Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 4. Fiction: The Art of Story-Telling.

We seem to have a need for stories.

Defending Fiction

The capacity to invent stories is a function of the imagination, a reflection of the image of God in us. Jesus Christ using parables is a defense enough of the legitimacy of writing stories.

Many Christians do not know how to read fiction. Reading words and reading fiction are two different things. Some focus on the "problem" of wasting time on fiction when there are ostensibly "better" things to read. We can spend too much time doing any one thing, granted. Veith writes, "The Scriptural principle of the Sabbath, however, should remind us that God requires us to rest as well as to work. Literature can help us to rest our minds and it can even help us to nourish our spiritual lives."

Is fiction lying? Sir Philip Sydney defends fiction by saying that lying is to affirm that to be true which is in fact false. However, fiction affirms nothing, and therefore never lies. Fiction is not presented as true. The poet is not saying what is or is not, but more what should or should not be. Fiction is related to truth allegorically in its meaning, while nonfiction is related to truth in its facts. Fiction is meant to teach and to delight. Fiction is a good teacher because it gives pleasure.

People are inclined to emulate the models they see in stories, which is another reason stories are good teachers. To teach, you must grasp the student's imagination.


Narrative seeks to relate a series of events. Narratives pulls us into the story by telling the story from a point of view. Narrative requires plot, character, setting, and theme.


Something has to happen in a story. Plot almost always involves a conflict. Veith writes, "Discerning the conflict of a story is the key to understanding its significance." Conflicts come in several types: external and internal. External-only conflicts tend to be somewhat shallow. Internal conflict is often more riveting in the long run. Plots can be animated by thematic elements.


The readers must become involved with the characters to whom the action (plot) applies. Aristotle criticized what he called "spectacle"; all the action in the world, if it happens to characters we don't care about, will fall to the ground.

There are two types of characters: flat and rounded. Flat characters are generally stereotyped, static characters, whereas rounded characters are more interesting and have more going on under the surface.


Setting is rather like a stage on which the action takes place. Literature is a way to enter the world of another, or even of a world that does not exist.

What about the charge of escapism? It is a function that can be used for good or ill. Some people, indeed, can reject the challenges of their own world. However, there is such a thing as taking time off from work for a vacation. Good literature may provide escape, but it also brings us back to earth with a renewed appreciation of the texture of life. As Tolkien put it, escape can be sensible, if you are in a prison. Christians, indeed, are in prison, a prison caused by our own sinful natures and by the world in which we live.


A story will have some point it's trying to make. Points are often something that the reader can expand to apply to different situations that the story does not deal with directly.

One extremely important point Veith makes is that the simple process of presenting an evil (as evil) is NOT the same as condoning it or teaching others to engage in it. Many people, Christians included, tend to fixate on one aspect of a work, without taking the time and labor to interpret the work thematically.

Works by the best writers will tend to accord well with Scripture, even if the authors don't know Christ. Hence Virgil was hailed by the early church as teaching sound morals, though he was a pagan.

Christian Fiction Writers

John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Flannery O'Conner's stories are two examples of good Christian stories, written by writers who water nothing down, and examine the human condition in all its frailty. O'Conner's stories tend to shock, since she was self-consciously attempting to write to an audience that shares none of her assumptions.

Next week: Poetry and Singing.

1 comment:

Andrew Barnes said...


Could you comment again on the look of A Profitable Word blog. I changed some stuff around. Make any comments you'd like.