How to Write Christian Stories without Annoying Your Readers

“Do I need to make my story Christian?” is often one of the first questions biblically-minded young writers ask themselves. After growing up on a steady diet of Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey, it may seem natural to follow this fine tradition by writing stories rife with applicable Bible verses and modernized parables. Or perhaps you have the exact opposite in mind and are instead struggling with nagging guilt that your tale lacks prominent Christian themes.howtowritechristian

Actually, the question of whether a book needs to be Christian is, in a sense, irrelevant. Every action, spoken word, or inward thought in a story works in harmony to paint a picture of the author’s beliefs. A writer with a solid biblical foundation, whose aim is to write strongly and reflect God’s truth, will inherently write a “Christian” story, even if Jesus is never mentioned in it.

But then why do bookstores put The Screwtape Letters in the Christian/religious section and The Chronicles of Narnia into fantasy? Both are written by a man well known for his Christian worldview, and both are rich with biblical truths. The difference is that the former is primarily concerned with “religion,” while the other focuses on fictional adventures in a magical world. The word “Christian” in this sense functions only as a label. A story about passionate love is a romance, an unsolved crime is a mystery, and a novel that heavily features Christians’ faith or climaxes in a conversion is a Christian novel.

There is a great need for a thriving market of Christian fiction. We need stories with relatable characters addressing both modern and age-old problems. We need to see the war raging in other Christians’ minds as they internally struggle with real-life issues, rather than just seeing the struggles of atheists and agnostics as they become Christians. Jesus told parables for a reason: mankind loves stories. Biblical truth relayed in the pages of a novel can sometimes be even more memorable and inspiring than a sermon.

On the converse side, a Sunday school lesson poorly disguised as a novel or screenplay will mainly irritate and bore its audience. Disappointment at encountering an unwanted lecture applies to anyone, even the most seasoned student of John Calvin or R. C. Sproul. Below are five tips to avoid antagonizing readers by skillfully handling the Christian theme of your story.

1. Keep Your Characters’ Faith Real

Believers in Christ are not perfect, and neither is their faith. If your character remains in an idyllic state of peace and trust in God, never questioning her beliefs and never sinning (or instead obsessing over each and every sin—Elsie Dinsmore, anyone?), this will understandably ring false to readers.

Unexamined faith is weak. All of us are locked in a day-by-day mortal struggle with what the apostle Paul calls our “flesh,” and the only way to combat it is by constantly building ourselves up with prayer and the word of God. Your characters’ faith cannot remain stagnant, any more than a romance can be inert or a mystery not move forward.

2. Keep Scripture Quotes to a Minimum

This may be a personal preference, but if I wanted to do a Bible study, I wouldn’t be seeking to do it in fiction. Today’s audience has an extremely short attention span (Time to fess up. How many of you skimmed through Tolkien’s elvish poetry recitations?), and we digest brief points best. There’s a reason why the KP staff makes a policy of bolding key sentences of articles.

But it’s not enough to be succinct; Scripture quotes also must serve a purpose to your characters. Think of how Scripture impacts you in your own life. It can strengthen your motivation, convict you for past or current misdeeds, or provide hope in a dark place. You can use Scripture in these ways and more in the lives of your characters, but include it as naturally as possible.

Firstly, it must fit the character’s personality and knowledge. Not many people are comfortable with openly sharing their thoughts on spiritual matters. Secondly, the Scripture’s significance has to be more relevant to the character’s arc and growth than to the audience. Whatever lessons or morals being taught must be entirely aimed at the character. Readers can always tell when writers swerve their attention from the story to the audience.

3. You Don’t Always Need a Gospel Call

Christian scriptwriters, please take note. I enjoyed Fireproof and Courageous. But not every movie has to imitate that formula. Yes, it is our God-given duty to share our faith and call others to repentance. But the Christians in your audience have already made that step, and a simplified summary of a gospel tract may distance them from being in the moment of your novel or movie. They may even speed-read or temporarily zone out.

Also, a blatant presentation of the gospel could potentially chase away some unbelievers. For them, you’re reinforcing the stereotype that only Hollywood can produce good movies, and that Christian films and books should be avoided like the plague unless you want a Bible thrown in your face.

I believe we can do better than the lackluster plot of God’s Not Dead. The overt already exists. Christian wordsmiths need to challenge themselves to weave their themes with precision and care.

4. Don’t Over-egg the Pudding

If you were writing a romance, would every page be filled with descriptions of rose bouquets and moonlit dinners, and all dialogue be heartfelt confessions of love? Obviously not. A story dominated by a single theme would be unspeakably dull.

Consider Pride and Prejudice. It’s a romance novel, but not every element revolves around courtship and love. Austen tackles issues such as class, the purpose of marriage, family relations, and human pride and preconceptions. Likewise, your story can depict more issues than Christianity. Flesh out the fictional world you’re creating with all the diversity beheld in this one. Explore different cultures and time periods rather than limiting yourself to the modern American viewpoint, and write as vividly as you can about the life and struggles the people of that era faced.

5. Write Well

Sadly, an abundance of terrible writing exists that is only bought because it bears the Christian label. Many of you will probably be familiar with the quote allegedly attributed to Martin Luther that putting little crosses on badly-made shoes does not Christianize them. Dorothy Sayers also observes that intentions to write well, however noble, are not enough:

“No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.”

 -Dorothy Sayers on Works

Sayers concludes her declamation with the pronouncement that a painting must be painted well before it can be a sacred picture, and work must be excellent before it can qualify as God’s work. Therefore, the more we improve our writing, the better we will be able to glorify God. Fortunately, this website is designed to help you do just that.

Writing Stories without the Christian Label

Google classic literature, and you’ll be surprised by how many works that fall into this category contain strong Christian references that you would never see in modern secular fiction: Les Misérables, Ben Hur, Little Women, The Swiss Family Robinson, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, etc. In the original stories, even Sherlock Holmes, the literary embodiment of the scientifically-minded critical thinker, gives glory to God as he observes the beauty of a moss rose. You would never find these books in the religious section of a bookstore because that isn’t their primary theme, and yet they too glorify God as they display the beauty of language and human creativity.

Furthermore, if many of the classics were published today, they would be categorized as Christian—Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Inferno, or Paradise Lost, for instance. These books explored their protagonists’ Christian faith, and today they continue to stand the test of time and impact countless generations of readers.

Strive to follow His guidance as you decide the theme of your story. Keep in mind that this may not be initially apparent to you, and that a story you had no intention of making overtly Christian may turn out that way after all. Try not to become overly fixated on what niche your work belongs in, or how it will be received by its potential audience.

Instead, write well, write truthfully, and you will indeed write for Christ.

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Sierra Ret is a homeschool student who spent nearly her entire childhood with her nose buried in a book, and consequently decided she wanted to write one of her own (preferably filled with dwarves and elves). Actually getting her thoughts down on paper regularly has proven to be a far greater challenge than she first thought, but Kingdom Pen was kind enough to step in and give her some much-needed deadlines by honouring her with a temporary spot on their writing team. When not hermiting behind a laptop screen, Sierra enjoys gallivanting across Canada and adventuring near her home in rural Ontario with her family. Currently her chief fantasies include making a living as a travel blogger and someday moving to New Zealand. But above all, her chief aim is to live a passionate and meaningful life for the glory of God.
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Comments

  1. Oh YES. Awesome article, Sierra. Thanks so much for sharing. My journey through this issue was such an eye-opener. I’m starting a blog soon, and this and related subjects are probably going to be one of the main things I address.

    And I have nothing to confess. I read EVERY SINGLE POEM. ALL THE WAY THROUGH. 😀

  2. Thank you for calling out Elsie Dinsmore. They’re not bad morally, and I used to love them (I’d read the second one if I ever felt like a good cry), but the writing style is absolutely awful and even the Christian aspect, as you pointed out, could be done more skillfully. But anyway. Great article. xD
    (And Tolkien’s poetry is storming beautiful. I’m so, so sorry. =D)

    • I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the books weren’t bad morally (especially the second one- since when is an eight year old child the best judge of what is morally right? I particularly had a problem with how refusing to read her sick father the newspaper on a Sunday is portrayed as being more important than parental obedience). Otherwise, I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

    • Hope you don’t mind if I jump in here really quick— just hafta say I agree about the Elsie Dinsmore series. I read through all of them and found them pretty insipid to say the least. Thanks for pin-pointing the problem with their ‘morality’, Sierra. I hadn’t thought of it in that light. I would say I didn’t like them, and people would say ‘But who cares if they’re realistic, they’re presenting a good ideal!’ and I wouldn’t know what to say because yes, they were presenting something to be emulated; something supposedly good. But I always had this gut feeling that there was something wrong; that the perfection was somehow more harmful than just something unrealistic. Now that you said that I realize what it was— one truth was being presented to the exclusion of all others, which is not only narrow-minded and persnickety, it’s actually a falsehood in and of itself. There is no one facet of truth that exists completely apart from the rest of truth. It all runs together. And (no disrespect to Martha Finley) if you have to shut out other truths so the truth you want to present seems strong, chances are you’re not really presenting a truth.
      Anyway. 😛 Good discussion.

  3. Another thought-provoking article by Miss Sierra! I’m not at all surprised. 😉
    I laughed aloud at your remark about Elsie Dinsmore. 😆 I checked out the entire series from the library when I was eleven (because it was allegedly “great” Christian fiction), but I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond the first page of the first book! 😛

    • You certainly didn’t miss much. Unless you wanted an example of how NOT to portray Christianity 😀 Thanks again for your work on this piece, you did an excellent job straightening out that paragraph that mentions Elsie. And much more besides 🙂

  4. Framing the “Is my story Christian?” question as a question of genre/label is genius. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before.

  5. Great article! It’s something I’ve been thinking about of late. As far as Christianity in writing, I think the “Show, not Tell” rule should always apply. Characters rambling on and on every other page about how much they love Jesus won’t be nearly as convincing as a character with morals in a immoral world, or a writer who’s themes are built on black and white principles.

    And Elsie Dinsmore… *sheepish grin* My brother and I used to call her Elsie Dumbsmore…

  6. Thank you for this wonderful article! I’ve read a lot of controversy opinions about this topic, and your article here definitely cleared some things up for me! It mirrors C.S Lewis’ wonderful quote about Christian writing: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”

    • Actually Audrey I was planning to put that very quote in this article after seeing it on Pinterest, only to find out that it’s not a genuine quote from him after all. It’s a paraphrasing of something he wrote in the essay “Christian Apologetics”. The original quote is ““What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent”. Which is similar, but not quite the same. Thanks for bringing it up though 🙂

  7. Wow! This is really an awesome article, Sierra! I love this line: “The overt already exists. Christian wordsmiths need to challenge themselves to weave their themes with precision and care.” Excellent job not only informing but also calling to action! 🙂 *issues the many thumbs up*

  8. *curls into a ball of misery with all the talk of Elsie Dinsmore* I LOVED her books. But still a great article Sierra. 🙂 Keep up the great work.

    • Hey, more power to you Tessa. The less picky you are the more you can enjoy. No one holds it against you. Did you read the originals or the redone ones, by the way?

      • The redone ones Kate. I’ve skim read a bit from the original but I can’t stand the writing. 🙂 A bit too much for me.

        • Okay. I haven’t read the redone ones, and my guess is not much of anyone else here has either. I was too disgusted with the first ones to give the redone ones a try; maybe I should look into them.
          If you had read the originals, you would understand why everyone dislikes them. 😛

  9. Haha, I agree with you about Elsie Dinsmore, BlueJay! But this article definitely rings true with me. This is what I’ve tried to express in words but couldn’t; all I could do was feel that something just felt fake and predictable about stories that included much Sunday-school type of material. I’m so glad you’ve put this out there, Sierra!

    • I really struggled with sorting my thoughts out on this subject as I wrote the article, so it’s incredibly encouraging to hear that it’s been helpful to others. Thanks for sharing that!

  10. Great read, and lots of great points made. Most of my next article is based off of what you explored in your third point, but you put it really well and maybe I should have just let you write it. 😛
    Also, I’ve always been opposed to using bible verses in my fiction because I feel like if the readers had wanted that, they’d have read their bible instead. I think there are so many other ways our fiction can be Christian and glorify God… But, you made a good point that if the verse is a natural part of the character’s live/arc, then it should (or at least can) be included. Do you have more thoughts on that topic? I recognize the power of the Word, but I think once you’ve brought scripture into your prose, you are walking a fine line between story and sermon.
    Thanks for writing, it was fantastic!

    • I do actually 😛 Have more thoughts, that is. True, once you starting quoting verses you are walking a very fine line between fiction and a sermon. But the truth of the matter is that individual verses can have a very strong impact in believers’ lives, and I think sometimes it’s necessary to explain that to the audience. Let’s say that a Christian character is very much attracted to a nonbeliever, who likewise fancies her, and the only thing holding them back is 2 Corinthians 6:14. In that circumstance I think it would be an appropriate circumstance to (naturally!) include that verse since it’s the chief source of a character’s motivation to refuse the love interest. I don’t think in that case we can expect non-believers (or even Christians) to swallow the answer “Because the Bible says so”.
      Just my opinion though 🙂 Thanks for getting me to think a bit more about that.

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