Telling a Religious Story Without Being Preachy
By Rachel Garner, Staff Writer
You probably know the feeling. You’re ambling along in a perfectly enjoyable story with perfectly enjoyable characters when BAM—out of nowhere one of the characters waxes eloquent about the shape and meaning of the universe, and you’re suddenly aware of the looming presence of the Author, hijacking their own story to make a point.
Storytelling that elicits this kind of reaction we generally label “preachy.”
“Preachy” is a bit of a dirty word in the Christian writing circles I inhabit—“preachy” is to blame for the lack of good storytelling and ensuing lack of respect for Christian stories.
“Preachy” is not limited to religious circles by any stretch of the imagination, but it is so heavily associated with them that many people I know scramble to get away from religion in their stories. Who wants to be “preachy”?
Meanwhile, other writers, rightfully excited about the gospel, can be baffled by the suggestion that a character seems unrealistic or the dialogue stilted. Is their writing really weak and “preachy,” they wonder, or is it actually the content that is coming under attack, just because it is religious?
How can we do justice in our stories to the greatest Truth we know?
I wrote a book with religious themes, and worried for a long time that this meant I was writing something inherently preachy. But these two things do not need to be linked. Through editing my own work and noticing tendencies in books I critique, I’ve realized: The problem isn’t the subject matter. The problem is in the way it is approached.
Today I want to share two major principles I’ve learned for effectively writing about religious themes without being preachy:
In our eagerness to present the gospel as clearly as possible, we strip our characters of their humanity.
I call this tendency Mouthpiece Syndrome. As mentioned in my introduction, we usually choose to preach through dialogue. The problem is, very often, the words we use come from ourselves or from our theological backgrounds, not from the character. The character could be good otherwise—excellent, even—but we violate the personhood we worked so hard to create when we simply insert our point and hope no one will notice.
Dialogue must be rooted in character: in the person’s past and in their personality.
Christianity establishes a universal truth about the world we live in, about its failure and its savior. God creates humans, and he creates them as individuals. None of us are alike, but we’re all called to share this universal truth—to preach even. Here is what I would suggest: every one of us has a slightly different view of God, a different understanding of that Truth, different failures and strengths, a different path to walk, a different perspective to offer. One of the beauties of the gospel is how universally individual it is. God’s truth is alive and lived through a thousand different personalities.
If everything else we write mimics life, then our characters’ faith should too. We have to give characters the dignity of their own opinion. Sometimes they will agree with us, sometimes they won’t. The important thing is that they express it in their terms.
This was the primary change I made when editing my own novel. I had to make sure Robin, as resident Mentor and Person-I-Mostly-Agree-With, was not simply saying true things in the clearest way possible, but saying things he believed to be true in his way. This approach led to changes like this:
Version 1: “Yes,” he said, in a firm voice. He stood, took my hand, helped me up. “I forgive you. And–I thank you. For all that I may seem to be on the outside, the dark feelings I have at times on the inside–they threaten to overtake me. But God has used you, Marian. ‘What man intended for evil, God used for good.’”
Version 2: “I didn’t mean to love you.”
I’m not against quoting Scripture—in some cases, for some characters, it makes sense. But in version 1, Robin is not talking like himself. Robin is reserved, thoughtful, and guarded. Behind this one line is his struggle through the entire book to resist emotion, and I think that is why I love it. Version 2 belongs to him, as his faith belongs to him.
The Willing Recipient
The second major principle I learned for avoiding “preachiness” is: The situation should not be tailor-made for the point. A frequent companion of the Mouthpiece character is the Willing Recipient. This is the character who most likely has a change of heart, and with the change comes perfect comprehension. The change undergone is expressed with appropriate phrasing to prepare them for the final understanding of the truth. This is the character who never interrupts and exactly understands the line of reasoning the Mouthpiece character is explaining:
Mouthpiece: “Son, you know stealing is very, very wrong.“
Recipient: “Yes, and I am deeply ashamed of my weakness, but Mrs. Floutimer’s hydrangeas are just so lovely I had to have one! Please tell me how to change.”
Mouthpiece: [launches into 5-paragraph explanation of the gospel]
Recipient: “That’s exactly what I needed!”
The Willing Recipient and the perfect nature of scenes crafted in this way may actually be why a Mouthpiece moment is so irritating.
Examining your story for Mouthpiece Syndrome and the Willing Recipient will take you a long way in removing preachy elements from your novel, strengthening both your story and the respect of your readers. Next week we will look at some other ways you can tell the truth in a compelling way that is true to human nature.
Have you ever been afraid that your novel’s theme or message would come across as forced to your audience? What did you do about it?
Rachel was one of the seven students—or self-labeled “guinea pigs”—who took part in the pilot class for The One Year Adventure Novel. Known as “Nairam” in the extended OYAN community, Rachel is an example of dedication to her craft and a gifted editor. She is also a kind and forthright writing mentor to students at every level of the program, and a Story Coach. A homeschool graduate, she is now in college studying history. When not hiding out in the medieval England section of her school library, she edits her Robin Hood retelling and pretends that nine years is definitely not too long to spend on a single writing project.
This is an excellent description of where religious stories often unknowingly fall short. Another example and counter-example from two movies I’ve seen.
Book of Eli (2010) is a strong contender for one of the most religious films I’ve seen, but it never really falls into “preachy” territory. It’s its own story, with each of the characters playing a role of some type, and none of them being a direct surrogate for the author’s perspective. As a result, it’s a fantastic shut down of the notion that deeply religious stories cannot also be “good” stories.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBpPtyaBPSU Never once do the characters break the narrative (a story already about the Bible) to force a conversation about the Gospel.
Fireproof (2008) had the shell of a good story, but ultimately refused to keep its focus on the characters and story. The main character’s father is an uncomplicated author insert, and the main character himself falls squarely into the willing recipient archetype. Leading to several moments where movie seems to step aside for its regularly scheduled gospel inserts (just in case a nonbeliever made it this far in).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0-hF-8fei8 This scene follows the outline of your willing recipient conversation close to verbatim.
I never got around to seeing Book of Eli, but I always thought it looked interesting. I just don’t get around to a lot of movies I think that about. :p
also, wow, it’s been forever since I’ve seen Fireproof. I forgot how long that scene was. eesh. I have more of an opinion about dialogue now than I did when it came out! I think what Sherwood Pictures does best is their comedy–that’s the main things I remember about their movies that I’ve seen.
This is really really good and really really helpful!!
Thank you! I’m glad to hear it.