Last week I posted about why we, as writers, have a responsibility to write about real and difficult questions. Now, I want to address how we can try and fail to address these real questions properly and practical tips for how we can do better. I have found two different ways that authors fail to properly deal with hard questions, so for the sake of organization, I am splitting this topic into two blog posts. Today’s post will address writing that asks a difficult question but then turns a blind eye to specific situations and follow up questions that complicate and contradict the proposed answer.
I am sure that all of you are familiar with these types of book. We have all read books with these fake answer, and unfortunately, most of us write books with this type of fake answer. So why I am writing this post? First, to complete the post trilogy. Second, to remind you of what you already know. Third, hopefully, I can actually contribute some helpful tips near the end of this post once I get past the obligatory description and lecture.
Ready? Let’s go.
Some stories tackle hard, real questions that haunt us but then ignore the part of the question that is difficult and haunting to produce a shallow, trite answer that can be summed up in a single catch phrase perfect for an encouraging note. Unfortunately, the most well known offenders tend to be modern “Christian” stories.
Beyond the Mask is an adventure drama that came out in 2015, and it is one of the worst offenders I encountered in a long time. The movie posed a plethora of difficult, real questions and then proceeded to spit out cliche, false answers. Some of the questions that the movie bravely faced were:
- Can you outrun a sinful past? What part does a past full of violence and wrong doing have to do with your identity?
- What really is grace and forgiveness?
- What is the greatest love? And how does romantic love fit into a relationship with Christ?
- Can people change?
- How is someone redeemed?
- How should we interact with and see God? What is His relationship to us?
- How does liberty and freedom fit into faith?
Not a single one of these questions were satisfactorily or honestly answered. The movie may have thrown quips about “forgiveness is a gift” and “only God can change you” and “you can’t outrun your past,” but the story shamelessly turned a blind eye the the challenging parts of the questions that it posed. For instance: Our past is a part of our identity and even our personality, and would it not be better if we had never done those terrible things in our past? Is forgiveness merely an emotional response that frees us from guilt or is there a supernatural aspect? And what is that supernatural aspect? In order to receive forgiveness, do we need to ask for it? We are called to be bondservants to Christ and to one another and obey the authority above us, so is liberty and democracy really that important? And yet, humans have a natural desire for freedom; does that not come from God?
Beyond the Mask offers nothing to people who are truly wrestling with these questions. Perhaps, the writers felt good about themselves, proud that they asked such hard questions and presented their “answers” to the public in a swash-buckling adventure. But stories like these that ignore the situations and questions that complicate life are perhaps worse that those that do not ask the hard questions. Delusion is no comfort to the depressed and conflicted.
Before I move onto tips to help you truly answer a hard question in your writing, I want to note that Christian stories are not the only ones that provide fake answers. Divergent maybe an even worse– though sneakier– offender than Beyond the Mask, and I would even claim that, from what I have seen, The Fault in Our Stars offers only superficial answers and ignores many aspects of the difficult questions that the book poses. The praised movie, Oblivion, also falls into this trap.
So here are some signs that a story might be ignoring complications of real life and offering only a superficial answers:
- You are trying to answer more than one hard questions. If you are answering it honestly, then you will likely not have the time or ability to add another question. If you have multiple hard questions in your story, chances are that you will only provide false answers.
- The whole answer can be summed up in a single sentence. If it can be, then why write the whole story? Also clearly, you don’t think this is a hard question.
- You already know the answer. Now, this isn’t always a sign that you have superficially answered a hard question, but it often is.
- One or more characters know the correct answer from the beginning. This goes back to the point before but is slightly different. Unless there is a very good reason why a supporting character should know the answer, then you probably over simplified the question.
Though it may take some rewriting, fake answers can be fixed. Here are my best tips for writing real answer when you are only coming up with cliches:
- Pick one hard question to focus on.
- Do not pick a proper theme for your story until after it is written. Content yourself with picking a question instead.
- Pick a question that you do not know the answer to– or better pick a question that is really bothering you.
- Have a conversation about your question with a rational and intelligent person who has different foundational beliefs than you.
- Research the question. Read books that have proposed different answers to the question, and see what you can discover from them.
- Let your characters drive the search for and the answer to the question. If you have well developed, realistic character and set realistic situations before them, then you are likely to come up with a real answer so long as you keep your meddling hands off your characters!
- Present situations to your characters that challenge conventional answers to your hard question.
- Once you finish the story, have beta readers give you feedback on the question and answer you wrote about. Consider even picking a beta reader who is likely to disagree with the answer you found.
So what was the last question that has haunted you– either in a story you are writing or not? Do you have any tips for avoiding a cliched false answer?
Now, don’t worry if you have written about a hard question, refusing to settle for cliches and bravely facing situations that challenge your natural answer, but have been unable to find any solid answer whatsoever. I will be address that next week.