These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
The sixth judging criterion for the Writing Challenge is did the entry have a clear point or message?
When I was teaching Language Arts to high school students, we frequently used what I called a ‘story map’ to analyze short stories, and one of the items on that worksheet required my students to identify the theme of the story. I explained this as the lesson that the author wanted his readers to learn from his story, the ‘take-away’. Why did he write this thing?
Students had varying degrees of success in identifying the theme (which is the same as the ‘point’ or ‘message’ in this criterion). The very literal thinkers would look at a story—let’s pick one that’s familiar to everyone, The Wizard of Oz—and identify the theme as something like “Don’t trust someone just because he says he’s great and powerful.” Deeper thinkers would recognize the theme of “There’s no place like home”, or even something about friendship and overcoming obstacles. Those who were willing to really dig might uncover something like “You may already possess the thing that you desire the most.”
Whether the point/message/theme is shallow or deep, the reader should be able to locate it. If the reader gets to the end of your entry and wonders “what was that about?” or even worse, shrugs and immediately forgets what she’s just read, you may be faltering on this criterion.
There’s a continuum of clarity of themes—let me set it out here, then I’ll have a few things to say about it.
1. The entry has a very obvious point; in fact, the point is actually written out. This is common in devotionals or Bible studies, but even in fiction or poetry, a clear point can be articulated by a character, or even set aside by a phrase like “The moral of the story is…”
2. The entry’s point is some significant realization that is grasped by the main character and the reader at the same time.
3. The point is something that the MC never figures out, but the reader does—usually because the MC has failed to grasp it.
4. The reader has to think a little bit about the theme, but eventually has an aha! moment.
5. The reader has to think about what the point is, but isn’t entirely sure, because the entry lacks focus.
6. The reader has no idea why that entry was written.
Now this may surprise you, but 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all fine for Writing Challenge entries, and could possibly earn full points for this criterion. In fact, the point doesn’t have to be shouted from the rooftops; subtlety is a literary skill that many readers appreciate. It’s entries that fit into #5 and 6 in the above list that score poorly.
#5 is more common in nonfiction entries, where the writer skitters from point to point, never really focusing on one idea. #6 is more common in fiction and poetry, where some entries just seem to occupy space.
A good way to be sure your entry has a point/theme/message is to be sure there’s conflict there. I could have written a story, for example, for the ‘body language’ week, in which my MC sits in a meeting and observes the various positions and gestures of the people there. It’s on topic, but what’s the point? To bump it up, I might have the MC gradually realize that people are using their body language to try to tell her something (perhaps that her blouse is disastrously unbuttoned). That’s conflict, and it gives me a reason for describing all these desperately gesturing people.
Now you might be saying, what’s the clear point there?
Well, that leads me to my second surprising statement of this lesson: the point of your entry need not be spiritual to be clear (it does, however, still have to reflect a Christian world view). It also need not be something that the reader can specifically articulate as ‘the moral of the story’. In fact, it may be that the point of your entry is simply to be very entertaining or compelling—and if you’re successful at that, then you’ll still score highly in this category.
Ask a question, make a comment, give an example of one of the numbered points above, or add your own insight into writing an entry with a clear point or message.
Barb, yes...but let me try to clarify a bit.
If you're writing for the Challenge, your story really should have a point, since that's one of the judging criteria. And those criteria are good guidelines for any kind of writing, as the challenge has always been intended as a testing ground for writing out in the 'real world'.
I'm trying to think of any circumstances in which a piece of writing without a point would be appropriate, and I'm coming up blank...remember, too, what I said in the last paragraph before the homework. The point of the story could just be pure entertainment; it doesn't have to be deep or profound. And as I said, the point doesn't have to be hammered home--letting the reader discover it is definitely a literary skill.
I mentioned conflict because it's one way of heading toward a point or message--in the resolution of the conflict, whether it's resolved positively or negatively, a character typically changes or learns something. Conflict isn't the ONLY way to give your stories a point, but it's a good way.
I did an entire lesson on conflict in my first series of classes, but it seems to have suffered in the Great FaithWriters Meltdown. Conflict is really an essential element of the short story, but conflict doesn't necessarily imply sin, violence, or ugliness. Even children's stories have conflict--it's what draws the readers in.
Please ask more questions if I haven't been clear yet. This was a hard 'class' for me to write; I felt as if I were slogging through mud! But if I get specific questions, I'm more likely to be able to answer them--bring 'em on!
It seems to me that this is a hard one to talk about because it either clicks with the writer or it doesn't.
I have only thought of a couple of things.
1. This is part of the function of editing. I ascribe to the school that all good writing comes from the editing. I try to write early, but even when I write late, I do several edits (of course, I usually have to since I am usually WAY over limit). Sometimes I find a focus problem while I edit and fix it there.
2. We can think of our theme or our point like we think of a topic sentence. If it is not relevant to the topic sentence it should not be in that paragraph. If it is not relevant to our theme it should not be in the entry.
When I taught writing and as I review staff attorneys briefs, I often found/find people have all sorts of stuff in a paragraph that does not belong there. We can take the same approach to the issue of focus. What is the topic/theme/point? Get rid of the rabbit trails.
3. How do we put feet on point 2? How do we know whether something is a rabbit trail or a key component or building block? Ask questions like these: Does it go anywhere? Is anything built off of it?
"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien
Exactly. And if it clicks with the reader, it has a point. No click--no point.
And on point 3--as you said, that's where editing comes in. When I was writing Challenge entries, I aimed for a rough draft of 800 - 850 words. The act of minor surgery usually eliminated all that 'junk'--and also honed the point. Well, that was a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean.
I've never written a first draft that didn't belong in the cat litter box. For my writing -- editing is vital. In fact, most of my Challenge entries represent an eighth or ninth draft. Occasionally more.
I read once, "Try to avoid using words and phrases that readers tend to skip over." And I once had someone tell me my writing included 'excruciating detail' (ouch!). These bits of advice have helped me tremendously.
I find that the more I trim down a piece, and the closer I get to the bare bones, the more clearly my point comes accross.
Jan these are all good points. I try to do my edits but struggle with it. I tend to get in a hury and when the moment is there I try not to loose it. Hince the reason I don't do outlines. I feel it very distracting to me whenever I write. I want to be clear on my thought but sometimes even as hard as I try my thoughts can still come acrossed as unclear. Very frustraiting when you are trying to get out of the beginners mode of writing.
However, I do believe that the message of the story should be one that is on a Christian point of view. If you are claiming to be a Christian Writer then this shouldn't even be a question. It should in fact be something that you are passionate about writing. It doesn't matter what the story is or the turn of the story as long as it causes the reader to think about the principles of the story.
As a devotional writer myself that is the main objective to writing a devotion. If the message isn't clear then it will not be read in the way you meant for it to be written. For me that is a thing I strive to do in all of my writing. I want the message of salvation and the words of Christ to be real in everything so they know what I'm about. I want to be known as a Christian writer so the message is very important to me if I fail to present it then I fail as a writer.
On the other hand, there are those moments when the light bulb just doesn't come on when writing. GUILTY! But, it doesn't come on until you take a step back and really review what you wrote. I find 9 times out of 10 that if I read it first then I can see how it read by my readers. That should always be the object. My biggest thing I get marked for is off the topic. I get told that all the time. Trying hard to correct it, but definately check your work and review it over and over again until you the writer get the message. It must sink deep within your soul almost to the point it makes you cry or laugh or send cills up your spine. Just some of my thoughts.
When I read your lesson, my first thought was that I can't plan the theme. It's something that develops while I write the story. Then I had to go away and think about it because I know I can write a thesis statement or decide to write a story that makes a point.
But I think my best writing is intuitive and I let the story and characters decide the direction of it. When I try to force a point into the story, I think it spoils it. But when my goal is to tell a good story, some sort of theme usually develops.
A friend of the Bridegroom
"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." Philippians 4:8 NLT
Christine, I understand what you're saying here--and of course, if you're writing devotionals, they are going to make a point about faith.
When I said that the point of your entry doesn't necessarily have to be spiritual, I was talking mostly about fiction and poetry, which may not be overtly Christian in nature. It's actually part of the challenge rules; as long as an entry maintains a Christian world view, it may be secular in nature.
For example, I wrote a story about a woman whose mother-in-law disapproved of her marriage. God was not mentioned anywhere in the story, but the husband dealt with the family conflict in an honorable and loving way. I wrote another one, just for giggles, about a bit actor who gets a part in 'Star Trek'. Even in this silly story, the fellow came to the rescue of a pretty girl, and he acted in a righteous manner.
A person can be a Christian writer and not always write about Christian topics. I am a writer who is a Christian; I hope that my faith is evident in everything I write. Sometimes I may write about it in a very obvious way, and sometimes I may choose to be more subtle. But I'm no less Christian if my writings don't preach.
What do you think?
I agree, Phee. I rarely planned a point ahead of time. When the writing is good (as your is), there will be a point.
This is how I see myself: "I am a writer who is Christian".
I spent forty-two years of my life as a non-believer. I remember hearing messages then, and as a non-believer it was as if my ears were filled with wax or something and I simply did not hear the message and parts I did hear (to be honest) I thought was a little crazy.
I was led to Christ through personal interactions, not by messages. Kind, patient, loving, understanding Christans led me to Christ through their righteous actions. I was never led by sermons.
Since becoming a Christian however, I crave sermons, devotionals, messages. I need them and I devour them and find encouragement through them.
So what's my point? I am a writer who is Christian. Because of my personal experience, my writing is intentionally non-overtly Christian. I try to reveal human frailties coupled with the grace of God in a natural or daily-living sort of setting. But that's just me. I think each writer has a unique style and purpose. There is a great need for overtly Christian writing. It needs to be here, infused in all forms of media, because it is relevant.
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