Theme 101: The #1 Reason Themes Can Become Super Preachy (And How to Avoid This)

What makes a novel unbearably preachy?

We’ve all read that Christian novel or seen that Christian movie that’s just trying to hit the reader or viewer over the head with the Gospel. You know–the one where all the atheists convert, all the Christian characters are perfect, Scripture verses are everywhere, and the author is very clearly trying to force the unbelieving reader to convert. It’s the type of stories that make some of us cringe when we hear the words ‘Christian fiction.’

Christian stories can fail for a variety of reasons, but often, I think they boil down to one basic problem: namely, the story’s theme isn’t bigger than the story’s message. This is the #1 reason that themes can become unbearably preachy, and it’s essential before writing a story that you make sure your theme is big enough to hold up an entire story.

Watch the Full Lesson at: http://kingdompen.org/theme-101-video-2/

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

Theme 101: How Advice from a Two-Millennia-Old-Poet Can Revolutionize Your Writing

Why do we write stories?

I don’t mean what personally drives you as a writer, though that’s certainly important. I mean, what’s the point of storytelling? Why do human beings naturally tell stories to each other? Why are we so fascinated by them? And is there any point to stories, or are they just supposed to be an enjoyable way to spend our time?

If you want to be a skilled and successful author, you need to understand what the point of storytelling is. Not only that, but as Christian authors, we need to understand what it means to write stories from a Christian perspective as well. What does it mean to write stories that honor God? These are really big questions… and you may be surprised to know that one of the best answers to these questions comes from a pagan poet who lived two millennia ago.

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself When Your Story’s Theme Lacks Subtlety

Few flaws can kill a story’s theme and message as much as blatancy.

We’ve all read books that constantly hit us over the head with the author’s beliefs. Afterwards we resolve never to do this as authors.

But then we sit down to write and realize how easy it is to make this mistake.

5_Questions_to_Ask_Yourself_When_Your_Story_s_Theme_Lacks_Subtlety

Why Subtlety Is Important

As I explain in my article, “Is Fiction Inherently Worse Than Nonfiction,” literature’s thematic power lies in moving emotions, not reason. Generally speaking, stories don’t change readers by presenting new logical arguments. That’s the role of nonfiction. Instead, fiction changes readers by showing what it means to live morally versus immorally, and what the results are. [Read more…]

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

Three Ways Gender Differences Should Impact Your Story’s Character Arc

A character arc is the process by which your protagonist grows and changes over the course of a novel, and thus it is the foundation for building your novel’s theme. Many writers have already expounded on how you should weave a character arc throughout a novel. But one aspect of character arcs that seems to be neglected is how a character’s gender impacts his character arc. In real life, men and women sometimes change in similar ways, but often they don’t, and this should be reflected in storytelling.genderdifferences_pinterest

I realize that this statement contradicts the vibe of our culture, which seeks to deny gender differences. Since our culture emphasizes gender neutrality, it can be tempting to question whether gender differences are actual differences or just stereotypes. However, not only does the Bible state that God created men and women differently, but science backs this up as well. In this article I will examine various scientific studies from peer-reviewed journals on gender differences and explain how this research should affect storytelling. Although there are few hard rules about how men and women react differently, they tend to contrast in three main ways. [Read more…]

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

How Advice from a Chess Grandmaster Can Transform Your Writing

One of my favorite classes that I took at a homeschool co-op during high school was a chess class taught by a local grandmaster. I learned many different chess openings, position tactics, and endgame tactics, all of which improved my chess strategy.

One day the grandmaster was explaining a game he won against another high-ranking chess player. He pointed out that one move in particular was important because it served multiple purposes. His words stuck with me:chessmasterpost

“In chess, a mediocre move only does one thing. A good move does two things at once. But a great move does three things at once.”

This advice not only changed how I play chess, it transformed the way I write.

Pinned by the Single-Minded Approach

Often, when we begin writing a scene, we want to accomplish one specific goal—to have a character explain a massive plot twist or the villain enact a stage of his evil plan. [Read more…]

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

Why Theme Is the Key to Unlocking Your First Chapter’s Potential

First chapters are hard to pull off.

You need to introduce your protagonist, your story’s setting, and the beginning of your plot in an engaging way that entices people to keep reading. This last point gets hammered on again and again by editors and agents, which can make writing the first chapter seem imposing.

You may wonder whether it’s really worth it to throw yet another element into the first chapter.Why_Theme_Is_the_Key_to_Unlocking_Your_First_Chapter_s_Potential

At first you might assume it’s optional to include theme. I’d like to propose, however, that a strong thematic presence is far from extraneous and can actually be the missing piece you need to enhance a first chapter.

Theme Generates Excellent First Chapters

Few things intrigue as much as a good theme. Theme gives the reader a reason to care about your story, because it correlates fiction to the real world. The biggest mistake I often observe in newer authors’ first chapters is that they focus on an action sequence that’s supposed to be compelling. It might be compelling in film, where the audience could actually see the battle or gunfight, but in a text-based story it doesn’t work because readers have no reason to care about what’s happening. [Read more…]

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

A New Focus for 2017

As we beckon in 2017, we prepare ourselves for tragic misadventures that all start with last-minute New Year’s resolutions:

“I’m going to write ten novels in 2017!”a_new_focus_for_2017

“I’m going to write the next [insert favorite work of literature here]!”

“I’m going to stop overusing parentheses (because it gets annoying when you basically could have started a new sentence)!”

It is hard to fulfill New Year’s resolutions (I am my own case in point). Perhaps the main reason we have so many tragic misadventures each year is because we have not yet developed the skills and habits needed to accomplish our resolutions. The good news is that all of us at Kingdom Pen are gearing up to give you the skills and habits you need to achieve your writing-related goals (except maybe the one about parentheses—you’re on your own there, unless you wish to plead for help on the forum).

Where to Get the Skills

Each month we try to center our articles, short stories, and poetry around a Monthly Topic (formally known as Monthly Themes). Since many of you will be interested in writing something to fit those topics, we are making the list for 2017 available for your viewing and planning pleasure here. Challenging yourself by focusing your writing on a certain topic can help you become a better writer. Just ask Josiah DeGraaf, author of “Why Everything in Your Story Must Tie into Your Theme.”

In addition to our Monthly Topics, we are going to concentrate heavily on understanding theme, which is an important topic or idea that the moral aspect of a story addresses. Are you confused? Let’s unpack this a bit.

An Important Topic or Idea

I believe a story should revolve around a single topic or idea (and I think a few notable authors would back me up). Even Charles Dickens’s 135,420-word masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, has a core theme: resurrection and transformation. Even with all of the wonderful characters and plot twists, ideas and sub-themes, Dickens ties everything together through a central theme and creates a powerful story that leaves an impression on readers.

Notice that the theme is simple. It is not even a full sentence. It is meant to be abstract because everything in the story flows into or out from it. Theme is a subject on which you have an opinion, and your story is your opinion playing out in someone else’s life.

The Moral Aspect

According to John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, “Theme may be the most misunderstood of all major aspects of storytelling… Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world. It is your moral vision.” Say your theme is love. We all know there are right and wrong ways to love and even an opposite of love (hate). But what is the “right” way to love someone? Hopefully that is what your story will dive into. Your characters will likely face moral choices that all pivot on the central theme of love. You will give different characters opposing views on how to love and that will put them at odds with one another, causing tension. Meanwhile, you, the writer, will be displaying a number of ways to love, and in the end it will be clear which one is “right.”

As Christians, the Scriptures inform our moral vision. The only way you will see the world correctly is through the lens of the gospel and God’s Word made flesh (Jesus alive in you). Thus, it is imperative that we ground ourselves in THE Word before we attempt to tell others how to live.

Story

If you are like me, you long to share what you know and care about with others. For writers, this often takes the form of a story. We write to express who we are and what we believe, but we don’t want to shove our views down people’s throats. So we decide to compose a story. Unsure where to start, we look to the great allegories of our childhood like The Chronicles of Narnia. But soon we realize that storytelling is more than making up fanciful creatures and recreating our own version Narnia.

Everything we write should have a heavy focus on theme because it is the heart of storytelling. Without it, a story can feel disjointed, preachy, or even meaningless. It is impossible to sum up the importance and complexities of using theme in storytelling in one article. Thus, we are going to concentrate our efforts on increasing your Mastery of Theme throughout 2017. Watch out for more articles on theme to be published here in the upcoming year.

Teaser News: A Writing Course is Coming!

In closing, I have the pleasure of heralding the following news: we will be releasing our first ever Kingdom Pen writing course this summer. It will be a chance for you to advance your writing to a new level as we guide you deeper into Theme Mastery. That’s all I can reveal for now, but I will also give you this hot tip (because no one said I couldn’t): a limited beta release of the course will probably be announced on the forum, so be sure to check there often in the coming weeks.

Remember, your best hope for completing your New Year’s resolutions is acquiring more writing skills and habits. So be sure to habitually visit us at Kingdom Pen so we can help you become more resolute!

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Michael Stanton has had what he describes as a scatterbrained adventure of a life that has recently led him to working at Kingdom Pen. When he wasn’t teaching underprivileged children in Uganda and rafting on the White Nile, he was either in Canada’s capital city studying the history of Christianity or in Michigan learning how to make films. Originally from Banner Elk, North Carolina, Michael grew up homeschooled and surrounded by the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. Those mountains inspired Michael’s love of writing (and, let’s face it, the Lord of the Ringsmovies also helped). Many years and adventures later, Michael found himself getting a marketing degree, and low and behold, Kingdom Pen was in need of a Marketing Director. What are the odds that God didn’t see that coming? All divine providence allusions aside, Michael is super excited to get to work in an organization that so closely matches his desires to see more quality content streaming from the minds and hearts of his fellow Christians.

True Courage

‘Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s the courage that counts.’

While this quote from John Wooden might not be literally accurate in every instance, there is a good amount of truth in it. In writing, and in life too, one success won’t establish your character forever. It will build him up, giving him strength for the next challenge, but more challenges will come. And it is during failure that a character learns the most valuable lessons. But, in success or in failure, a character’s courage or lack thereof will affect how they act and react, no matter what the theme of your story. truecourage

Courage, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the ‘mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.’ Or, as the common saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to continue on despite fear. A character needs courage to move forward, to lead, to make decisions and then hold up those decisions. They’ll need to fight, to rescue, to confront… they might not feel brave, but they continue forward anyway, even when there seems to be no hope. Without courage, a character will have a hard time making any sort of rational decision and then sticking to it.

For some characters, gaining courage might be part of the plot.

[Read more…]

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Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legend of Light novellas and is the Kingdom Pen Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration. You can claim one of her stories for free at: https://authorhopeann.com/rose-of-the-night/

All Art is Christian Art

All art is Christian art. That’s a rather bold statement. Immediately, objections start to pop into our minds. “But what about modern nihilistic art?” “What about a novel that teaches spiritualism?” “What about someone screaming viciously into a microphone with zero identifiable words?” All of these are good objections, but rather than disproving my statement, they lead us to the deeper question that lurks behind them all.  allartischristianpost

What is art?

We are Christians and we base our lives and beliefs on the Bible. Let me bring you to the very beginning of that book. Genesis 1? Yes, Genesis 1:1 words 1-5, “In the beginning God created…” Two words stand out most in this string of five words. “In the beginning” is kind of like an announcement that a big statement is about to be made. Then we get to “God”: “In the beginning God.” Now that’s something. God is preeminent because He is first. How fitting for the first four words of the Bible. But if He was in the beginning, how does the story continue? Well, God created. God created. The first doctrine we hit after the preeminence of God is art–creativity. Art comes before the doctrines of marriage, work, sacrifice, etc. Perhaps this is because art is what is most obvious and sometimes most important to us. We know God exists by His art. We are deceived, rarely by argument but more often by the art that is tied into the argument—the emotions, the symbols, and the imitations of cosmic ideas.

“God created.” That is our first introduction to art in the Bible. Shall we move on? Shall we keep looking for the meat of what art really is? No! It’s right here! Let’s slow down a bit and dig into the depths of richness right before us. [Read more…]

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Daeus is the published author of two books, Edwin Brook and Treachery Against The House Of Fairwin. He is a Christian seeking God’s face when he remembers to and finding that that is all he was seeking when he seeks for something else. He is a joker who takes himself too seriously and a sack full of ambition who likes to relax. Among his top interests are poetry, reading, philosophy, theology, gardening and permaculture, athletics, marketing, psychology, and interacting with his friends. You can also find him participating in such activities as ranting about the glories of frozen raspberries or making impromptu music for every occasion.

He also is a fanatic over The Count Of Monte Cristo. Be thou forewarned.

If you would like to sample his work, you can get a free copy of his novella, Treachery Against The House Of Fairwin at the link below.

Foil Characters: What They Are and How to Use Them

So, if you’ve been following my articles for a while, you may have noticed that I talk a lot about the purpose of literature being to teach and to delight.  However, the instructional part of literature can be easily misunderstood.  After all, what does it practically mean to teach with literature?  Does it mean to include random sermons midway through the novel?  To end your book with a detailed explanation of what the book was supposed to do?  Hopefully not, but then what does it mean? foilcharacters

Many things go into a successful theme in order to make a novel instructive as well as entertaining.  However, one of the most important ways that a theme is brought across is by using the various characters in your book as positive and negative character examples.  Today, I’d like to talk about one specific way that characters can be used as character examples: and that’s through the use of foil characters.

Foil characters are one of my favorite writing tropes to utilize for several reasons.  One reason I enjoy utilizing foil characters is that you can use them to develop your theme very well while still being subtle, thus avoiding the preaching that too often happens in Christian fiction.  Another reason is that they add a good bit of beauty to the literary text through the use of parallel.

Of course, talking about how much I like foil characters doesn’t help much if you don’t know what they are.  So, without further ado, let’s dive in. [Read more…]

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.