Coming off of our BHP Book Banter, I’m wading into the gridded, graphed, somewhat-unfamiliar world of data analysis. I like to imagine myself hacking through a dense jungle of spreadsheet rows and columns with a machete of clarity, because that sounds significantly more interesting than organizing survey responses.
Armed with that particular brand of melodrama, I found that while some of the sorting and graphing is a bit tedious, there are so many interesting comments and conclusions that it’s hard to be bored. I’m going to share one in particular that I think readers and writers alike will appreciate.
When readers were asked “What elements make a great story?” I noticed the feedback often clumped up in contrasting pairs.
Characters should be “flawed” but still “likeable.” Plots that are both “believable” and “surprising” make the best stories. Novels that “make you laugh” and “make you cry” were listed as favorites, often by the same person. The two most common adjectives applied to everything from setting to structure to and dialogue were “realistic/familiar” and “unique.”
It doesn’t have to be Christian fiction, or even fiction written from the point of view of a Christian, for this to come through, although one thing that I think sets Christian fiction apart is seen in another comment made by several readers: “It’s not necessarily that the ending needs to be happy…but it needs to be hopeful.”
A special note for you writers—seeing these comments, I realized again that what you do is hard work. No other way around it. To write the novel described in these surveys you have to…
- Give us characters who are better than us in some way so we look up to them…but also just like us so we can relate to them.
- Portray a beautiful romance (which in real life can be a little dramatic, because lovebirds aren’t necessarily the most rational beings) without being cheesy, cloying, or over-the-top.
- Maintain tension and suspense without slipping into melodrama or crossing the line into the improbability.
- Make the heroes or heroines people with admirable qualities so we cheer them on the whole way, while still giving them deep flaws and weaknesses.
- Plan a storyline that is complex enough to engage readers and keep them turning pages, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.
- Create an ending that has some element of unexpectedness, while still being nicely foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel like it dropped out of the sky.
Here’s the thing, though: you have everything you need to do this.
As a person of faith, you hold these contrasts together all the time. You believe that people are both made in the image of God and deeply broken by sin. You pray in the name of Jesus who was fully God and fully man. You listen every Easter to the greatest example of a surprising yet inevitable ending.
Keep telling your stories, Christian writers. The world needs them because the world needs more hope.
Readers, which of the bullet points above do you think would be hardest to balance? (Writers, if you want to chime in with which one is most difficult for you, you’re welcome to do so!)