Faith Elements in Writing

I often hear from writers who ask how to infuse faith elements without making a story sound preachy. This is a crucial skill to learn. The moment your story starts preaching, many readers will be turned off.

Readers usually don’t mind following a character’s spiritual journey and taking in what the character learns along the way, but they usually don’t appreciate being told what they should learn and do as a result. Few people enjoy an author’s wagging finger.

Still, faith elements can abound, and such themes can be the most memorable parts of a story.

Here are some tips on how to infuse faith elements while avoiding the pulpit:

  • Make sure that faith is a natural expression of a character’s being, that is, don’t make someone speak about faith without developing that this is an inherent part of the character’s nature.
  • Show God’s intervention by having circumstances come together because of faith, prophecies, or foreshadowing rather than by an immediate answer to prayer.
  • Don’t let any character sermonize in dialogue.
  • Don’t explain a thematic lesson. Let the reader figure it out. For the most part, the treasure should be hidden, but clues to finding it should be sprinkled throughout the story.
  • Make sure your theme doesn’t feel shoehorned into the story. It must be natural.
  • Don’t teach lessons in simplistic, moralizing ways. Readers want to be stretched, not necessarily converted. Let God do the converting.
  • Strive for the feeling of journey that the reader wants to take with the characters.
  • Bring about subtle revelations. The best storytelling doesn’t dispense information; it withholds information and makes the hero and the reader search for it.
  • The external journey leads to an internal journey, and this is where your theme is explored and finally realized. In other words, the theme is tied to the characters’ goals, often without the hero knowing it until the end.
  • Use dialogue that raises the hint of the theme but doesn’t explain or resolve it. The discussion should be peripheral rather than direct.
  • Allow the reader to wonder. What would he or she do in the character’s position? Give enough conflict and depth to provide meaning but don’t answer the questions.
  • Create multiple layers — physical, spiritual, psychological, and sociological. This layering gives long life to your story, making readers come back to it again and again.
  • When choosing a faith-element theme, you should ask yourself what you’re passionate about. Let your character take a strong stand. Readers usually cheer this. As an author, have the courage to say something with conviction, but do so through the story’s pathos, not with direct telling.

For example, a major theme in my book Circles of Seven is contentment with who you are, including accepting abnormalities that might make you feel less than attractive to others. Readers perceive this through Bonnie’s struggles as she deals with seeing a virtual copy of herself (Shiloh) who comments on her (Bonnie’s) scaly face. No one in the story tells Bonnie how to solve this problem, and no one explains the importance of contentment.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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11 replies

  1. Thanks! I’ve been having a problem putting Christian things in my stories, while trying to not make it overwhelming.

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  2. Reblogged this on Love, Laughter, and Life and commented:

    Thanks, Bryan.

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  3. Shared the link with my author group. Thanks so much, this was really helpful. 🙂

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  4. Yep, exactly. And after a writer applies all these things they should remember that some will find any mention of religion preachy no matter what.

    As far as things feeling natural and the character discovering things rather than the author practically telling the audience, I can certainly think of authors who have failed at this. One instance that sticks out in my mind is an author who wrote a character that quoted a bible verse to reassure himself. In his mind he recited the whole thing perfectly, verse number and all. I’m sure some people do that, but I’ve gotten the impression that most people are going to recite parts of the verse in their mind and not bother with the verse number. The way the author just had the character recite the whole thing felt a little unnatural and out of place, and would probably be one of the things that would annoy an atheist rather than keep them willing to pay any attention to the char’s beliefs.

    Another thing that has become apparent to me is that to avoid preachiness, it is good to keep in mind how sin and evil is depicted in our works. We need to do our research and be very aware of everything that surrounds the particular sin, as well as the varying perspectives on it. I often see sin and villains oversimplified, perhaps even to the extent that Chrisians are often portrayed as having it all together while the atheists are usually very sinful and angry.

    This is the case sometimes, so it is good to have characters that represent those extremes, but what about the atheists out there that truly are kind and helpful by the world’s standards or truly feel their lives are fulfilling?

    An example I saw online once was a little comic strip written by a trans person talking about their childhood. Growing up they simply saw promiscuous people in movies shown as evil or unkind, which probably did not do much to give the person a reason to see sex outside marriage as wrong. Add that to the fact that this person wanted to have sex, and we have someone who possibly just sees more conservative views of keeping sex within marriage as stupid and wrong.

    Something like that may be more easily avoided if we as authors vary our characters more. Showing a char that is kind but throughout the story have events that help the reader understand why that char’s traits are sinful will encourage understanding rather than resentment. I wouldn’t be surprised if that person felt like the filmmakers were preaching their views on sex because they tended to depict certain chars only one way.

    Hope this example was ok to use?

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    • I think it’s fine to have a character mentally recite a verse if it’s clear that this character would do that, especially if it’s a favorite verse or he or she has the verse in a song, such as Bonnie did. Most Christians know that such recitations are natural.

      I apologize for my density, but I wasn’t able to understand your example. 🙁

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      • Yeah, it’s just that in the example I was thinking of it felt strange.

        And that’s alright, i’m in a hurry when I type these comments and don’t write them very well 🙂

        I was saying that sometimes authors come across as preachy because they tend to depict certain characters only one way or another, oversimplifying things so much that the author comes off as ignorant. In the example I gave, someone that wanted to have sex from a young age and didn’t understand why it was a problem grew up seeing shows where promiscuous people were practically always depicted as evil or unkind. I think we as authors should watch out for such depictions because a person like the one in the example may just look at the shows and think ‘I enjoy that sin but I am not evil or unkind’ and decide that anyone who disagrees with their lifestyle is ignorant for not knowing that.

        I think we can avoid this by putting more variety in our stories. If someone does put a promiscuous char in their story, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the villain. It could be a very kind char who, by the end of the story, simply endures natural life experiences that make her realize her lifestyle is incorrect. This is more likely to foster understanding in the reader, rather than anger.

        This can go for other viewpoints as well. Why not show an atheist that is perfectly kind and content with their life, and maybe discovers why God is worth having in his life. For variety, the same story could also show an angry and bitter atheist and a Christian that is a jerk but eventually learns that he actually has things to work on. One great weakness of Christian stories is sometimes that they don’t address the complexity of why not every Christian is kind and that yes, people can be good by the world’s standards and why that isn’t enough. Many atheists read Christian stuff and come out thinking that all Christians see them as evil.

        I think people are more likely to see the truth and follow it if our stories have enough character variety to show we understand both sides of the argument and have good reasons for our beliefs.

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  5. Thank you very much for the advice! This is a subject I have been contemplating a lot for my book, so this really helps.

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  6. thank you so much for this! I have a really hard time incorporating faith and such into my stories without making it sound really preachy. i will remember this as i am writing. 🙂

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  7. Great post! And the Circles of Seven series is a great example(read all of them and couldn’t put them down!)
    My novel can’t be classified as “religious”, because I didn’t include that theme, but I did subtly hint at a greater, higher existence, and my over-arching theme was what real love looks like. (That it’s the actions you take to show your love, and not something that people just feel. Putting others before yourself sort of thing.) I tried to show what God’s love is all about by hinting at his Spirit, that resides within the world.

    Anyway, lovely post, and I think this was a great way to help people know when they are being too preachy in their novels.

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