There is an ongoing debate in Christian writing circles about how appropriate it is to consciously have a ‘message’ to communicate through fictional stories. Some writers of overtly Christian Fiction readily admit they write in order to share God’s love and to hopefully lead readers to salvation. Then there are writers of Christian Fiction who want to write stories for other Christians that reflect Biblical values and standards that aren’t found in ‘secular’ novels.
Further along the spectrum are authors like me* who prefer to describe ourselves as writing general fiction from a ‘Christian worldview,’ where themes of forgiveness and redemption are subtly woven into the plot but are never the main point of the story, and the thought of proselytizing our readers is not something we are comfortable with. Then there are writers who are Christians who write completely secular novels and their lives – not their books – are their witness. (*This relates to my adult books. My children’s books are stories from the Bible so by definition overtly Christian).
The question I’d like to ask is: is it wrong to start writing a book with a conscious message in mind?
A few months ago I spent a lovely weekend at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, listening to ‘big name’ crime authors being interviewed. I was struck by how many of them had no qualms in saying they were trying to say this or that through their books. Others said they hadn’t decided on what their next book would be, not because they didn’t have an idea for a plot, but because they didn’t yet have ‘anything to say’ through it.
A panel of authors who wrote legal thrillers – all of them former lawyers – were unanimous that they wrote novels because they wanted to say something about injustice or the failings of the criminal justice system. None of them seemed to get their knickers in a knot about whether or not it was ‘right’ to have a message in their books.
In addition, those of us who studied English Literature at school or university will remember writing essays on ‘themes’ and asking the question ‘what is the author trying to say?’ There is a reason love stories like Jane Eyre are set works for academic study whereas Mills & Boon novels are not – the former are trying to say something about society or the human condition and the latter generally are not trying to say much beyond: finding someone to love and love you back makes your life better. This does not mean Mills & Boon novels don’t perform a function and that it’s wrong to enjoy them, but there would not be much scope to write an A Level paper on the deeper meaning of one of them. So, hopefully you accept my point that many books DO have messages and themes consciously written into them and that it is perfectly acceptable to do so.
The question I believe is not whether we SHOULD have a message, but if we do, how do we weave it into the narrative? I would like to suggest three things:
- Story first, message second. The story must always be fore-grounded. Allow the story to entertain and be true to itself. If the message gets in the way of the story, chuck it out or find a more subtle way to tell it.
- Don’t have your characters ‘telling’ the reader what the message of the book is in dialogue or internal monologue. Allow their actions to ‘live out’ the message.
- Don’t write ‘on the nose’. When I did my MA in Creative Writing 12 years ago, my tutor was an atheist. My final submission was a theatre play. The play wasn’t ‘Christian’ but it did have spiritual themes and it helped me no end when my tutor wrote ‘OTN’ in the margin. He meant ‘on the nose’ and he did so when he felt I was being too preachy or overt in the ‘message’ of the play. With his help I eventually got a distinction.
So now, with anything I write, I always ask myself: is this too OTN? Or better still I ask my editor or a non-Christian friend to read it and tell me if they think I’ve laid it on too thick. What tips do you have about not writing too ‘on the nose’? Feel free to add them to the comments section below.
Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in
Newcastle upon Tyne.. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files,
the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted
for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The
Kill Fee was a finalist for the Foreword Review
mystery novel of the year 2016/17, and the third, The
Death Beat, is out now. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter a historical love story set in Roman
Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her coming-of-age literary
thriller about apartheid , The
Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint.
Her children’s books The
Young David Series and the Young
Joseph Series are published by
SPCK. South Africa