Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – Shaking Your Reader’s Faith With Unanswerable Questions

Guest post by Penumbra Publishing author Willa Kaye Danes

A couple weeks ago I read a romance that turned out to be an older inspirational that was reissued in ebook. It was free, but at the time, if I had realized it was inspirational, I would not have downloaded it. Not because I am anti-religion, but because inspirational books oftentimes can be very ‘preachy’ – and having an author tell me what to believe, or how I should believe, can quickly become annoying because it implies the author knows better than I do what is ‘right’ as far as faith in God is concerned. And, before I go further, let me say emphatically that this article in no way is meant to disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, nor it this an invitation to open discussion on religious beliefs. It is simply an analysis of what happens when an author raises questions in a story that cannot be answered with definitive demonstration or explanation. As an example, I am going to use the story I recently read, Finders Keepers, by Catherine Palmer.

Unanswerable Questions Inherent in Some Genres

The story started out fine and became quite engaging and entertaining. But then about a third of the way through, the author started introducing the Bible-thumping. Don’t get me wrong, the author did a great job with the story. It’s just that she put in a lot more religious references to faith and God’s will than I felt the story needed. But then, after all, it was an inspirational, so who am I to say how much religion was needed? It was the author’s story, the author’s choice. And I do realize inspirationals fill a market need that other genres simply can’t. Deeply religious people oftentimes like to read stories, other than those found in the Bible, for entertainment, but I assume they do not normally choose books that present a view of the world without faith as a required component. For instance, paranormal romances featuring witches and magic, or erotic romance featuring sexual encounters, and other books of that sort, would not satisfy the reading expectations of religious readers in a way they could approve, because I’m assuming they like to stay grounded in their own world of belief in God, and that is what inspirationals are all about. The issue of faith is central in most inspirationals. The devout must believe without evidence or proof that something will come about, even when there is no rational justification that it will. This inevitably raises questions no author can answer in a logical manner that makes sense to me. And that is why I choose not to read inspirationals. (This reading instance was accidental, and by the time I realized it was inspirational, I was already invested in reading it.) For discussion purposes, Finders Keepers is a fine example to demonstrate the pitfalls of books that deal with unanswerable questions.

The story features a single woman running an antique store in the charming small town of Ambleside, Missouri, who has adopted a Russian orphan and butts heads with Zachary Chalmers, a man from ‘big’ Jefferson City, who has inherited the old mansion on the town square and is determined to tear it down. Elizabeth is clearly a woman of faith who treasures personal relationships and wants to preserve the heritage of the past and the mansion in particular, in memory of her recently deceased friend, Grace Chalmers. And now Zachary Chalmers, Grace’s nephew and direct descendent of the town’s founder, breezes into town with plans to tear down Grace’s legacy because he values only what is new and modern. The central theme of the story is ‘surrendering to God’s will,’ and the author goes to a great deal of trouble to contrast Elizabeth’s will to preserve the mansion and the memory of her friend against Zachary’s will to replace the decrepit structure with something that will serve his architecture business needs and showcase his award-winning building-design skills. Instantly these two people are attracted to each other, but their wills stand in the way of a lasting and fulfilling relationship that would presumably lead to marriage. (Living in sin is not an option for Elizabeth, although Zachary, not quite so devout, has sown his share of wild oats.) The gist is, according to the author, that both Elizabeth and Zachary must sublimate their will to allow God’s will to run their lives.

The Problem – Where Do the Answers Come From?

The problem with this is, neither Elizabeth nor Zachary knows what God’s will is, because there’s not a burning bush handily around the corner to speak to them about this issue. So they do a lot of soul-searching and outright praying in the course of trying to figure out if what they want to do is in conflict with what God wants them to do. Still, stubborn hard-headedness creeps in to keep things out of kilter. Ultimately, God’s will (how things turn out) ends up being the author’s will, so that everything – well most everything – works out just fine for everybody. We are then led to believe that whatever the author feels like is a good way to end the story is indeed God’s will. I find that problematic for several reasons – especially when another of the most vexing problems in the story results after a neighbor child and friend of Elizabeth’s adopted son loses her mother to cancer, despite everyone’s fervent prayers to God that this woman pull through and survive to see her daughter grow up.

And that is where more unanswerable questions come up. Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why would a loving and logical God indiscriminately choose to allow a good woman who is needed by her family to die? Can any author adequately answer that? I don’t think so, any more than it can be explained why God ‘saved’ some people from a tornado, and not others. Many people attribute everything bad that happens to the Devil. But really, if the Devil is able to accomplish so much evil on earth, the question must be asked, where is God, and why doesn’t He intervene, if he’s really there to answer our prayers and make sure good triumphs over evil? Of course there are many religious doctrines and secular books that attempt to answer these puzzling and troublesome questions. In my opinion, they all fall short in the logic department. So, is it really a smart move for an author to try to answer these unanswerable questions within the confines of a story, when questions of faith invariably arise?

Skirting the Answers – Will That Work?

In inspirational books, characters wrestle with temptations and questions of faith, just like people do in real life. In the mind of the author, perhaps these stories are an attempt to help people cope with the results of these unanswerable questions, rather than actually provide the answers. In Finders Keepers, author Catherine Palmer does an admirable job of raising questions of faith and then skirting answers to them all, except for the obvious: ‘They prayed, and they gave themselves over to God, and everything worked out in the end.’ But what about the neighbor that died of cancer? All the reader can assume is that ‘Things happen, but it is all the will of God, whether or not we understand.’ We mere mortals are not privy to the inner workings of the will of God. He has plans that are obviously on a ‘need to know’ basis – and we don’t need to know. Period. That’s one way to handle the inevitability of not being able to provide answers for unanswerable questions. And for fans of inspirational stories, this may be enough. But for other readers, I don’t think it is.

Typical Reader Expectations

When I read a story that raises questions, I expect the author to eventually answer those questions and tie everything up. I do believe most readers have the same expectation. But for some authors, leaving unanswered questions dangling at the end of a story might seem like a surefire way to encourage readers to read a sequel in a series. That works only if it is a cliffhanger question that arises at the very end of the book. Only overall questions that affect the entire series should be left unanswered until the final book of the series. In the case of a standalone story, ALL answers should be provided for any questions that arise in the course of the story. Of course, some situations may give rise to ambiguous answers, especially in the case of right versus wrong. Not everything is black and white morally, and leaving interpretation to the reader is perfectly acceptable. I am talking about questions like what happened to the support character who disappeared halfway through the story. Who put the treasure map in the cave in the first place? Or, more importantly, how can a celestial event signal the birth of a member of a special race – when the very connection between these otherwise unrelated events suggests that some all-powerful entity is consciously directing celestial events to time them to a specific birth. (Yes, I actually read a story that postulated this, and there was no religious connotation involved. Annoyingly, the author did not explain how the connection to celestial event and a birth could even function.)

Building Your Reader’s Faith in Your Storytelling

The goal in storytelling is not to give rise to questions that you cannot answer within the course of the story. To do so and not provide answers will annoy and vex your readers. So, when you raise questions, you’d better have answers for them. And you’d better be prepared to think like a reader while you’re writing so that you can anticipate what questions will be going through the reader’s mind while the story progresses, so you can be ready to answer them at just the right time. This approach will go a long way to building a story that is believable and will make your readers have faith – in your storytelling skills.

Willa Kaye Danes


Charles O'Keefe said...

Hi Willia :) Interesting post, I'm not a religious guy so I would never read one of these stories. I agree with you, you can't raise a question in a story and then not answer it. I also agree by just explaining something away as "God's will" whether it's a religious story or not is poor writing and doesn't follow a logical train of thought.

Natasha Larry said...

I agree with some of it. I certainly don't agree that using a vague explanation to explain something makes you a weak writer. For example, I don't consider Dan Brown a week writer, and he's been known to leave questions unanswered- and to use vague explanations.

Some readers like to wonder while others need every question answered. I think I'm somewhere in between.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Dan Brown - I admit I didn't read the books, but I did see both the movies, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I don't think you have to explain HOW something works, but it should ... you know ... make sense so there is not incongruity. To me, that is part of what I think the post was addressing.


Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...maybe I need to read up on this to fully grasp the issue you had with it. To me, I don't think its completely necessary that all information be indulged. Sort of like saying you shouldn't write a book until you know the answers to all questions. If that was the case, we wouldn't have many books out there. I don't know. I would have to read up on this to see if it takes away from story.

William Green said...

Religion is always a touchy subject no matter what you do. But I agree that just writing something off as "God's Will" is a bit lazy on the writers part, but we have to keep in mind this IS an inspirational in fictional clothing. They mean something to some people otherwise we wouldn't have that genre out there. Do all inspirationals have this approach? I wouldn't know myself I don't dive into them.

tony Crawford said...

WOW… this blog started off way confusing and almost looked like an ‘I’m a proud atheist rant.’ I am not Christian nor do I feel the need to tear down other beliefs. People have different beliefs. So people worship the earth under their feet others get their beliefs from a book of stories. The author’s belief system believes in Miracles Aka unexplained events (how did Jesus walk on water? how did he actually heal the blind? I don’t think it was ever explained in that book…. but it has been on the best seller list for a long time.)

I think your article started off with a great idea… but you went in a very wrong direction. You started off saying this wasn’t about religion yet you used that to tear it apart. This book was obviously written for a Christian audience and they may possibly like the book based off your only complaints I read are biased off their religion and more than likely covered in their religious Works.

The point is you apparently chose the wrong book for you. I’m not saying you are wrong. the book could be complete shit. I’m just saying I would not pick up chicken soup for the teenage girl soul being a male in my late 20’s that would just be dumb on my part and writing a review because biased strictly on tearing apart a religion is just ignorant the part of the reviewer. Paranormal Wire should take this “Book Review down and if the author would like to repost an actual review on the book and what is wrong with the story I am all for it but leave the religious hatred somewhere else. This is a ridicules review.

David Beem said...

This review reads like a review of a genre, not a book.

Willa, you mention the ingredients we expect in other genres, often ingredients that would make no REAL logical sense to readers who are not already fans of that genre, but readers accept those ingredients b/c it's a "fantasy" or "romance" or whatever. In other words, a romance author needs only the thinnest reason to justify two people having sex in the airplane bathroom, but, outside the romance genre, readers might expect greater justification than "just cuz."

"God's Will" means something to a Christian reader, who are, after all, the author's target audience.

Having said that, I haven't read the book you're reviewing. I'm not into inspirational books either, but, it's their fiction. Let them have their "God's Will" plot justifications, and assume that it means something meaningful to them. God knows: Christians need entertainment also.

Natasha Larry said...

That's a good point you make, David. I personally love what Stan Lee said about his creation of the Incredible Hulk. When explaining what gamma rays are he said something like "well, it sounded good, I mean, gamma rays.. what is that?"

LoL, its know to comic book nerds around the world as the "Marvel method."

Thanks you for joining the discussion.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Thanks all for the comments. Writing is an inexact science and, as we can all attest from the comments here, it is easy to draw conclusions from what you read, which might not be what was intended by the author. It is a lively discussion, though, so thank you all for your comments.

Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing

Natasha Larry said...

I do love a lively conversation. =) Amelia James wrote an interesting article some time ago about English majors and author intention. (I hope no one here is an English major, and if you are, I hope you have a sense of humor."

But there was a joke that went something like this...

English major: When the author said the curtains were blue, he/she was making a reference to the plight of the protagonist.

Author: No, I meant that the f###### curtains were blue


Willa Kaye Danes said...

Tony, Will, Anonymous, Charles, Natasha, and Pat,

It is, as many of you pointed out, a rather bad idea to use inspirationals as an example of a genre that doesn't answer questions well, at least to my satisfaction as a reader. However, the questions raised at random in the post were chosen to show how no author can attempt to answer any of them, (thus 'unanswerable questions') except by, in the end, not providing answers and saying that it is a matter of faith. I did try to reason that authors who write inspirational books may be trying to offer an uplifting and reassuring tale in the face on not being able to answer specific questions of faith. That idea obviously got lost in all the other rhetoric.

A similar approach of 'you just have to believe' cannot be taken by authors of other genres where they are the 'gods' of their own world-building and can make the rules that run their world. They should be able to give answers that make sense within their own rules for the questions they raise, and explain within the bounds of their story how and why those rules and consequences work the way they do.

I apologize if the comparison was lopsided, but that was what I started out with when referencing 'faith' prompted by a reading of a book that was surely inappropriate for my taste in literature.

Nevertheless, I do appreciate all your comments.

Willa Kaye Danes

Walter Knight said...

Should God take a 'big picture' approach to the world, or micro manage?

I like to think that I determine my own fate, to I prefer the 'big picture' scenario for both God and government. For writers, this unanswerable question provides a lot of wiggle room for the immagination. I love wiggle room.

If you let the mere mention of faith in God ruin the story, you are shutting yourself off to a wide world. Also, the devout do not limit themselves to just inspirational books. They read all sorts, even science fiction.

Unanwserable questions aren't just vehicles for a sequel. Unanswerable questions are more like my old algerba and geometry classes. It's complicated.