Faith in Fiction

When I first became active on the internet, a friend introduced me to Bethany editor Dave Long’s blog and the associated discussion board known as Faith in Fiction. While Dave is no longer an active blogger, there is a lot of interesting material in the archives at his site.

Lots of intense discussion on the FIF board too. So much of the interaction that took place there helped shape my thoughts about fiction and how it intersected with my faith—that is, how faith comes into a story.

I think FIF was the first place I encountered writers who claimed Christians should stop making theme the point of their writing. They didn’t say this in those exact words, but the idea was clear: Good writing might have an accidental theme, but anything else would be too preachy.

I’ve long countered this view and have been pleased to see authors such as Andrew Peterson and Athol Dickson discuss theme in a positive light.

Still, I have to admit, as much as I believe theme is an integral part of stories and should be crafted as carefully as any other element, I was surprised to see a writing book that takes this same view.

The book is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Here are a few pertinent quotes:

We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin.

KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.

Wow! The theme is the brain and must be created and defined in relation to the other elements. Then this:

The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message [!], we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience.

Well, I can tell you, I can hardly wait to get to the Moral Argument chapter (Chapter 5) and see what Truby has to say.

Already I’m learning more about theme. What Christian writers call preachy or propaganda is characters acting as mouthpieces for a message. There is a better way. The choices are not a preachy message versus no theme at all. I’m so excited that a writing instructor has tackled this subject.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. I still stop by the old F*i*F blog, once in awhile. Good times.

    This Truby book sounds interesting. I’m already wondering if he might be saying some of the same things that Dorothy Sayers said in”The Mind of the Maker,” but using different terms.


  2. I agree, Meg, FIF was unique. I learned a lot!

    I haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’ book, so I don’t know if it’s the same or not. This book is different from any I’ve read before–more specific and yet less formulaic. It’s really got me thinking.



  3. When I stopped to think about it, it occurred to me that some of the most beautiful works of fiction operate on a theme. The Scarlet Letter’s theme is consequence of sin, and yet not once does the author reveal that this is indeed the theme. It is woven subtly into the fabric. Les Miserables is another example, although what exactly the theme is may be debatable. That may be part of the beauty: attempting to decode the story.


  4. Truby’s book sounds interesting, Becky. Thanks for the tip!


  5. This post has set me to so much thinking that I wanted time to reflect before replying. I wanted to wrap my brain around the concept that a story could be written without a theme. This is an idea so foreign to my understanding that I’m having difficulty walking in these particular moccasins and seeing where it comes from.

    Theme, meaning, moral argument – no matter what you call it, I believe it’s intrinsic to the work of writing. Even if you are deliberately trying to avoid a moral argument in favour of entertainment, then that in itself creates a meaning for the work: “entertainment is more important than moral argument”.

    Nonetheless, I can see where this notion is coming from. Sometimes the moral argument degenerates into overt preaching and so dominates the story when it appears with a heavy clunk that the reader doesn’t know whether to persevere with the chapter or just skip it.

    Good writing has a theme. Sometimes more than one. Good writing weaves the theme into itself in a subtle, almost invisible, way. It should be impossible to remove the theme from a good story without tearing it to shreds. In a “less than good” story, the theme is almost a separate scene. It can be removed quite easily without damage to the rest of the story. Though having said this – I’ve just realised that it’s those dreadful clunky separate scenes that are the very things I remember most vividly. Ironically, I can tell you most about the preachy bits of various books than the rest of the story.

    So perhaps it’s not as simple as I first thought.


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