Fiction Writing Tips 71–80

Welcome to the eighth page of Fiction Writing Tips feature. Here you will find tips 71 through 80.

To return to the tips index, click here.

If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.

Tip #71: Formula Number 3—Whose Epic Is This?

When it comes to writing fiction there are very few formulas that can be brought to the task. It's a non-scientific process that defies quantification and mathematical scrutiny.

However, there are some rules of thumb that can be helpful to any novelist. They are tools and guidelines, though. Never laws.

This time I'm talking about a formula that can help you be sure your reader knows whose story this is and who the main protagnist is.

Many times this isn't a problem. It's clear from the beginning who the main character is and what the main story is going to be. But other times—such as when you're telling an extremely complex epic with many viewpoint characters or when you're writing a middle book in a series (or both)—it can be quite hard for your reader to know what's going on.

And few things frustrate a reader more than not being able to understand what she's looking at.

This is true on the smaller scale, too. Think about a scene. You know you need to let us know whose head we're in right away, right? (See Tip #28.) The reader needs to get anchored in the scene, oriented into the POV character.

So it is with your book as a whole. The reader needs to know, almost from page 1, whose story this is.

Your reader, you see, desperately wants to engage with your story. She wants to invest herself into the life of a sympathetic protagonist (see Tip #51). She wants to care about your hero, in other words.

And so you need to let her know whose story this is so she can start the process of knitting her heart to that character.

I said you should start this almost on page 1 because there's room for a prologue that features another character or characters, possibly the antagonist, especially if it establishes the stakes and sets the time-bomb to ticking down (see Tip #20). But after that, you need to get your reader oriented into the life and vulnerability of your protagonist.

In a traditional novel you'd include the prologue to establish the OR-ELSE stakes and then you'd begin chapter 1 with a Tip #15-style introduction of your central protagonist. After that, you'd give us at least 40 pages of that character's storyline before cutting away (see Tip #43). Then you could introduce a new storyline and begin cutting back and forth between them for the rest of the novel (see Tip #42).

But let's say you're writing a very complex story with four, seven, or even as many as a dozen viewpoint characters. It's an epic, of course, and an epic often has many storylines so the reader can get a feel for the massive scope of the story.

If this is you, remember one thing: your book still needs to be about one main character. Yes, it's about all those other people, too, but not in the ultimate sense. Ultimately, this has to be the story of one character on an inner and outer journey to try to achieve some objective.

The Lord of the Rings is about Frodo. Period. The original Star Wars series (Episodes IV, V, and VI) is about Luke Skywalker. The whole six-movie series is about Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.

Sure, lots of other characters figure prominently in these beloved stories, but there is in each of them a central character and a main storyline.

So it must be with your epic. The reader must be able to know whose story it is, despite a supporting cast of thousands.

It's tempting, I know, to keep "entertaining" the reader by introducing a new viewpoint character and a new storyline every ten pages or so. I mean, why not? Right away the reader gets the idea that this is a huge story. Right away the reader is wowed by your many locations and situations. And look at how quickly you've brought everyone onstage and gotten the various storylines going.

But that's a mistake. It could be a fatal mistake, in terms of whether or not your reader will be able to stick with you as you jump from one protagonist to another. What you gained in flooding the page with characters you more than lost in reader engagement.

The poor reader is drowned. Plunged under the tsunami of all your story people and all your storylines and all your story worlds.

As I said in Tip #43 you must allow your reader to get her bearings on the main story and the main protagonist before you introduce anyone or anything else. How long does it take a reader to gain that anchor-hold? At least 40 pages. That's 40 unbroken, contiguous pages about your main character and your main storyline.

(That doesn't mean, incidentally, that the hero has to be onstage alone. You can bring in the whole constellation of characters who revolve around her and through whose world she travels. But in terms of viewpoint character, for the first 40 pages you must have only one.)

You can bring other viewpoint characters and their stories online soon, but not before you hand the reader a lifeline and in effect tell her that no matter what happens or how confused she gets she can always know that this is the main thing she needs to pay attention to.

And Now the Formula

Let's say you have six major viewpoint characters in your epic. You know now that you need to introduce the main one first (possibly after a prologue), but how and when do you bring in the others without confusing the reader, and how often do you keep coming back to the main storyline? Here's where my formula will help.

I have presented the formula as an outline. It's not to be taken legalistically, but it should be your template. Once you see what it's doing you can try altering it, but first try to match it pretty much exactly. 

  1. Prologue (in which you do Tip #20).
  2. 40 pages in the main protagonist's storyline (begun with a Tip #15 introduction and then launching the main story; be sure to show the character's flaw (or "knot") as described in Tip #3).
  3. Pick your second most important viewpoint character (preferably one that would be a nice counterpoint to the main one, and/or possibly the romantic lead) and give us 20-25 pages introducing that character and storyline (remembering Tip #15).
  4. Then go back and give us 10-18 pages in the original storyline (this is to reestablish it as the main story and to reassure the reader that she does know what's going on; because coming back to a storyline you have introduced, after being away, is psychologically comforting to the reader).
  5. Now give us 10-15 pages introducing your third storyline and set of characters.
  6. Then circle back to protagonist #2 for 10 pages or so.
  7. Followed by a solid 20-25 pages in the main viewpoint character's story.
  8. Now pick your fourth most important viewpoint character and introduce him or her in 15 pages or so.
  9. Circle around for 10-page scenes in storylines #2 and #3.
  10. Followed by a major scene in the main protagonist's storyline (you're keeping the plates spinning, you see)
  11. Then you can introduce your fifth storyline.
  12. Followed by an update from at least one of the other storylines.
  13. Then you can introduce your sixth storyline.
  14. Followed by a major scene from your main storyline.
  15. And updates from the others.
  16. From here on you can jump happily between all your storylines. Just be sure to circle back much more often (and for longer visits) to what's happening with your main character.

The idea is to keep your primary hero before the reader's eyes longer and more often than any other viewpoint character. By continuing to circle back to that one, you reassure her that the author hasn't forgotten whom she's most attached to.

And you do the same thing at a smaller scale with each of the other storylines. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, but as in real juggling each one has to be given the right amount of attention at the right time to keep it in the air.

Chapter 1 Dominates All

And now a word about what you include in chapter 1. Be sure, sure, sure it's a scene featuring your main protagonist and it's from the primary storyline.

Chapter 1, you see, is more powerful than any other chapter in your book.

Readers are accustomed to a prologue that might not have anything to do with the main character, at least not at first. So they kind of give you a freebie with that scene in terms of attaching themselves to a main character. But when chapter 1 comes around, it's showtime.

You know how baby animals supposedly imprint on whatever creature they see when they're first born or hatched? Readers are like that. Whatever they see in chapter 1, they take to heart. They imprint on it. They assume that this is the main character, the one they're supposed to engage with. And so they do.

Now imagine how a reader feels who has brought all her goodwill to your book and has willingly invested herself deeply in your chapter 1 character—except now she finds out that this isn't the main protagonist at all. And the story she attached herself to isn't actually the main one. It isn't even one of the most important ones, she realizes as she continues to read. It was just some random scene the author thought would be cool to start with.

Already you've knocked out at least 50% of her fun in your book. She did what she was supposed to. She put her whole heart out there to give to your story, but now she realizes she's been tricked.

So she dutifully tries to engage with this new viewpoint character and this new situation. She's just about to feel comfortable in that character's skin when the author jumps away to yet a third new storyline.

Now she's feeling skittish. In a sense, she's had her heart broken twice by this book already. She's gun-shy now. And she's trusting this author—and liking this book—less and less with every new scene and viewpoint character.

Until she reaches the point where she simply can't engage. She never achieved even a tenuous grip on the main storyline, but was instead inundated with more and more new people and stories. And finally the book seems like random people doing random things for random reasons. Kind of like people-watching at the airport. Who cares?

This author has taken a willing reader and turned her into a disinterested bystander at best, and an enemy at worst. All because the author didn't give the poor reader a way to know whose epic this was.

If you've got a massive story with tons of viewpoint characters, resist the urge to get them all in front of the reader at once. You've got to let her know whose story this really is. Once she knows that, then you can begin to slowly add on new ones.

In the TV show Lost the writers stuck with the first (large) set of characters for the whole first year. It wasn't until we well and truly knew them that we could bear the addition of new characters. We had to keep seeing our favorites, of course, but we could handle some new ones because we had a good sense of who our main ones were. Every season after that, the writers brought in more and more new characters. But we could weather it because we had a good hold on who the primary group was.

So it should be in your book.

In the world of art there is a principle known as emphasis. A picture must clearly indicate to the viewer what the main thing is. Should the viewer focus more on the girl or the flowers? In text layout the composition should reveal what words or letters have dominance. This is to clue the viewer in and to direct his or her eye.

A picture with no emphasis, one in which multiple items share equal prominence, is confusing and even irritating to the viewer. What's the main thing? It's impossible to tell. All the similarly emphasized objects cancel each other out, leaving the viewer unengaged and staring blankly at what could've been a new favorite work of art.

In art composition, you create emphasis through the use of contrast, placement, separation, color, focus, distance, and relative size.

In fiction, you create emphasis by giving chapter 1 (and the first 40 pages) to your main storyline and then circling back to it.

Even an epic must have a focus.

Frodo lives.

Tip #72: (Be Willing To) Murder Your Darlings

Sometimes a novelist falls in love with an aspect of her book that, after revisions and rethinking, no longer really belongs in the book.

Despite a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right, all it takes is one more full glance at the beloved thing (or character or idea) to be smitten again, and all those troubled thoughts go away.

The problem is that your love for that element might cause you to keep it in the book even though keeping it in might actually hurt the book as a whole.

For instance, let's say one of the things that excited you about this novel in the first place was the idea that two alien races invade the earth, supposedly in a war against one another, and then we come to find out that they're really in cohoots and it's a big charade. You love that idea and it energizes you just to think about it.

However, over the months and years you've been actually writing this manuscript, something has happened. It's become less about warring, duplicitous aliens and more about the protagonist's quest to take the gospel to the alien homeworld. As you've written, that's become the thing that has taken over the story and fired your imagination. Everything is falling together for that storyline. You realize that's what this book is about.

But you still love your not-really-warring-alien-factions twist. You just love it. In the back of your mind is this disquiet about that element, but it isn't until you have someone else read your in-progress manuscript and she makes a comment ("Why are you even talking about this alien war scam thing? It has nothing to do with your story.") that you realize what's wrong.

The story isn't about that anymore.

So you're left with a choice: either you revise the story so the thing you first loved is at the center of the story again or you delete the thing that now doesn't belong.

You march your beloved idea to the post and you order the firing squad to shoot. You murder your darling.

I recently worked with a novelist who came to this realization about his story. He'd developed this fantastic backstory about his heroine. He loved that history because it explained so much about how she behaved in the current story and made her such an interesting character.

The problem was that this character's inner journey, as revised, was now taking her in a different direction. He was loving the new direction and it made all the things work that had previously not been clicking. But in order for her to traverse the desired arc, she couldn't have the great backstory he'd worked out for her. If she'd had that backstory she'd be behaving differently and wouldn't end up at the conclusions he wanted for her.

It was an awful moment when he realized that the thing that had first brought this character to life was the thing that now had to go.

I was very proud of him when he told me he didn't want to sacrifice that backstory but knew he had to do so in order for the whole story to work as he wanted.

He grieved, but he murdered his darling.

What about with you? Has your story taken an unexpected twist? Are you quite sure that all the things you first loved about the story still belong to the story?

You have to be willing, at least, to murder your darlings.

Now, it may be that the story has meandered off into an undesired avenue and you want to bring it back to center so that the thing you first loved will again be at the heart of the story. Or it may be that that precious thing simply has to go.

Character and story are king. Tip #50 rules all. Whatever interferes with your main character's inner journey and the story you're trying to tell, must go. It must die.

Pay your respects. Save it in another file. Use it in another story. But don't let anything sabotage the unity of the story you're trying to tell.

Tip #73: Help Your Reader Suspend Disbelief

Most of these tips apply to any kind of fiction. But occasionally I'll write one that is specific to speculative fiction. This is one of those.

Whatever genre you're writing in, you want your reader to suspend her disbelief. That's a phrase we hear a lot in fiction writing circles, but it's not often defined, so let me do so.

A novel is a construct. The story is an artificial situation that didn't happen. The writer has played God, creating worlds and humans and making them all dance around the stage like puppets. A novel is inherently unreal.

Whenever you're working in such a situation it's very hard to get it all right. You're trying to create a simulation of reality, but simulations are notoriously hard to do. You're inevitably going to include something that doesn't seem realistic to the reader. Yeah, she thinks, but no one would ever say such a thing. That's dumb. I quit on this stupid book.

That voice of reality is the reader's disbelief. She's looked behind the curtain and realized there's a wizard manipulating everything. Here she'd almost begun to think that this story was actually transpiring in her mind, magically. But now...not so much.

One part of the novelist's job is to keep the reader from piercing the veil and turning sour on your story. Can you do so for a full novel long? I certainly hope so.

You want the reader's disbelief to be staved off for the whole thing. You want it suspended, held at bay, until the story ends. You want her voice of reason to never dispel the enchantment you're weaving with this tale.

How Do You Do That?

In a "normal" genre, you do it by avoiding logical inconsistencies and by making sure your characters behave realistically. What they say, what they do, and—most importantly—how they react determines whether or not your reader's disbelief gets engaged or not.

For example, if a woman comes to her husband after twenty years of marital bliss and announces that she's never loved him and is leaving, and he reacts by saying, "Okay, but I'm keeping the remote control," the reader will be put off.

Huh? she'd say. What happened to, "But why?" or "Is this some kind of joke?" or "Is there someone else?" The character gave an unrealistic reaction, and so the reader's disbelief pounces on the story like a hawk on a bunny.

It's hard enough to keep the reader's disbelief suspended in a straight contemporary novel. Now try doing it when your story is about mutated alien larvae from Venus.

A writer of speculative fiction asks a lot of his readers. Come with me to strange lands, he says, and see bizarre things that cannot be. Before we are done you will have stood on the surface of an alien world and encountered creatures of nightmare and myth.

You might think that readers of speculative fiction give writers a pass when it comes to believability. I mean, just by purchasing a book in these genres they're already admitting a willingness to accept an unrealistic premise—talking dragons or spacefaring vampires—so why would they have a problem suspending disbelief?

Because readers of speculative fiction are smart people. They expect internal consistency and realistic reactions within even the strangest of stories.

There's the scene from the awesome movie GalaxyQuest in which some teenage fans of the Star Trek-like TV show quiz the actors about apparent inconsistencies in the technical capabilities of one of the starship's subsystems. The actor's like, "It's just a TV show, okay?" But the young fans are not deterred. They expect the show's writers to have created a fantasy world that stands up to close scrutiny.

Within the bizarre world of the story, the particulars must be realistic and consistent.

I recall doing some editorial work on a brilliant Christian fantasy novel and writing to the author a note I later found quite humorous.

The character in the story was in a subchamber of hell. She had been talking to a stone golem and some giants made from plants. After that, she revealed that she'd been in this subchamber for thousands of years. My note was exposing a minor inconsistency between what she'd said on two different pages.

I had to stop and laugh. I wasn't bothered by the unrealistic nature of the premise: a golem-talking, giant-watering, immortal in hell. What got me was that on page 283 she said the stone was blue and on page 392 she said it was teal. Hysterical.

So long as you keep things realistic within the context of your story your reader will suspend her disbelief.

And there's the element of realistic reactions. They have to remain so, even in a speculative novel. Does that sound strange? I mean, how can a reader know how a striped leapard creature from Jupiter would react to something in the story?

Here's the key: the stranger the story, the more things need to feel realistic to the reader.

In an otherworldly story the reader becomes narrowly focused on what she knows from her own reality. She grasps onto the known more tightly when drowning in a sea of unknowns.

In other words, it's actually more important for a speculative novel to be internally consistent and show realistic character reactions than in a regular novel.

The reader sees the world through the eyes of your viewpoint character. In some cases, that character is the only stable point in the kaleidescopic universe that is your story. If that viewpoint character doesn't react the way the reader would (or at least in a way that the reader finds realistic), her disbelief will set in. The stranger it gets in the story the more important it is that the few known things seem believable.

But here's the joy: if you keep your story internally consistent and you show your characters reacting and behaving realistically, your reader will follow you anywhere. She'll stand with you inside the sun's core and go with you to speak with the Sunspoterians, and her disbelief will remain happily suspended.

Tip #74: Christian Fiction No-No Number 1—The Deus Ex Machina

In Greek theatre, tragedies especially, the human characters would make a royal mess of things. And then, when it looked like there was simply no solution to it all, a god would appear and sort everything out. "You marry her, you say you're sorry, and you have to die—sorry."

This has come to be known as the deus ex machina (literally: god from the machine) because of the mechanical crane that was used to lower the actor who played the god who brought about the resolution to the story.

Such a literary device worked in ancient Greece but I hope you can see how it's really a cop-out.

Let's say you're writing a Western. You've got the bad guys surrounding the good guys in a box canyon. The pretty school marm is in the clutches of the arch-villain. And the stampede is a-comin'. The hero is tied to the train tracks and the locomotive is bearing down. There's really no good ending here.

But instead of A) letting the bad guys win for once or B) showing the hero's miraculous escape to save the day, you bring in an angel. Suddenly a bright light appears and the cattle stop in their tracks. The angel points and a lightning bolt zaps the locomotive's engine, stopping it.

This angel's not done. She zaps the arch-villain and levitates the school marm into the hero's (magically untied) arms. She sweeps her angelic wings and all the villains are turned to dust.


Well, we're certainly glad things worked out the way we wanted. But this ending doesn't feel exactly right. It kind of feels like cheating. The resolution we were hoping for happened, but no one in the story did anything to bring it about. If the angel was going to do all that, why didn't she just do it at the outset and save the characters all their running around and angst?

The reader feels cheated. The ending feels too convenient and random. She almost wishes the bad guys had won, because then at least the story would've ended in a logical way.

Your ending has to arise from your beginning. (I'll do a Tip on that one day.) It has to make sense and be organic to the story as you've been presenting it. The best endings feel inevitable and right to the reader.

A surprise ending, one in which some outside force comes in and makes everything work out correctly, just feels wrong to the reader.

Most novelists know to avoid the deus ex machina ending. They abide by the old adage: "Don't let good luck or the Good Lord save your hero." Most novelists don't go there.

But Christian novelists are especially vulnerable to using it, all the same.

We're all about writing stories that include a spiritual component, right? So why not use that component at the climax of our stories? Didn't the characters pray? Don't we want to tell readers that prayer works? What could illustrate that better than having God show up and do something miraculous at the climax of the story?

The problem is that this is still a cheesy ending. It's still God from the machine. It's still an inorganic resolution to your story.

Don't do it. Figure out a way for your hero, perhaps using divine guidance received earlier in the story, to pull off the victory. Don't let God save the day by direct intervention.

Yeah, But...

Now, there are some exceptions I can think of. When your story is expressly about the power of God, then sometimes seeing that power displayed is, in fact, the most organic resolution to your story.

For instance, in my sixth novel, Operation: FirebrandDeliverance, I tell a story about God's intervention. One character is questioning God's existence. He's heard that God is working among a fiercely persecuted people (North Koreans) and he's needing to see something like that himself. He's a doubting Thomas.

All along in the story we've seen strange and possibly miraculous goings-on. There have been reports of titanic warriors aiding the oppressed as they flee for safety. But our American characters have not seen any of this.

The climax of this story has this character doing something stupidly heroic [grin], thinking he will die in the process—mainly because he has concluded that God won't intervene and so he's going to have to.

During that action sequence mysterious warriors appear and help him escape. He thinks it's his own team come to bail him out, but when he gets away he encounters his own team at the rendezvous point—so who were those guys way back there?

It ends up being the thing he needed to answer the question his faith has been asking. Even though he is unsuccessful in what he was trying to do, he realizes now there is something to God's supernatural power. I believe God sometimes meets us right where we are and gives us exactly what we need, even though most of the time maybe He wouldn't do so.

Techincally, that story's climax uses a deus ex machina. Something besides human intervention helped our hero escape. But because the point of the whole story had been about God's power and intervention, I felt it was justified. Indeed, to not have it would've been a wrong ending, in my opinion.

You just have to be very, very cautious about using such an ending. Almost always you should err on the side of not using a divine intervention ending.

Or an angel will zap you.

Tip #75: Christian Fiction No-No Number 2—
A Sermon in the Middle of the Story

I don't know whether to call this a form of telling (see Tip #29), a fiction cliché (Tip #39), agenda-driven fiction (Tip #59), deus ex machina (Tip #74, below), or just a personal pet peeve of mine. It's clearly all of the above.

So we're reading this novel, right? It's fairly good so far. The protagonist has some pretty weighty matters he needs to think about, or maybe he's finding himself doing something he knows he shouldn't, or maybe he's seeking wisdom.

At the height of his dilemma he steps into a church or Bible study and listens to a sermon. Of course, what the pastor says is exactly what he needed to hear and contains chapter and verse for what he ought to do. He leaves the church relieved that God has solved his dilemma for him.


Well, doesn't this happen in real life? Don't we sometimes hear God's voice as we're listening to a sermon, even if what God tells us doesn't have direct bearing on what the speaker is actually talking about? So what's my issue?

My issue is that it makes for bad fiction. Yes, it happens in real life. So? You can't use the argument that if something happens in real life we ought to be able to write about it in fiction, not unless you're ready to describe your characters' every trip to the bathroom. Hey, that happens in real life.

Including a sermon in the middle of a novel is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

(By the way, this Tip refers to Bible study lessons, Sunday school lessons, or other long passages of this-is-just-what-he-needed-to-hear content, not just sermons in a church. And it applies whether the sermon comes in the middle of the novel or at the beginning or end.)

It's a bad idea because it stops the story and makes the reader listen to a bunch of blah, blah, blah. There's a reason kids squirm in church: it's boring to them. Making a reader sit through a full sermon is the equivalent of asking a five-year-old to stay interested in the adult pastor's sermon. The typical reader won't be able to do it. And won't want to try.

It's a bad idea because the reader feels preached at. This is where it begins to feel like agenda-driven fiction. If you are thinking, "My goal for this book is to get today's young people to see that MySpace is evil and the best way to do that is through a sermon, and if they're not going to go to church to hear it I'm going to bring the sermon to them and package it in a story they'll like," your book is in big trouble.

If the reader wants a sermon she'll go to church. She doesn't want a sermon in a novel.

It's a bad idea to include a sermon in a novel because it's cheating. Instead of having the protagonist come to this crucial realization through the action of the story, you just put it all on a silver platter for him. This is outright telling and it will kill your story's momentum. It's lazy storytelling.

It's a bad idea to include a sermon in a novel because it's a fiction cliché. Oh, great, he's heading to a church. What do you bet he hears a sermon that contains the answer he's been searching for? Been there, done that. No thank you.

It's a bad idea to include a sermon in a novel because it's a form of the deus ex machina no-no I wrote about last time. The protagonist doesn't have to figure anything out for himself; God reaches down and delivers it to him on demand: the perfect solution to the problem.

Does this mean you can't bring your protagonist near a church? Does it mean you can't have sermons taking place in your story? No and no. Your protagonist can spend the entire story inside a church if you want, and sermons can be going on 24/7.

Just don't include the text of those sermons in the story.

Now, you can have the pastor say something that strikes a chord in the protagonist's mind. In that case, include that statement only and summarize (or skip) the rest.

This tip, like pretty much all of them in this column, is not a law. It's my recommendation. If you feel you must have a sermon in your story somewhere, then by all means put it in.

But in my opinion a sermon is near the top of the list of things not to include in a Christian novel. It's boring, it's lecturing, it's too convenient, it's lazy, it's a cliché, and it incinerates your story's momentum in a hail of fire and brimstone. Besides that, I think it's great.   0:-)

Tip #76: Christian Fiction No-No Number 3—
The Happy Ending Is that the Person Gets Saved

This is probably the oldest and worst cliché in Christian fiction.

Oh, you know the drill: Usually it's a story about a good church girl who falls in love with the local bad boy (who is inevitably named either Damien or Devlin). He's rakishly handsome, of course, but forbidden because he's a heathen.

Throughout the book the heroine reaches out to this lost soul with the Good News, to no avail. Meanwhile, our lusty heroine is fighting her own temptations to throw off all restraint while simultaneously beginning to doubt in God's goodness.

Just when it looks like our good girl is going to do the right thing and turn away from her heart's desire in order to stay pure, God removes the scales from Damien/Devilin's eyes and he gets radically saved.

Now—glory be!—he's off the Thou Shalt Not list and she can marry him.

It's not always a romance that commits this no-no. Sometimes it's a godly mother praying for her prodigal son. Sometimes it's a godly wife praying for her straying husband. Sometimes it's a wealthy but sad widower praying for that cute young woman at Starbucks he wants to date.

Whatever the case, the happy ending of the story is when the targeted (I mean, prayed for) person gets the clue and comes to Christ.

Grrr. Don't do that.

The fact that it's a cliché ought to be reason enough to steer you away from such a thing in your novel (see Tip #39).

But the main problem with it is that such a portrayal gives a false picture of Christianity. A lost character becoming a Christian is a realistic happy ending to a book about as much as Cinderella getting married to the prince is a realistic happy ending to a movie. It makes for a nice, tidy story but it doesn't reflect reality. Marriage is hard. So is the Christian life.

Sometimes Christian novelists, in our zeal to reach readers with the gospel, do those very readers a disservice. If we depict Christianity as all-happy and the end-all solution to life's problems, what will happen if someone takes our advice and becomes a Christian based on our recommendation?

When that person discovers that the bills don't get miraculously paid and the disease doesn't magically disappear and Mr. or Mrs. Right doesn't instantly come along (as advertised in that Christian novel she read), what will happen to that person's faith?

And in my experience when a person becomes a Christian, that's when his problems start. Suddenly he appears on the devil's radar and Big D sends a boatload of troubles his way to discourage him about this new Christianity thing.

In my two trilogies I've had exactly two people get saved. In both trilogies it happened in book 3 after both the character and the reader have had a good long time to see what real Christianity looks like in the lives of other characters. And in both instances life doesn't get instantly better for the person who's just come to Christ. In the first one in particular, his life gets miserable pretty quickly after singing "I Surrender All."

It's not wrong to show characters seeing the light and coming to Christ in your fiction. Just please don't depict it as an "and they lived happily ever after" ending. Walking with Christ is hard and lonely and doesn't usually go with any miraculous change in the person's life circumstances.

There is, for the Christian, an ultimate Happy Ending, of course. Just don't let coming to Christ be the happy ending in your Christian fiction.

Tip #77: Christian Fiction No-No Number 4—
Including Verboten Content

I wanted this series to be about the craft of fiction and pitfalls that are unique to Christian fiction. The first three no-nos in the series do that.

But then I asked a number of my fellow published Christian novelists what no-nos they could think of, and the responses I received were more along the lines of little things that can't be included. So I've grouped those together into one tip: don't include this verboten content.

Mainly it's profanity and sexual content, though sometimes it also includes alcohol and drug use, certain taboo topics, and the use of God's name.

These are more tactical-level no-nos, rather than the strategic ones I've been talking about so far. But that's okay. It bears mentioning.

When you write fiction for a typical Christian publishing company, they're going to impose a strict set of guidelines on you regarding what content you can and can't put in your book.

You Can't Say That

It starts with cussing. I've discussed this at length in this column (Tips 55 and 56) so I won't go through it much again here. Suffice it to say that if you have a sailor who swears like one, you can't include his words in your book. Even more everyday swearing will be disallowed by the publisher.

Now, I'm told that certain "enlightened" editors and publishing companies are allowing a word or two to sneak through, or else they're pushing the boundaries for what minor league cursing can be slipped through. Perhaps that is so, and if you're one who wants to see more of this, you can rejoice.

The reasoning about the censorship goes like this: our audience does not want to read worldly content in the fiction they consume. They can find that aplenty in Barnes & Noble. They want fiction that is free from the things that bother them most about secular fiction. (Besides, if they complain to the bookstore then we'll hear it and it will go badly.)

I happen to agree with that logic. I personally turn to Christian fiction to find excellent stories that set my imagination to soaring, but I don't want to have to tolerate that kind of garbage like I do when I'm reading a secular book or watching a secular movie.

But I know many godly Christians (readers and writers, both) who feel Christian fiction would be improved by the addition of "authentic" profanity from certain characters. That's perfectly okay with me. I just don't agree for me.

Keeping His Name Holy

Along with cussing goes using the Lord's name in vain. Some novelists try to sneak by an expletive and justify it as a prayer. I think that's silly, but there you go. People do get offended when characters take His name in vain.

While novelists may chafe at the restriction that their characters can't mention God's name unless in prayer or a discussion of doctrine, it is nevertheless what the majority of Christians who buy this fiction wants.

Another argument used to minimize all the content I'm discussing is the slippery slope. If we let one Christian novelist do it, then all of them will want to. Where do we draw the line if we remove the go/no-go line we have now?

It's a decent argument, even though I personally feel it's becoming an irrelevant discussion. Soon Internet presses will bypass the CBA industry altogether and thereby sidestep the large body of little old ladies from Pasadena who have been holding the line on this until now. Soon you'll be able to get Christian fiction with all manner of profanity and everything else in it, if that's your preference.

The other problem with the prohibition on swearing is that the censors don't all agree about what constitutes profanity or cursing. For instance, a writer friend of mine was prevented from having a character say "hell" in his novel, but the censor patrol didn't have a problem with characters saying "slut" and "whore" in the same book. Go figure.

Some Better Not Like It Hot

The third main category of lower-case no-nos is sexual content. While we can all think of Christian novels that deal with mature themes (and I'm grateful for such fiction) it's still a no-no to have graphic sexual content or even titillating material in a Christian novel.

In other words, no sex scenes.

The novelists who complain about this usually do so in the same way they complain about not being able to use profanity. They feel they ought to be able to show people talking and acting like people actually talk and act. If they cuss, they should be allowed to cuss on the page. If they have sex, they ought to be allowed to have sex on the page.

I hear what they're saying. I commiserate. But once again I personally disagree. People go to the bathroom in real life—do we need to see that on the page? People regularly have gas in real life? Do we need to see it in the book? No.

Still, it does put something of a damper on the stories you can tell if you're not allowed to show a depraved person being, you know, depraved. You can accomplish the same feeling through an exertion of high-level creativity, but cussing and sexing it up on the page would certainly be easier.

One novelist friend told me she was told by her publisher that her book's rape scene had to be done with the participants fully clothed. [One wonders how...]

Another told me that her publisher said she couldn't have a wife come into a bedroom with the husband under the covers naked. He had to be standing beside the bed, fully clothed.

Then there's alcohol consumption and drug use. Certain publishers won't let you do that at all. Some will let you, but only if it's done by the bad guy or the person who is later going to get saved (see Tip #76).

The Wild West of Christian Fiction Publishing

We might want to complain about the prudish publishers who foist this censorship upon us. And in some cases that's truly what's going on. But usually these restrictions are coming from the people who read Christian fiction (see Tips 16-18 to see who that is). The publishers have learned the hard way what the market will allow. They're only trying to save you and them headaches later.

There's good news, though, if you're wanting to see the horizons broaden within Christian fiction. Certain topics that were once taboo—like homosexuality or interracial marriage—are now nothing new in CBA fiction.

Recently a writer friend was being told by her publisher that she couldn't write about a married person having an affair with a single person—unless she found a precedent. She polled her published writer friends and found a goodly number of books that did that very thing and didn't cause an uproar.

So the topics are broadening and maturing. That's a good thing. And those who agitate at the borders of what content can be included are slowly making progress. That's a good thing or not depending on your perspective.

But again, all of it will soon be irrelevant in the age of digital printing. When the consumer buys directly from the publisher via the Internet, there is no gatekeeper patrol of Pasadenan Ladies. (To be sure, those people are doing what they feel is godly and most right.) We're about to enter a Wild West of Christian publishing.

Soon, whatever the novelist wants to put in his book will get put in his book, and you'll be able to buy it. In many ways this will be a good thing: freedom from artificial and outdated restrictions, the ability to reach a younger audience, and the liberty to publish genres that have been squelched by the CBA until now. But in other ways it could be a very bad thing. We may find ourselves wishing for the good old days of censorship.

More likely, we'll just have to be careful what we buy. We'll have to find the publishers we can trust, the ones who include or disallow things at a level we're most comfortable with.


Tip #78: Your Ending Must Arise from Your Beginning

I've alluded to this idea a number of times throughout this column (see Tips 40 and 11, for instance), but I've never come right out and said it. So here goes.

The way your story resolves must arise organically from how it begins. Here's another way of saying it: your ending must be built in to your beginning.

I can't tell you how many unpublished novels I've read in which the ending has absolutely nothing to do with the beginning.

Like for 200 pages we've been dealing with this guy's decision of whether or not to euthanize his elderly mother who has been in a coma for 20 years, but the ending is about him foiling a bank robbery.

Or for 300 pages we've been following this woman's story to free a group of imprisoned slaves, but the ending is a courtroom drama in which the hero proves that a law about building codes should be illegal.

This is Plant and Payoff (Tips 11-12) on a large scale. How you begin your story establishes for the reader what your story is going to be about. And your poor reader therefore comes to expect that the ending of the story is going to be about that very thing, that thing that the story began with.

I know some novelists like to just launch into a story with no clue about where it's heading. Hey, that's cool with me. Even those writers who use detailed outlines do include some spontaneity when they have a better idea while writing.

So maybe you don't worry about the beginning as you're writing. Maybe you just write the thing and see where you end up. That's fine.

Just be sure to go back and fix the beginning.

Once you've found your story and discovered where it's going, you can go back and rewrite your beginning so the reader will be able to see (in retrospect only, perhaps) that, ah, yes, the seeds of the book's resolution were perceptible in the beginning.

If you write a novel that is largely based on the protagonist's inner journey (Tip #3), this will be no problem for you. That's because you've adhered to Tip #15 and written an introductory scene for your character that shows, among other things, his "knot" or problem. (You have, right?)

Then the whole book is about him coming to grips with that problem. And then the story's climax is his moment of truth in which he'll decide how he's going to deal with that problem.

Just by nature of including a good character arc you will have ensured that your ending is planted in the beginning.

One reason novelists don't do this, I think, is that they're not entirely sure what their book is about.

If that's you because you're a seat-of-the-pants novelist, then fine. Just come back later and fix the beginning so that it points to where you ended up going.

But if that's you because you just liked how you started the book, even though you do have to admit that it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the story, then you need to take a good hard look at that decision.

A story that resolves in a way other than what was implied by how it began will be a story that frustrates its readers.

Imagine if Chariots of Fire were to begin with a man dreaming to run in the Olympics and yet actually be about his ordeal with a difficult postal clerk.

Imagine of The Lord of the Rings were to begin with Frodo receiving the Ring of Power sought by the Evil Lord Sauron and yet the whole trilogy really being about his decision to form a grunge band called The Shirelings.

If you're not sure your current story's ending arises out of your beginning, maybe you still haven't found your story. If you want to just keep moving forward until you do, that's a good way to go. Just be sure to come back and revise your beginning so that the ending is planted there.

But if you'd like to find your story now, read Tip #50. I am beginning to think that Tip #50 may be the best piece of advice on this whole column. Check it out.

However you get there, be sure you do. Your story's ending must have grown organically from how it began and how it's developed all along the way. Do that, and you're well on your way to making sure your reader is satisfied with your story.

Tip #79: Realize that You're Living in a Publishing Revolution

When it comes to technology, it's hard to see when you're in the midst of a revolution. Usually it's only in hindshight that you can see how drastically and quickly things changed on you. While you were in it, everything seemed pretty normal and subtle.

Like with the Internet. I remember in 1994 being the first person on my block to own a modem for my computer. I thought it was cool to be able to access information right from my home computer—though it did tie up the phone line...

Little did I know what an incredible shift I was living through. Now I can see it: before, if I wanted information I had to go to a library or interview someone in person or on the phone; after, I have literally the world's information at my fingertips. It's like having a pamphlet on a subject and then being given a 30-volume encyclopedia on the same subject. Yikes. But at the time, it didn't seem like that big a change.

Similar quiet but enormous revolutions happened with VCRs and microwave ovens and fax machines. It happened with cell phones and mp3 players and YouTube. Each one changed how we live and work and play.

Another revolution is happening right now in publishing.

Power to the People

Most people—including most people in the Christian publishing industry—have not yet realized that we are in this new revolution. They still think the old ways will be true forever. But it would behoove you as a writer to realize it now.

With the Internet, the shift was from someone else's possession of the information to the user's possession of the information. Now the user could get whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it, in just about any form he craved it. Instead of hoping that a book would come out that answered your questions, you could go out and find the information yourself—or the e-mail address of the person who could answer them. The power shifted to the user.

So with YouTube. Instead of waiting around for someone to produce the kind of TV or movie you wanted to see, you can just make it yourself. Post it on YouTube and, if you play your cards right, millions of people will watch your show. The power is shifting from the production companies to the people themselves.

The same shift is happening in publishing.

The days are over when major publishing companies—secular or Christian—can hold us all hostage to their prices, their authors, and the books they think we should or will read. The power is shifting from the traditional content providers (the publishers) to the people themselves.

The key enablement for this revolution is a technology called print-on-demand (POD). Instead of using an offset printer to do print runs of 10,000 copies of a book, a publisher can now go to a POD printer and produce just 1 copy, if that's all it needs.

That doesn't sound like much of a revolution, but bear with me. We can't usually see them when we're in them.

If you print 10,000 copies, you have to do something with them. You have to pay to have them shipped to your warehouse(s). You have to pay for warehouse space or build your own. You have to have a sales staff to present your new book catalogue to distributor and bookstore chains. You have to pay to ship books to distributors or bookstores or their warehouses. You have to have a collections department making sure everyone pays his bills. And you have to have a returns department taking care of returns from bookstores when copies don't sell.

That's a lot of overhead.

Now look what you can do if you use print-on-demand: you get an order for a book, you have the POD company print the book, and the POD printer ships it directly to the consumer. The end.

That, my friend, is revolutionary.

When you're selling directly to the consumer over the Internet, you don't need to get your books into bookstores. So you don't need a sales staff to try to get your books into bookstores. And you don't need to print tens of thousands of copies and store them all in warehouses, hoping to one day send them to bookstores.

And if you're not trying to get the bookstore chains and distributors to buy your books, then you don't have to abide by some of their silly little rules. The monolithic bookstore powers (say Wal-Mart) no longer have control over what a publisher ought to publish. The little old lady in Pasadena who might complain to a bookstore about your book no longer has the ability to dictate what kinds of books do or don't get published. The faceless publishers no longer get to tell you what kind of book you'll probably want to read.

The power is shifting away from the traditional content providers and gatekeepers and into the hands of the people.

The Age of the Indie Press

Now virtually anyone can be a publisher. All you need is a product people want and a means to get it to them.

And that means is print-on-demand.

As an aside, I personally don't believe the printed book will die—at least not in the foreseeable future. People love holding it, smelling it, and knowing by weight and a glance how fat it is and how much of it they still have left to read. Technically, we've been able to get content to people electronically for more than a decade, with the rise of the Internet. But e-publishing hasn't been the revolution everyone expected, and I don't think it will become so.

But with POD, you can produce a print book just like the ones in the bookstores and get it directly to the customer who wants it. That's what's going to make this revolution finally happen.

Combine POD technology with the omni-accessibility of the Internet and you've got all the ingredients you need.

Now, if two or three folks want to get together and create a publishing company, they can. And they don't need millions, or even tens of thousands, of dollars to do it.

This is precisely what we're going to see. As people figure out that they can create exactly the kind of content they think the world needs, and that they can provide it in a form that is just like what's in the bookstores, for not much money at all, they're going to start doing it. In droves.

Truly, this is the age of the indie press.

That's a good thing on so many levels. Wider array of titles and authors and genres. A lessened set of prohibitions from the industry itself (which will sometimes be a good thing and sometimes not). And more.

The old way has died, even though those in it don't see it yet. And a new day has dawned.

Why You Should Care

As a writer you should be aware of this change. Why? Because when you get that 40th rejection letter from a traditional Christian publishing company, you can rejoice that their reign is essentially over. A thousand new avenues are open to you.

It's good for you to know because you can start writing that novel the way it should be written, not the way you think you need to write it to have a hope of getting it published though a CBA publisher.

It's good for you to know because you can begin to keep an eye out for the hundreds of new markets that will be opening up for your writing, as indie presses begin to sprout up. (You should know that I'm launching one of my own, too. Marcher Lord Press goes live, God willing, on October 1, 2008.)

And it's good for you to know because maybe, just maybe, you may want to become an indie publisher yourself.

Viva la revolucion.


Tip #80: Spend the Right Amount of Page-Time on the Things in Your Story

Readers know how to interpret fiction. They understand that how you start your book is a clue to them about the essence of what the story is going to be about. (You're conscious of that, right?) They understand that something you talk about in the story is important to it (because you're not including things they don't need to know, right?).

We don't realize it, but even after we learn how to read we still have to learn how to read fiction. It's not the same. There are conventions and formats and expectations and clues embedded in fiction that we come to understand, and thus understand this art form better.

It's like in movies. When you're watching a horror movie and a teenage couple start to make out, you know they're dead. How did you know that? Because you've come to understand how horror movies work. When you're watching a romantic comedy and you see this handsome man step onstage and really irritate the beautiful heroine, you know they're destined for one another.

And you know that if you ever find yourself in a horror movie to never, ever walk backwards. Right? Don't say I didn't warn you.

In fiction, readers can "read" fiction like viewers read movies. They know what certain things mean. They know what to expect if X happens. If they see Y, they know it's important.

You can use these things to your advantage (by intentionally misleading them for a surprise, for instance), but you must know them to be sure you're not leading them to believe something you didn't intend.


What in the world is Jeff going on about now?

I'm talking about proportion: spending the right amount of page-time on the various things in your story.

Browne and King (see Tip #10) talk about proportion in their book. It bears underlining, especially as it involves reader expectation.

Let's say you've spent 250 pages building up to a moment: the hero is going into the dragon's lair to face his fears and the devourer of his village. The reader is all up for this moment. It's the climax of the book. The dragon has been built up as this horrible, almost immortal monster.

But you handle the whole confrontation in one page.

The hero goes in, says something heroic, ducks a fireball, and plunges his sword into the beast's weak spot. Tada!

Trust me, your reader is going to be mad at you. She's going to say, "Wait a minute—he killed the dragon that easily? Like one little juke and the monster's dead? I thought it was this fearsome demigod. What gives?"

You may've written a beautiful confrontation scene for this heroic moment, your best writing in the whole book. But it simply wasn't long enough to feel right. It was out of proportion.

Imagine the end of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace done like this. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have fought Darth Maul all through the inner laser rooms (why were those lasers there, anyway?) and Darth Maul has killed Qui-Gon. Finally the pink laser thingies (that did what exactly?) open and Obi-Wan comes face to face with Darth Maul.

We're expecting this awesome duel between what are essentially mirror images: each the opposite of the other. But instead of a great duel, Obi-Wan takes one swipe at him and cuts him in half.

You'd be like, "What? He was that easy to kill? Why didn't Qui-Gon just do that then?"

This all sounds so obvious, but I see this a lot in the unpublished manuscripts I work on.

Here's the rule: What you spend a lot of time building up, the reader will think is more important. What you spend almost no time on, the reader will think is not important.

It works in reverse, too. Let's say you just breeze by something early in the story, like a character's decision, but you do it very quickly. To the reader this seems like a minor moment, something not worthy of much attention because the author didn't give it much attention. But then later we discover that this was the central turning point of the entire story. We'd be like, "Huh? That was the pivotal decision? How'd I miss it?"

You spent so little time on it, your reader thought it was inconsequential. It was out of proportion to how important it ended up being.

Now, in a mystery, you play with this intentionally. You hide something in plain view by treating it as inconsequential, a little detail that ends up solving the entire case. But most of the time you want to use your reader's expectations about proportion to lead her in the right direction.

What we're talking about is another form of plant and payoff (see Tips 11-12). When you spend a goodly amount of time on something, you're telling the reader that this thing is important. She'll expect it to play a major role in the story. If it doesn't—or if it plays too small or large a role in the story, based on how much page-time you've given it in the beginning—she'll be upset with you. The payoff and the plant have to match one another. They have to be in correct proportion to one another.

The Camera

I talk a lot about how a novelist is really a filmmaker. I think it's a very useful paradigm shift for the writer to make. When you think you're telling a story visually, you do things differently (and more correctly) than if you think of yourself as another metaphor, like a storyteller spinning a yarn beside a campfire.

Here's another time when the cinema metaphor helps us.

Think about a movie that repeatedly cuts back to some image. Let's say it's an approaching train. Every time we cut back, the train is closer. We come to understand that this train is important somehow, even if nothing else in the movie has referenced it. We begin wondering what that train has to do with the main story. We make up theories and have fun trying to predict it.

Then the movie ends and we never see the train again.

What! We'd be angry, I think. We'd be like, "What was that stupid train about?"

By making us look at that train for so long and so many times, by pointing the camera on it and letting the footage roll, the filmmaker informed us that this train was important to the story. The more he made us look at it, the more important we thought it was.

Keep that word picture in your mind as you write you own fiction. Spend the right amount of page-time on the various things in your novel.

If it's important—or is going to later prove to have been important—you'd better spend quite a bit of page-time on it. You'd better point the camera of your narrative on it for a long time. If it's not important, don't point the camera at it for very long.

Whatever you spend a lot of page-time on, whatever you point that camera at for a long time, will be what your reader will expect to be important.

Make sure you're using that knowledge to the betterment of your story. Keep those expectations in mind, keep the elements of your tale in correct proportion, and your reader will rise up and call you blessed.

Want More Tips?

Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.