Wednesday, August 29, 2007

WORKSHOP: Weaving in a Spiritual thread

Dear Susan,

“Wow you've done it again! That book was fantastic. You have a way of developing believable characters that suck you into the story as if you where there. I can relate to your characters like a really "good" Sunday sermon. I don't know why or how, but your books have stirred in me a new sense of faith. Your messages have hit home and I am seeking my place with God, and how I fit into the picture in his eyes.” From Reader Melissa E.

I love those kind of letters! People often ask me what I write – my answer (because I’m all over the place in genre!) is - I write Novels with a Christian World View. But inside, I’m really wanting to say – I write 4 dimensional stories. I believe that with Christian fiction, because it deals with not only the physical and emotional sides of a character, but also the spiritual side, we are getting a “full-bodied” view of a character. More than that, however, we also get a glimpse inside the “4th” dimension – the Great Plot, which is God at work to draw people to Himself. I strive to write the deeper story, the one that changes lives.

But I don’t want the spiritual plot to be so thick that it strangles my reader. I want it to intrigue, to draw my reader deeper, to allow them to look at the issues and wrestle with them without feeling as though they are told what to believe and think. If the spiritual thread is so thickly woven that they find themselves entangled, even strangling, then the book isn’t a fiction story – but a non-fiction dissertation.

But each writer is different, just as each Christian is different. So, how do we weave in a spiritual thread that enhances the story, and blesses the reader?

1. First, you want to define your thickness of yarn…What kind of spiritual depth are you going to put into your story? What are comfortable reading, yourself? Are you the kind of reader who enjoys seeing the spiritual epiphany drawn out for you? Or would you rather read an allegory, and discuss the deeper meaning over a venti decaf latte?

Consider the different degrees of “spirituality” offered by today’s hottest CBA authors:

Ted Dekker – His themes – ie, the inner struggle between light and darkness, or even a study of the book of Romans -- are embedded in his plots without even mentioning scripture. But they allegory can’t be missed, and thus, the message that much more profound.

Brock and Bodie Theone – Writer’s of Biblical fiction (as well as historical fiction) tell stories of Christians caught in dark times, and their characters lead by example.

Francine Rivers -- Who doesn’t want to be like Hadassah? (Mark of the Lion series?) More than that, her books, sprinkled with scripture, are about people just like us, who struggle, and win. She helps us see the trust through the eyes of her characters.

Dee Henderson – Master writer Dee draws us in with her thematic plots, the angst of her heroic-yet-flawed characters, and allows us to see hwo scripture, in the hands of saved friends, works to redeem.

Frank Peretti – He’s a master of taking us “behind the veil” to the spiritual battles waging around us, letting us decide which side we want to be on.

My personal bent – I believe scripture is the catalyst that changes people. I like to weave in one particular verse that I hinge the entire story on, and let it redeem the mind and hearts of my characters.

So, now you know what kind of story you want to write – now, how tight is your weave and where do you start working it into your story?

Obviously, as in all stories, you want to start with a story question – and the same thing goes for the spiritual thread. Whether is it a story about a man fighting his own demons of sin (Dekker: Three), or a woman facing her husband’s career as a pastor (Rivers: Shofar Blew), your character will begin in a place of spiritual unrest. Defining that for the reader, through metaphor, or dialogue or situation will give you a place to go, spiritually.

2. But how do you discover your character’s spiritual darkness? I begin with a simple interview. Ask your character what the major catalysts for change were in his/her life, and how did that mold his spiritual thinking? Did he/she have any God moments as a child? What was his/her darkest moment in their lives and how has that affected their worldview today? What now keeps them from walking with God? The key is to discover where they are spiritually.

3. Then, you need to ask them what holds them back from a relationship with God? Try and boil it down to one sentence.

i.e. in my book Happily Ever After, my heroine, Mona needed to trust God and forgive herself (accept God’s forgiveness). My hero, Joe needed to forgive his father.

Ie, in Francine River’s book, Redeeming Love – Angel needed to accept God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and then see Hosea as God’s instrument to love her.

Once you’ve discovered their spiritual state, and what they need, then you can move onto their journey.

Your character is most likely beginning in a place of reluctant contentment spiritually. They may not like their worldview, but it’s all they have. However, in stories, as in life, God will bring someone to their darkest moment so that His light shines brightest. He wants people to reach up and grab a hold of him, and this is what your character should do. Your job is to plot their spiritual demise. The point is to bring them to their darkest moment, when they want to give up and they have no where else to turn.

I’ve used, for years, what I call, the D’s. (For more information on the “D’s” pick up “Getting into character” by Brandilyn Collins)

Desire – What is your character’s spiritual desire? Or need?

Distancing – What has caused this need?

Denial – What deepens their need?

Destruction – What brings them to a place where they are despondent.

Desolation – Based on their spiritual needs, what breaks them?

Delight – Using scripture, or some other verse, metaphor, hymn, song, conversation, etc what can restore them with a Biblical truth?

Let’s see how this works in a secular book, and how the story might have been adapted for the Christian market.

In The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, the heroine is overwhelmed with her upcoming wedding. She’s afraid, and she doesn’t know why. Her mother’s friends, the Ya Yas, know why and they kidnap her to help her sort through it. It’s all very traumatic for her, and at one point during the unraveling of history, she wants to give up. She calls her fiancé and calls off the wedding. However, the Ya Yas persist, and through her father and the Ya Yas, faith in marriage and relationships is restored. And finally her relationship with her mother is restored. If this was a “Novel with a Christian World view”, at the darkest moment, she would have realized that only a relationship with God won’t fail her, that He will give her the strength to mend the broken past. She might still need the support of the Ya Yas and her father, (and in the end, there is a sort of “spiritual” commitment), but this is how you’d incorporate the spiritual nature into your story. (Now, before I get a lot of letters – I loved the book, I’m just using it as an example!)

Now that we know our character’s spiritual journey, how do we weave in the truth to help them find their way? Here are some hints I’ve discovered:

a. Stick to one central color (truth). One verse, or one passage, one song, one line from the song. Don’t do the buckshot method of sowing the seeds…pick your ammo and aim well. Some possible ways of communicating the theme/truth/message:

songs (hymns or other songs)
sayings (quotes they read, hear….could be anywhere – graffiti, on a menu, on a bus, on the radio…)
a wise friend, relative, pastor. Even something someone says in passing. (a fisherman? A store clerk? In Happily Ever After, I used the director of a group home)
Confrontation – an argument with another character that surfaces a truth, an accusation, or a dilemma.
A memory, jogged by a memento.
A letter, or journal entry.
I’ve also used landscape, weather, even animals to convey a truth. (Karen Kingsbury used an eagle in A Time to Dance.)

b. Be consistent with the weave: Make sure you show your character’s ability to change.

Ie, in Happily Ever After, Joe WANTS to forgive his father for the crimes of the past, but he’s not sure if it is worth it. I give him a glimpse of the “fruit” of forgiveness by having him go fishing with his brother, and seeing the simple joy he can have in that.

Ie, in Redeeming Love, the heroine, Angel, wants to love her husband, Hosea, and each time she runs away from him, it is a little bit harder.

How can you show your character is willing to change?

1. Show their Desire for change. Simply an awareness of emptiness. Perhaps a longing, something he sees in another person, or where he was and fell from.

2. Apply Pressure Points that show his spiritual emptiness, through friends, memories, failures.

--ie, in HEA Joe, gets a letter from his father and wishes he could have their old relationship. He begins to enjoy his brother’s company, and his brother’s example of forgiveness causes him to be ashamed of his own behavior. Also, he falls for the heroine, but because of his walls and spiritual fears, is unable to commit to her, despite his deepest desire.

The epiphany – How do we weave in the epiphany, or “Ah Ha!” moment? There are many kinds of epiphanies -- Gradual “light” turning on, naturally, over time. A series of small changes lead to the big change until they finally stand in a place where their destructive behavior might be repeated and they see their change (or have someone see the change for them).

The “Big Bang!” method. Suddenly, the character is at his/her lowest point, and things they’ve seen/heard/learn along the journey flood back to them and they get it. Have them make a change of behavior in that moment, a different decision than they would normally make.
The Reader Ah-ha Method. This is where the character’s don’t realize their change, but we as the reader see it. (Often in an allegory). At the end, often the character does something that they would have never done in the beginning, to illustrate this change.

The Oh No, am I like HIM? Method. In this scenario, the hero/heroine sees themselves in reality and how much they are like the villain, or someone he despises. This jolts them into change.

Some tricks of the trade –

Don’t make the change too easy. Have them fight it. (C’mon, how many of us embrace our faults?)

Don’t use too many devices, (and don’t use coincidences!) Have something pop out at them when they are reading, or listening to a song. Instead of having something jolt them, have them embrace understanding from something they hear.

Let the reader see the change…validate their changed life through a changed behavior, decision, words.

But what if I’m halfway into a book and I’ve lost my spiritual thread? To keep the fabric of your spiritual story from unraveling, simply stop in every few chapters and start your chapter with a question to your character – what do you think God is doing in your life? How do you feel about God? What has been happening around you that makes you uncomfortable spiritually?

You might even have to take another look at your theme – is your character leading you to a new place where you might have to tighten your spiritual plotline? Refine it further? Maybe (like in real life!) your character is going to learn something you didn’t expect! Be flexible and go with the story. Trying to keep a story too tightly inside the “confines” of your theme can make it seem contrived and even unrealistic.

Writing the spiritual thread for a story will deepen your story, allow your readers to participate in the character’s spiritual journey, and hopefully, they’ll walk away with a deeper understanding how God might work in their lives, also.

Exercises to consider:

Pick a character, from a current wip, or from a favorite book or movie and

Write a spiritual journal for him
Do a “D” chart
jot down an idea for an epiphany moment (and tell the technique used)

Susan May Warren is the award-winning, best-selling author of novels and novellas with Tyndale, Barbour and Steeple Hill, including Happily Ever After, a Christy award finalist in 2004, and In Sheep’s Clothing in 2006, and Everything’s Coming up Josey, a 2007 Christy Award Finalist. She won the ACRW/ACFW Book of the Year award in the suspense/romance category in 2003 and 2004, and the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award in 2006, and 2007. Susan currently has over 500,000 books in print. A seasoned women’s events speaker and writing teacher, she’s taught at the American Christian Fiction Writer’s conference for the past three years on topics ranging from incorporating spiritual threads into story to plotting, to the 2006 Beginning Writer’s Track. She also runs a fiction editing service, training writers how to tell a great story. After serving for eight years with her husband and four children as missionaries in Khabarovsk, Far East Russia she now writes full-time while her husband runs a hotel on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Visit her online at:


Patricia W. said...

Now I know why I enjoyed Reclaiming Nick so much and why some Christian novels leave me wanting. I think it has to do with the "buckshot" vs. single-theme issue. I guess I like my stories to speak to one spiritual truth, even if there are multiple characters grappling with that truth in different ways.

Thanks for a tremendous primer on writing Christian fiction. Just what I needed!

Linda Wattley said...

First of all I must say I am enjoying all the information the pannels are generously sharing. This has been a wonderful experience for me as I learn the literary ways of doing things. As a new author, I welcome learning all I can. My question is: Do you feel if a person is a Christian that he or she should only write in a Christian Genre? I attended a conference and they emphasized Christians should only write in this Genre at least that is what I thought they were saying. What are your thoughts on this?

Patricia W. said...

Now for a question, when you plot your stories do you plot the spiritual journey, then overlay the general plot?

SusieMay said...

Do you feel if a person is a Christian that he or she should only write in a Christian Genre? I attended a conference and they emphasized Christians should only write in this Genre at least that is what I thought they were saying. What are your thoughts on this?
# posted by Linda Wattley : 7:48 AM

Great question Linda. NO, I do NOT think that Christians should only write in the CBA. I think there are many Christians out there following God’s leading, writing for ABA – case in point, John Grisham, or Brett Lott. I think the key is to do what God wants you to do. Some stories are meant for CBA. Some are meant for ABA. I think also, you need to decide what you are comfortable with in the industry…ie, I leaned toward CBA because those were the stories I was burdened to write, but also, I didn’t want the ABA asking me to put into my books anything I found objectionable. I look at Daughtry, who is so clearly a Christian, and yet, he’s playing for a primarily secular audience. I think the key is to keep writing for your audience of ONE, and let God determine where and what He wants you to write.

When you plot your stories do you plot the spiritual journey, then overlay the general plot?

Thanks for asking, Patricia! Here’s how I plot – I start with an identity of a character, and then I ask him/myself why he calls himself this…and I keep asking why until I get down to a couple foundational thought:
1. What lies has he believed that has brought him to the place he is today.
2. What are his values?
3. What does he most want in life, and why?

Answering those questions usually brings me to some spiritual vacancy my h/hn has in his life. From there, I try and determine what verse/scripture will set him free from that lie. (sometimes that comes as I’m writing the book – I often write a tandem bible study for personal use as I’m writing the book, and this helps me discover the truth pertinent to my character).

I then overlay the emotional and physical plot to see how they will trigger or deepen his spiritual issues. Generally, plotting for me is like weaving together the three threads, and I work with all three at the same time. Does that make sense?

SusieMay said...

Oh, and thank you for your sweet words about Nick. *grin*

Patricia W. said...

Yep, that made sense.

You write romance and romantic suspense. Which do you enjoy writing more?

The Paperback Diva said...

Thanks for a wonderful workshop. Your tips can work for a contemporary romance as well as a Christian one.

One question, which I don't know because I'm not versed in the genre: What is ABA and CBA?


SusieMay said...

You write romance and romantic suspense. Which do you enjoy writing more?

I think I enjoy romantic suspense more (and I try to have all my romances have some sort of suspense element, even if the suspense is just small) because I like the fast pace of a suspense, as well as the action and danger…I guess I’m just a spygirl at heart. *grin*

Oh, and ABA is general market fiction, and CBA is Christian market fiction. Sorry to confuse!

Patricia W. said...


Have you ever had a story that you wanted to write, a spiritual message you wanted to share, but it won't let you just yet?


SusieMay said...

Have you ever had a story that you wanted to write, a spiritual message you wanted to share, but it won't let you just yet?

Hey Patricia! Yes, I have a couple stories sitting in my heart that I haven’t had the opportunity or perhaps the divine timing to write yet. I’m a firm believer that God will work out the story in the right time, so I continue to collect ideas, impressions, do research and let those ideas soak, waiting for the right timing. In the meantime, I move onto the stories I’m supposed to write now. I think a lot of writers believe they have to write the stories on their heart…and perhaps they’re not ready to write that story yet. I think it’s wise to ask God if it’s time…or if there is another story that could hone your skills in the meantime, in preparation for that heart story. That’s what happened with “Everything’s Coming up Josey.” The story of my hilarious happenings in Russia simmered in my heart YEARS before God opened the door to write it. And when he did, the timing was perfect. (And Josey was a Christy finalist this year!). So, wait on Him, and be open to working on something else in the meantime.

Stormi said...

Hi, this was great stuff, I am just getting into writing Christian fiction and I am so glad that you wrote about this it helped me out a lot. Thanks!


SusieMay said...

Glad I could help! Thank you all for attending! As you get further down the road, if you'd ever like some in-depth help with your writing, I have a fiction editing service called Book Therapy -- check it out at my website ( God bless and see you on the net!

l.cote said...

Hi Susan,
Your class was excellent--concise and right on the money.
I didn't know you lived on Lake Superior. We're not that far from you.
I hope our paths cross sometime.

Rudelle Thomas said...

Great workshop! This really helped me. I felt like because I am a Christian that ALL of my writing should have a Christian theme but really my desire is to write mystery. A characters religious beliefs probably would never be mentioned in the type of novel I'd like to write. Thank you for such a great workshop. I don't feel so pressured to find a way to work Christianity into the story now. Thanks to all of you!

Rudelle Thomas

Shoba said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks so much for this workshop. Hope I'm not too late to post.

I'm currently reading Francine River's 'Shofar Blew'. My question is how do you deal with non-Christian characters in a Christian novel when you weave in spiritual content?

For eg in my WIP I have a Buddhist monk who is great friends with the protagonist, a strong Christian woman. Does it have to end with conversion of the non-Christian to the Christian faith or can the Christian love and respect the non-Christian for who he is and trust God to lead him in time to the Truth?

Thank you.

SusieMay said...

My question is how do you deal with non-Christian characters in a Christian novel when you weave in spiritual content?

Good question! I deal with them the same way I might in real people who God is working in the life of...but they don't know it. If it is reasonable to the plot for them to come to faith, then that is what happens, but I don't force it. I like what you said about loving and respecting and trusting God to lead him to the truth...if God leads me to write in a gospel presentation, then I'll do that. Was is St. Francis that said, "Share the gospel at all times...if necessary, use words." I think the same can be applied to the story you're writing in regards to the Christians and non-Christians.

hope that helps!

Patricia W. said...

Thanks Susan for a comprehensive and insightful workshop!

Shoba said...

Yes. It was Francis of Assisi who said that. Truly appreciate your answer and this amazing workshop. Thanks.

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