Workshop 12: Using Christian Fiction to Reach Unbelievers
Hartline Literary agent Terry Burns (right) is also an accomplished author with 40 books in print. He is always easy to spot at conferences, with his white Stetson and cowboy boots. His two-hour workshop was packed with information, but Burns also encouraged class participation. This interaction provided a fast-paced session.
Writing God’s story
Burns said there is a difference between a calling to write and writing as an offering. There are times we are called by the Lord to write a specific story, and there are other times we may decide to write a story as an offering to Him.
If we are called, God will prepare us.
If we are called, God will prepare us, he said, but the story will only happen in His time. When we write as an offering, if He is pleased, we may well be blessed by His assistance and a successful outcome.
Audience makes a difference, as well. Are you writing for believers or to reach others? If writing for the believing community, the faith arc should be strong and can be introduced early. If the target audience is unbelievers, the content should ease into the faith message. In this case you may only be writing for an audience of one—the one who will be converted by your story.
Save the faith
The message should never overshadow the story.
Story is king and whether your target is a believer or not, you must engage them first in the story to keep them reading. When targeting the unbeliever, it’s important to not expose them to faith content early in the book. Wait until they want to keep reading to see what happens next. The message should never overshadow the story even if it is targeted to the faithful.
Readers should not think you are sharing your own faith. Save that for devotionals and other nonfiction works. No matter how much we want to, we have to avoid laying the faith content on too thick or we will likely push the reader away.
If it fits the story it’s fine to quote Scripture, but rather than doing it verbatim, paraphrase it when it is used in dialogue. For example, a character might say, “I was reading the Bible the other day and a verse I came across advised to be anxious for nothing and pray.” However, if a character is reading from the Bible in a scene, then the exact Scripture should be quoted.
A secular writer doesn’t have a successful book if he doesn’t have sales in five figures, but a Christian writer who only sells one book that changes a person’s life is a success. That’s not to take away from the desire to have our books in as many hands as possible, Burns said, and to be financially rewarded in the process. But our priorities are different than for a secular writer.
Two types of story
When Burns wrote Mysterious Ways, he’d sensed it was a calling to write the story, but didn’t realize the effect it would have on nonbelievers. Soon he began hearing how prisoners in correctional centers were reading his book and converting to Christ as a result, and he was both surprised and pleased.
To find out why this particular story resonated with nonbelievers, Burns dissected the book and found that the main character was someone the readers could identify with, and the faith element eased into the story in such a way that by the time it was there, the readers were hooked. By the time the story ended, many readers felt the Spirit quickening in their hearts.
There are two types of stories—one for the unbelieving reader and one for the believing reader. Understanding this at the outset enables us to write the story that best reaches our target audience.