by Cathy Gohlke
We all crave stories that raise our moral bar, lift us higher, that show us clearly how we, too, can live cleaner, purer lives with hearts on fire. But no one wants to be preached to in a novel.
And yet that’s just the challenge Christian writers face. We’re desperate to share the love, the very breath of God in story form. But, in our enthusiasm it’s so easy to get carried away, to tell the stories just as we perceive God first laid them on our hearts-as He transformed our thinking-rather than to allow His Spirit to help us show the transformation in the lives of our characters.
Jesus crafted the perfect story plan. In His parables, He inspired through illustrations-how a woman cleaned her house inch by inch to find a penny; how birds of the air nested, finding rest in a mustard tree that grew from the smallest of seeds; how leaven in a loaf of bread permeates the whole to change the entire loaf; how a farmer sows grain on diverse ground that produces a variety of harvests-or lack thereof; how wise virgins fill their lamps with oil before the time of need and foolish virgins don’t, and the result of that due diligence versus neglect. And all the while His hearers knew-and readers today know-that He was talking about more than pennies, or seeds, or yeast, or soil, or lamps.
Jesus didn’t need to moralize because the conclusions were obvious. He simply shared-in the briefest of all stories (demonstrating that less is definitely more)-an image, an illustration, an idea to provoke thought in his hearers so they might draw their own conclusions, and in drawing conclusions, question their own lives. He perfectly “showed without telling,” leading the recipients to their own “aha moment.” No finger shaking in the face required.
Around each of Jesus’ parables we could build an entire novel, and many among us have done just that. And yet, even in the space of 100,000 words we’d be challenged not to “preach,” but to inspire, and to paint a picture as vividly as He did in those few words.
That’s what great novels aspire to do. Inspire. Convict. Provoke thought. Raise Questions. Encourage. Challenge. Draw conclusions through “aha moments.”
Think about His parables-run the list through your mind. Now, imagine a story-historical or contemporary or futuristic, whatever your genre-for the one that strikes closest to home for you in this moment. Close your eyes and envision the characters going about their business, showing precisely what Jesus said about them, knowing their actions tell a much bigger story. What is that bigger story? What is the backstory that brought them to this point? What are their relationships? Where are they going? And, so importantly, what are their parallel actions to Jesus’ parable?
There is no better teacher than Jesus, and no greater role model to imitate in writing or life than the Author and finisher of our faith.
Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of Saving Amelie, Band of Sisters, Promise Me This (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2012), William Henry Is a Fine Name, and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2008, and winner of the Carol Award). Find her at www.cathygohlke.com and on Fb at CathyGohlkeBooks.