did nothing. But, notice the He is capitalized, now I can tell what He (God) did to bring about healing.

Have a blessed day.

Becky Doughty said...


What a timely challenge this post is! I so appreciate the clearly stated issues and have been spending extra time evaluating the words and actions of my truth-speakers.

Thank you!