Thursday, January 21, 2010

Will Your Readers Read On... or Put Down Your Book?

I belong to a book club that meets monthly to discuss selected fiction and non-fiction books. The members are terrific Christian gals who are voracious readers. We often pick Christian non-fiction books to read and discuss, but seldom Christian fiction. Why? I haven’t taken a poll, but I’ve kept my ears open for answers. Here are the two biggies I’ve discovered.

First and foremost we want a captivating story. We want to be swept off our feet and fall in love with what’s happening on the pages. Do we always find this in the secular books we choose? No. We’ve ended up with some doozies and have fondly prioritized our fiction goofs by “the books we hate most.” So why not give Christian fiction a chance? Most of us would raise our hands to answer, “Because they’re soooo predictable.” Ouch. The sad truth is, predictability ruins a good story.

Secondly, we adore a good theme. We love it when the whole story is a subtle, well-written presentation of a whop-‘em-upside-the-head truth. (And, yes, we rip the book to shreds if the theme doesn’t present Truth with a capital T.) We’ve read a few Christian novels that accomplished this, and, believe me, we danced in the aisles—er, living room—when this happened. So, again, why reject Christian fiction? Because it’s preachy. Nothing subtle, no way! The Truth is right out there, under glaring spotlights—and in case you missed it, the author presents it a second time around for good measure. C’mon, admit it—what fun is that for the reader?

Writing a good Christian novel presents a terrific challenge—one that secular authors don’t have to face. As Christians we know God is sovereign, and that “all things work together for good to those who love God.” Halleluiah  and praise the Lord for that! But, um, it does make the outcome of our protag’s story-problem a bit predictable, yes? And as Christians we pray a lot, we take our problems to God, we read our Bibles, we belong to churches whose pastors preach the Truth, we share the gospel with the lost. But if our protag lives this God-centered life (or is fighting it), these Christian elements can come across as, well, preachy.

So what are we Christian authors to do?

There are a lot of answers, actually. Your audience will make a difference—maybe your readers want all those Christian elements. Certainly genre makes a difference—a mystery or suspense novel handles the challenge one way, a romance, another. How you craft your characters makes a difference. And of course there are many crafty things (as in skills) one can learn to do to avoid predictability and preachiness. You might say my book club is fussy, and I wonder how well read the members are in the CBA market. But the point remains—predictability and preachiness are inherent problems that need to be addressed in Christian fiction. I’ve come up with some answers for my writing. How about you?

Steph Prichard


  1. This is interesting and thought provoking, especially since I'm planning on starting a Christian novel soon. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I have to say I'm a sucker for a happily-ever-after ending, but I do like unexpected twists along the way. One book I read recently crossed the line from being preachy to ramming a concept down the reader's throats. It felt like the characters were just pawns to get the author's political views across. I've tried hard to make my characters real people and let them lead me down their spiritual journey instead of dictating it to them before I start writing. Hopefully that makes the stories feel more authentic and less preachy.

  3. Best wishes on your novel, Karen. It would be nice if you could read an example of a preachy, predictable book, and one that successfully avoids the two P's, to see the contrast. Hee hee, maybe Sarah could suggest some (privately)!

    Sounds like excellent strategy, Sarah. I love the hearts of those who have a heavenly message to convey, but putting a halo around the book won't cut it in fiction. A good theme well-executed is subtle. Make that a capital S on the subtle!

  4. Steph, has your group read any of Denise Hunter's newer books? Surrender Bay. The Convenient Groom. Sweetwater Gap. Seaside Letters. Those books are all written in an allegory type fashion. No preachy Christian ramblings.

    More of a story you finish and take some time to absorb and figure out all the ways the romance mimicked our relationship with Christ. Wonderful books. Seriously. You should look into them.

    Good post by the way!

  5. Yes, I've read Denise's Convenient Groom, and you're right--it's a lovely model of a theme subtly presented. Thanks, Sabrina!

  6. Terrific post, Steph. Predictability definitely kills a story. Readers like to have the rug pulled out from under them just when they believe they've figured out the mystery. Makes a story much more fun.

    And Truth administered by the slow drip of an I.V. is more likely to make a lasting impact on a reader than Truth delivered by sledge hammer. You provide valuable reminders for us to be subtle in presenting it.

  7. I also read voraciously. I am a really picky reader. I read widely but will easily put a book down if it doesn't keep my attention. When I find a writer that I like, I stick with 'em.

  8. Thanks, all of you! *huge smile* This was my first-ever-in-my-life blog post, so I appreciate your participation in it.

  9. Powerful first blog, Steph! I can say "ditto" to many of your comments. I belong to four reading book clubs (don't make all four every month, but I try). And you're right -- the clubs I'm in usually prefer non-CBA books (hmm, what's the newer acronym for CBA, I forget). I'm just grateful that LOTS of so-called "secular" books have value themes, including Christian ones. And hey -- I'm looking forward to your next blog and the discussion you evoke! Congrats!

  10. Although I'm less fond of the "theme" idea than apparently many readers are, on the whole, this post is spot-on. Myself, I think STORY trumps (or ought to trump) all: theme, "message," "issue," whatever.

    I remember a rash of "issue" books that came out in the romance genre years ago, to the point where RWA spotlighted which "issue" the books supposedly were about in the process of citing them for awards. Of course, in at least one instance, I couldn't beleieve what they cited as the "issue" in the book compared to what I took away from it. And therein, I believe, lies the pitfall, and why to me it's kind of putting the cart before the horse to write a "theme" or an "issue" as a centering point for a book. It almost always either comes across as preaching, as writing to an agenda--or the "issue" or "theme" you think you're expressing isn't the one the READER takes away at all. (!)

    Me, I never know what theme I'm writing until the story is told. Then, I look at the story and say, "Hmmm. Yep. That was the underlying message, all right."

    (Maybe I'm more SOTP than I ever thought...)


  11. I'm with ya, Janna. Story trumps. Absolutely HAS to! And as far as theme goes, I underline the subtle. "Subtle" means different readers WILL take away different "messages" but hopefully nothing too far from what the author intended. (I say "intended" because the theme is usually tied to the character's change, and that change is intentional on the author's part.) I, too, discover my theme after I finish my story and see more clearly what happened to my protag. Then I sharpen the theme on my next time through.

    At book club, we always read for the enjoyment factor first, but we also always wrestle over what the main "theme" is. Why? Because every author has a worldview she's coming from, and if you don't think about the pill you're swallowing, you may get roped into unbiblical thinking. Look at the movie "Apple Cider Rules." It did a fantastic job of subtly presenting a pro-choice message. Ugh! But wouldn't it be nice to tell a story that powerfully (and subtly) that the reader is impacted with some aspect of God's Truth?

    I guess I have to admit, too, that coming from a Lit-major background, I'd like us Christians to write not just good novels, but great ones. At least strive for it. There are a lot of really, really, really, really, good secular writers producing novels, and for the most part we Christians aren't at the front of the pack. We should be.

  12. I love to read too, Steph, and fortunately I only belong to one book club. Wow, what an interesting post. I'm a sucker for a happy ending though. If a book takes too many twists and ends unhappily, I'm likely to throw it across the room, lol. Lit major background huh? Maybe we need to meet together, and you can teach me a thing or two. Thanks :)

  13. Oh, dear--I didn't mean to equate predictability with how the story ends (I'm a happy-ever-after-person, too)! Rather, does the journey there use elements or devices that make the (happy) ending ho-hum predictable? For instance, if the protag prays at the beginning of the story, "Dear God, help me be a better wife," that prayer tells me yep, she will be a better wife by the end of the book. Yawn. Me, I'd omit that prayer and show through her action/dialogue that she needs to be a better wife and that's her journey. In other words, don't spell it out for the reader. Don't shoot suspense in the foot and substitute a crutch because you want to bring in God. One of my crit partners successfully uses prayers (but sparingly) in such a way that they don't cause predictability. That's my aim with prayers (or thoughts about God), too.

    Another example: I read a book in which an unhappy but godly, loyal wife discovers her husband is committing adultery, and, oh, yeah, her old boyfriend (whom she really loved) moves back to town. Hmmmm, let me see. I predict she's going to handle the adultery as a good, godly wife, that somehow the husband will die, and she and her old boyfriend will get together. Bingo! I was right. The story could have been told without that boring predictability, but the author didn't know how to do it.

    I think part of what I'm addressing is how to set up and answer the "story question" without being so obvious and predictable about it. That's a terrifically important skill to learn for a book readers can't put down.