Fiction Writing Tips 71–80
Welcome to the eighth page of Fiction Writing Tips feature. Here you will find tips 71
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Prologue (in which you do Tip #20).
40 pages in the main protagonist's storyline
(begun with a Tip
introduction and then launching the main story; be sure to show
the character's flaw (or "knot") as described in Tip #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).
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
Now give us 10-15 pages introducing your third storyline and set of characters.
Then circle back to protagonist #2 for 10 pages
Followed by a solid 20-25 pages in the main
viewpoint character's story.
Now pick your fourth most important viewpoint
character and introduce him or her in 15 pages or so.
Circle around for 10-page scenes in storylines
#2 and #3.
Followed by a major scene in the main
protagonist's storyline (you're keeping the plates spinning, you
Then you can introduce your fifth
Followed by an update from at least one of the
Then you can introduce your sixth
Followed by a major scene from your main
And updates from the others.
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
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
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
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
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
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
In fiction, you create emphasis by giving chapter 1
(and the first 40 pages) to your main storyline and then circling back to
Even an epic must have a focus.
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Christian Fiction No-No Number 1—The Deus Ex
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
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
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."
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
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.
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: Firebrand—Deliverance, 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
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.
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
#59), deus ex machina (Tip #74, below),
or just a personal pet peeve of mine. It's clearly all of the
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
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
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
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:-)
Christian Fiction No-No Number 3—
The Happy Ending
Is that the Person Gets Saved
This is probably the oldest and worst cliché in
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
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
Whatever the case, the happy ending of the story is
when the targeted (I mean, prayed for) person gets the clue and comes to
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
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
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
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 No-No Number 4—
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
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
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
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
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
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
Some Better Not Like It
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Another revolution is happening right now in
Power to the
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
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
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
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).
The old way has died, even though those in it don't
see it yet. And a new day has dawned.
Why You Should
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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