I’m sure most of you have heard this advice at some point during your writing career, but never is it more important than when infusing God into inspirational fiction. Writing what you know affects characterization to the Nth degree. In Jamie West’s most recent post, Bringing God into the Story, she makes the point that God should be infused into the story in a non-preachy manner, and not plugged in as an afterthought. At its most basic level, this means write what you know. When we construct a scene, we want to pull the reader into the story so deeply that she forgets she’s reading. We want the reader to empathize, laugh, cry—feel every emotion our viewpoint character is feeling, but how can we do that if we remain outside the character ourselves? We have to envision ourselves as the viewpoint character. We need to roll the scene in our mind’s eye as though we were actors in the play we are creating with our words. What do we see, feel, smell? And then, we need to draw upon our own similar experiences—or experiences that produced the same emotions—to recreate that same emotion in our scene. When we become the viewpoint character, our writing is more active than passive, more show over tell. (active vs. passive, show vs. tell, and write what you know are all intertwined.)
To that end, if we’ve never been to the beach, felt the grittiness of sand, tasted sea spray, had our eyes burn from the salt water, how can we bring that scene to life with such vividness that we can take the reader to that place? I’ll admit it can be done with much research and input from people who have had the experience, but it’s exponentially more difficult than if we’ve experienced those things first-hand. Thus it is with infusing God into our stories.
How can we adequately convey a devout heroine who is so close to Our Lord that she feels His presence with her in the ordinary and automatically relies on him in times of strife, if we have not experienced that intimacy with God? How can we believably convey the heartbreaking catalyst for our Doubting Thomas of a hero if we’ve never experienced heartbreak or a moment of doubt in our own faith? Take these two examples:
The sky was beautiful. White puffy clouds gave the bright blue backdrop a softness that warmed Jane’s heart. Truly God was present here. She could feel Him with all her being, and all the stress from yesterday faded away and she felt at peace.
Jane closed her eyes to imbibe the beauty of the morning. Jesus, thank you for this day. Tranquility washed over her, all the stress from yesterday draining away as she languished in the presence of the Lord. Her breathing slowed and her heartbeat became a steady rhythm that sang a hymn of praise as the Holy Spirit rejuvenated her soul.
Sure God existed, Joe thought. He existed all right. He just didn’t give a flying flip on a trapeze about what happened to people. Joe’d learned long ago not to trust in a God who ignored prayers and relished in seeing people suffer, after all, he’d prayed for David to be OK. David was dead. He’d prayed for the nightmares to stop. They still came every night. God didn’t care. Joe wanted to believe He did. But, He didn’t.
Joe awoke in a cold sweat, images of his brother’s lifeless body still vivid. He squeezed his eyes closed. Please God, let it stop. It didn’t. David’s body, glistening with sand and seawater, flashed through Joe’s mind. Dead eyes stared at him. His heart shattered anew. Joe tore open his eyes. He wrenched back the covers and got out of bed. “Why?” he screamed. “Why?” he whispered. Sobs rose in his throat, choked him as collapsed to the carpeted floor. Why did he even continue to pray? God had made His decision plain: You’re on your own, Joe. Spent, he dragged himself off the floor and crawled back into bed.
In each of these sets of examples, the same concepts are put forth in paragraph within the set, yet the first paragraphs are all tell (rather than show). They leave the reader outside looking in. They serve the purpose of the scene OK, but God isn’t “real” because the character isn’t real; and the character isn’t real because there is no emotional tie.
The second paragraphs show rather than tell. God is real to Jane, so He is real to the reader. Joe is in pain. He feel abandoned by God and that comes across in the paragraph much more vividly than in the first paragraph.
If we know God, He will show up in our writing without any effort, just as recreating emotion we’ve personally experienced doesn’t pose as much of a challenge as trying to write about something for which we have no point of reference.