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