Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guest Post from Joshua Graham: Writing without Preaching.

Joshua Graham

I know, it’s the opposite of what you might hear someone shout out in a lively church on Sunday morning. But in this case I’m talking about writing. Preaching is good when you have the right audience and message, but not so much in writing fiction.

This holds true on more levels than one.

First, the obvious. I don’t think fiction is the place for authors to convince their readers that their beliefs are the one which they must espouse. “What?” you might say. “I thought you wrote books with spiritual and Christian content.” It’s true; my books do contain them as part of the story--that’s just part of who I am and how I see life. But I always try my best to present reasonable arguments on both sides, never slanting the characters who oppose my beliefs in a derogatory or disrespectful way. In fact, if you’ve ever read my short story THE ACCIDENTAL EXORCIST, you’ll see exactly what I mean. This can also be seen in my upcoming novel DARKROOM, and even in BEYOND JUSTICE.

Look, I believe in discussion and dialogue. I won’t force you to believe what I believe, nor would I expect you to force me. But a mature examination of all sides can be helpful when one finally makes a decision about what they believe. In my books/stories, when a discussion likes this comes up, I tend to make my atheist characters respectful, respectable, reasonable and intelligent (not that I do any less for my “religious” characters.) This is to show that one can have an intelligent discussion about the different sides to consider without having to deride or hate one another. Shouldn’t real life be like this? Sigh…If only.

While I have my own convictions (and pretty strong ones), I like to let my readers decide for themselves, without the intensity of a heated argument over beliefs. I prefer conflict to happen in more dramatic plot elements anyway. For that reason, I’m not sure my books really would fit into the traditional Christian Fiction market, because the conversion to Christianity is not necessarily a compulsory part, nor the main point of my books. Not to say this per se is a requirement for all Christian Fiction, but some publishers and readers of the genre expect this. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just different market expectations for different audiences.

Now, the second part of ‘Don’t Preach it!’ relates to the old writer’s adage “show, don’t tell.” Of course, there are times when writers will move the plot along with a brief narrative summary of the key events covering a few days within the space of one paragraph or less (see John Grisham.) And yes, that is “telling” in the extreme. But if done well it is acceptable for the pacing of a thriller or plot-driven book. I’ve been known to employ that method (deliberately as well.)
But in general, when you are in the midst of a scene, I believe it better to show rather than tell. As in my first point about expressing (not preaching about) themes of beliefs and values in fiction, LET THE READER DRAW THEIR OWN CONCLUSIONS.

Here is a great quote from my favorite writer about this matter:

"Don’t say it was delightful; make us say “Delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do the job for me?“ – C.S. Lewis

That said, Mr. Lewis has been known to actually break his own guidelines in his CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, but I think it can be forgiven because of how captivating the books were overall. Remember, guidelines are not pharisaical, legalistic edicts which—upon pain of torture, cruel and unusual punishment—must at all costs be obeyed. Rules are good to learn until you have mastered them. And then, as a master one goes on not to break the rules, but to exceed them.

Jesus Christ actually said it best when confronted about how he was “breaking” the rules. He said to the religious people of his time, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Then he went on to say that it’s not just wrong to murder, but if you deride people verbally, it’s just as bad. And not only should a person not commit the physical act of adultery, but that we should not even look upon another person with adulterous thoughts and imaginations.

So He wasn’t about doing away with the Ten Commandments, but about bringing them to the next level of perfection.

Okay, here’s another example: As a student, J.S. Bach was required to hand-copy manuscripts of past composers. He had to learn all the rules of counterpoint in order to master them.

Even when I as a student at Juilliard, Bach’s Fugues were used as examples for us to learn the rules of counterpoint.

Soon, the more we studied his work, the more we realize that he “broke” some of his own rules. But those instances in which he did made perfect artistic sense and made the work better. Only a master can do this successfully.

To sum it up:

1. Let your reader draw their own conclusions, both in the expression of beliefs and values, and in the showing (not telling) as well. Your reader will appreciate your confidence in their ability to reason and feel, without being soon-fed or worse, force fed.

2. Learn and master the rules and guidelines of good writing. But don’t be a slave to them when you have mastered them. And don’t be a slave to them when you read the works of others, either. There are a lot of “wannabe” critics out there who haven’t the slightest clue about the art of writing, or voice, and are what I call Slaves and Concubines to Strunk and White. These are the ones who spout off on a great author’s poor grammar and sentence structure, while at the same time trumpet their own ignorance. They are the ones who leave the poor reviews, not citing anything about the story itself, but giving the poor ratings because they don’t understand the artistic freedom of writing mastery. Don’t become one of those readers who blinds themselves to great writing because some of the sentences in a book don’t adhere to the academic, textbook rules of sentence structure.

Well, I’ve probably dug a pit for myself here and hopefully have not alienated or offended anyone. Please remember that these are just my own (non-fiction) opinions about writing fiction. If you are not satisfied, you can get a full refund for every penny you paid for this blog entry . Just ask at the door on your way out. :)

Joshua Graham
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  1. Coming from a reader, and not a writer, I agree!

  2. Slaves and Concubines to that part. Great post. Useful info. Thanks Josh and Aaron for hosting him

  3. Isn't it a delicate balance we writers attempt to maintain? We're artists, yet we have all these rules...

  4. It's an honor to blog here! Thanks Aaron and everyone who has read my entry!

  5. I love the line about mastering the rules of writing but not being a slave to them--there's a huge difference between reading something intended creatively and something written ignorantly--and it's usually pretty easy to make the distinction!

  6. Great article, and great principle Joshua. Should I ever meander into the fiction genre I'll definitely do my best to show, not tell. It reminds me of something a con artist said in a story once, "Make them think they came up with the idea." If you show them, instead of telling them, it's much more powerful.

    I'm going to say one other thing, and I hope you don't take it like I'm being a stickler, because, like I said, I really did enjoy the article and found it to be helpful. But to be honest, in one small area of the article I had a "face palm moment." You seem like a reasonable person, so I assume you’re not above listening to a little friendly criticism.

    If Jesus said that deriding people verbally is just as bad as murder, then He'd have a seriously hard time explaining the verbal scathing He gave the Pharasees in Matthew 23 or why He went so far as to make a whip and drive the moneychangers out of the temple in Matthew 21. The point is, He never said that. Here's what He said,

    Matthew 5:21-22a, "Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
    22) But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..."

    Some people, like me, are much more prone to hating people in their hearts than verbally deriding them - so this is naturally more convicting to me. Being angry or verbally deriding someone else isn't always wrong (Matthew 21, 23) or Jesus was a sinner and not the Son of God. However, it's when it's done "without a cause" that it is wrong.

    Like I said, I'm not trying to be ugly, just helpful. I appreciate the article and the sentiment behind it. God bless! :-)

  7. Hi Rick,

    I think I agree with you. Jesus (God) is more concerned with the heart, rather than the external action. Verbal derision stemming from hatred is different from harsh words from righteous anger (which was the case for Jesus.)

    Again, it's the spirit of the law, rather than the letter...which takes me back to the point I made in my blog post.

    Thanks for helping clarify what I meant, though. I appreciate that!