Biblical fiction – What are the rules?

Here’s a can of worms… What are the ‘rules’ for writing Christian Fiction, especially fiction that expands upon existing stories in the Bible?

As someone interested in creating my own expansion on Genesis 6:1-4, I have read a lot of what other authors have done with that section specifically. In the last 10 years, public interest in that story has been growing, which means authors (or would-be authors like myself) then undertake to tell their version of the tale.

Unfortunately, out of all the novels based on Genesis 6:1-4, I only enjoyed one. For many of them, the stories, characters and writing was just awful – some of the worst I’ve ever subjected myself to, which is a shame, and does an incredible disservice to the story and source material (the Bible).

Others were technically written well, but either tried to incorporate too many possibilities or tried to become the next Lord of the Rings that they lost any semblance of credibility or plausibility. We don’t know much about the Antediluvian earth, but incorporating every possible way it may have been different than our own is putting way to much emphasis on ‘world building’, usually at the expense of everything else.

Neither does it help to make the story so fantastical that we don’t know fact from fiction, and the reader then relegates everything to fiction, including the themes we’re trying to present.

I realize that no one other person will share the same exact beliefs and perspectives that I do. That’s fine! But it creates an obligation to make a story that can be enjoyed and identified with universally, because it is consistent with the world that it takes place in. My goal has always been to create a story that is theologically plausible fiction (This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti is a great example). From a theological perspective, it should work, even if it’s just a story that I’ve made up to connect the various immovable dots provided by the source material.

Over the years of working on my own story, I formed my own set of guidelines for myself as I invented plots, motivations, events, and consequences for Biblical events and characters. The story would have been quite different in the end if I hadn’t followed these guidelines, and I’m glad I did for a variety of reasons.

If you have any comments or guidelines to add, please share them!

1.  The source material is law & shouldn’t be contradicted

If Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings taught us any one thing, it should be – if you can’t tell the story as it happened, just don’t bother telling it at all. The Ten Commandments is one of my favorite movies at all time. Just take a few minutes comparing it with Ridley Scott’s version… It’s easy to see the results of playing loose with the source material.

Aronofsky decided to change whatever elements in the Noah story he wanted in order to create the version of the story that he wanted to tell. “The Bible says that Noah’s sons had wives and they all went on the ark together…. what if they didn’t have wives because Noah wouldn’t let them? Wouldn’t that be interesting?” (That’s not a real quote… it’s just what I imagine was said.)

No!  If you have no respect for the source material, then why are you adapting it? Create something original and tell your story that way!

(I have some fun with this rule in the book. A few times I throw something into the story that completely contradicts the source material in some small point. Later, it’s fully explained and the contradiction is cleared up, but it serves to keep the audience on their toes… I hope!)

2.  The fiction should be worthy of the source material

Braveheart is a good example of a movie that is based very loosely on the reality of the story of William Wallace. A lot of fiction was invented, but the end result is a masterpiece.

When inventing fiction to fill in details of Biblical importance, the fiction should be of the highest quality. This was very difficult for me to achieve. For years I knew all too well that my story was not doing justice to the event it was trying to remember. That knowledge motivated me to push for a better story. I had to strip out the cliches and obvious plot points and eventually find better and better ways to tell the story.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers recognize the potential of a story, begin writing, and then publish something that is below par, resulting in a mediocre mess.

For me, to get the story where I was mostly happy with it has taken 8 years of continuous work, and is over 12 years from the initial inception… I’m slow!

3.  The fiction should be justifiable

This ties into the rule that the fictional elements should be plausible, but takes it a step further. Often when creating Biblical fiction, you have to make a choice between two or more options for how the story will progress. If you go down path A, the remainder of the story will be affected differently than if you go down path B.

One good reason for choosing one path or the other is – which one best serves the story you are creating? So you have leeway to choose the fictional path that serves the story best, as long as it doesn’t contradict rule #1.

Once your story is finished and people ask you why something happened, you should have a good reason – from a story, character, or theme perspective. You shouldn’t have to resort to an answer like, “Well, there had to be romance in there somewhere!”

4.  The fiction should build on things we know

Fiction allows you the freedom to communicate a lot of different things as you tell the story. For example, it wasn’t until after the Flood that God granted mankind permission to eat meat. So my characters do not eat meat.

As well, I can answer the silly question as to who was Cain’s wife? If you don’t know the answer, you’ll have to read the story, but keep in mind that it wasn’t until Moses’ time that any prohibition against marrying within the family was made. With fiction, I can show how the world operated in practice, not just in theory.

My story exists in a world where the Bible’s tale of Creation and man’s early history are true. Believe those things or not, you’ll still be able to enjoy the story. So things from man’s early history are incorporated as I tease what may have been the origin and significance of things such as the very first pyramid.

The fiction should coexist with the fact seamlessly.

5.  Not all possibilities should be incorporated

The last Antediluvian novel I read tried to incorporate every single story possibility it could. I won’t give examples, because of how ludicrous the story ended up as a result. The author recognized the potential of various cool story elements, but didn’t bother filtering them by what he actually needed to tell the story and what things were just superfluous.

And it should go without saying that if you decide to incorporate something into your story… it should have a reason to be there and shouldn’t be forgotten halfway through.

There were a lot of ‘cool’ things that eventually disappeared from my story as I realized they were not needed and distracted from more important elements.A lot was stripped out. The story is better because of it.

7.  Extra-Biblical sources can be used with care

I treat legends and traditional accounts in this way – valuable for gaining a general idea of the course of events, and valuable for mining certain details for use in the story, but not gospel. I use, change and contradict traditional accounts as needed.

Jewish historians recorded a lot of information about this particular time period, and quite a few religious writers of dubious credibility created accounts as well throughout the years before and after Christ. Some authors that have novelized this passage seem to try to pack every detail of those accounts into the stories, creating a fantastic mess. Others create original stories without any similarity to the consensus presented by the extra-Biblical sources. Both methods fall short of creating something both rooted and original.

Agree with this list? More points to add? Thoughts? Let me know!

If you haven’t read the story yet, read the screenplay while it’s available!

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