Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Creating a Spiritual Theme in Your Novel

How do I weave a spiritual thread into my suspense novels with the intent of not sounding preachy? My main rule:

I don't think about it.

When my readers pick up one of my Seatbelt Suspense® novels, they can expect:

1. A fast pace, starting with page one
2. Multiple twists
3. Multi-layered characterization
4. A spiritual element that arises naturally from the cataclysmic events

When developing a story, I plot with points #1-3 in mind. In order to achieve #4, most of the time I set it aside completely. I plot what I can of the novel, then start writing. As I write, the characters deepen. My protagonist is always in a heap of trouble, to put it mildly. As she fights her way through the melee, spiritual questions will naturally arise. Most people, even if they've given little thought to God, tend to start thinking eternally when faced with crises and possible death. As I continue to write I ask myself:

1. Where was this character regarding her relationship to God on page one? Some of my protagonists aren't Christians at all in the beginning.

2. Given her background and the story events, what sort of doubts/questions would she begin to have? When a protagonist is well characterized, readers will feel her questioning in their own hearts.

3. How much time passes between the beginning of the book and the end? Many of my stories take place in very little time--some even in 24 hours or less. The spiritual character arc in such a short time can't be big, or it won't seem natural. But it's all relative. A match in deep darkness seems very bright. So a small moving toward God, or even a greater understanding in some way, can hit home as a bright spiritual truth.

Some tips to guide you in your own writing:

1. Story rules--let your characters drive the spiritual theme. Don't try to force the theme to be any stronger, or any more subtle, than what is natural for your story.

2. Take risks. Granted, the level of risk depends on many things--your publisher, your readership and genre. What about writing a story in which the spiritual element is entirely beneath the surface? Or writing a story in which the protagonist doesn't accept the spiritual truth presented to him/her?

Recently I watched The Godfather III again. In this final part of The Godfather saga, Michael Corleone desperately wants out of the Mafia. He wants to become a "legitimate" businessman. And he longs for true redemption, realizing that his style of life has cost him one family member after another. The movie incorporates the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana--which takes place on Easter Sunday and reenacts the crucifixion and resurrection. In attending this opera Michael is exposed to the promise of true redemption. He's also exposed to the promise of redemption through a conversation with Cardinal Lamberto, a truly spiritual priest who urges Michael to take his first confession in 30 years. Yet Michael keeps allowing himself to be drawn back into his old murderous lifestyle. In the end of the movie, Michael is an old man, sitting in a garden. There, all alone, he dies and falls from his chair to the ground.

I found the spiritual theme of Christ's offered redemption to be strong in this secular movie. In fact, I think it was strenghtened by the fact that the protagonist saw the Truth, was offered the Truth, but did not take it. And so he died alone and unredeemed. What a wasted life. But it was absolutely natural and right for the kind of man Michael Corleone was--and continued to choose to be.

3. Be prepared for some criticism. You won't please everyone with your level of spiritual theme, no matter how natural it is to the story. There will always be someone who says it's too strong, while another criticizes you for not including enough of it. But if you follow #1--Story rules--you'll know the spiritual content is just right for that particular story.

How about you? Do you find yourself trying to force spiritual theme/content into your novel? Do you think you have too weak of a spiritual theme? How might your protagonist(s) lead you in making it just right?


Anonymous said...

Thanks Brandilyn for helping me to keep the focus on the story and letting the spiritual side come as a result. I'm at the beginning of the writing process, and this was quite timely advice! :)


Timothy Fish said...

For me, it seems to depend much more on the story than on the characters. If the story isn’t right for a strong spiritual theme, I see no reason to force one into it. The first novel I wrote had little in the way of a spiritual theme, but How to Become a Bible Character is the kind of story that the plan of salvation shows up naturally several different times. For the Love of a Devil is based on Hosea, so the story has the same theme as the biblical account, but the result is a theme that is deeply woven into the story. With my next book, And Thy House, once I decided that the story was going to be about a new Christian trying to win his lost children to the Lord, there was no need to try to force more of a spiritual theme on the story. A spiritual theme comes naturally from that kind of story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this!
It's really helpful concerning my current project. I knew I wanted to include a spiritual element, but I didn't want it to be so overwhelming as to turn off an unbeliever. I will go back to the story with your thoughts in mind. Hopefully, I will see that I have put the story first and let the spiritual theme flow with it.
Posts like this are always a big help! Thanks again.

Liberty Speidel said...

Very helpful, and very timely. My NaNo project was my first overtly 'this WILL be a CBA book' writing project, and while my MC in there walked in as a born-again Christian, most of the rest of the cast isn't. Definitely helpful for when I go back for revision! :)

Thanks for an excellent post, Brandilyn!

misswrite said...

Best advice ever on the spiritual aspect of novel writing.