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Writing Biblical Fiction

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.

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Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby glorybee » Sat Apr 02, 2016 8:16 am

Many Christian writers enjoy writing biblical fiction—the Bible stories are dear to us, after all, and we love the idea of presenting them in a fresh light, perhaps even for readers who are unfamiliar with them.

However, there are some issues to think about when considering biblical fiction. What I’m going to do for this lesson is to present a sort of continuum of biblical fiction, from that which is closest to the scriptural account to that which strays the furthest. When there are problems or issues with a particular approach, I’ll cover them there.

1. Paraphrasing a biblical story—remaining quite close to the scriptural account. In this approach, the writer presents a 3rd person narrative, keeping the same characters and the same order of events. This account varies very little from what one might read in the Bible. The chapters and verses are missing, and the writer may add a few details of the setting or a few bits of dialog, but generally, there’s not much in this kind of rewriting that couldn’t be found in one’s NIV.

Some people only feel comfortable writing this kind of biblical fiction; they may feel that straying farther from the biblical narrative goes against Revelation 22:18. I’ve mentioned often that I’m not a theologian, just a writing teacher—but it seems to me that writing fiction that is labeled fiction is far different from writing something in addition to scripture and claiming that it’s scripture. Nevertheless, people have to abide by their own consciences.

If, after reading through the rest of this lesson, this level of writing biblical fiction is the only one that you feel comfortable with, I’d suggest that this might not be the best for the Writing Challenge. One of the criteria for judging is “How creative, unique, and original is the entry?” and it’s difficult to give a paraphrased Bible story a high score on that criteria. In addition, you risk losing your readers’ interest if they’ve come to the Challenge to read something new and fresh.

If you’re a stick-to-the-scriptural-account person, I’d ask you to just consider the following options:

2. Re-writing the biblical story in the first person, from the POV of the main character in the story. So you’d write, for example, the story of Joseph and his brothers from Joseph’s POV, using “I” and “me” for Joseph as he tells his story.

When you do this, you help the readers to imagine what that character may have been going through, and you allow your readers to experience any revelations or lessons that the character experiences, right along with that character.

When using this approach, some people are uneasy about putting words in Jesus’ mouth, and I respect that. There are ways to get around that; a creative writer should be able to figure out how to do this without violating their convictions.

3. Re-writing the biblical story, but featuring a minor or secondary character. This could either be done in 1st person or 3rd person, but it would focus on a character who is in the biblical account, but about whom little is known. So if you were telling the story from 1 Kings 17, for example, you might choose to tell it by focusing on the character of the widow’s son.

This is a good approach to catch the interest of readers who may be very familiar with the biblical stories. Reading a story from the POV of a secondary character may allow them to appreciate it in a new light, and even to gain new revelations from that story. Again, in my opinion, this is not ‘adding to scripture’—it is using your God-given creativity. We are made in His image, and He is a creator. We are writers; it is no sin to write with all of our imagination.

4. Re-writing the biblical story, but from the POV of a totally made-up character. This character could be someone who might have been there, or one who may have observed the event, or a relative of someone who was there…the possibilities are numerous. Here are a few links to some of my stories that use this approach. I certainly don’t expect you to read them all, but you might want to click one or two of them to see what this kind of story looks like:

This one is narrated by a guy who’s watching Noah build his ark.
This one is written from the POV of the rocks on the road to Jerusalem.
This one is narrated by a boy who shares the sycamore tree with Zacchaeus.
This one is narrated by a leper who Jesus heals.

I had a few more, but those should give you the idea. By the way, those were all written in 1st person, but 3rd person would work well here, too.

5. Telling an extension of the biblical story. To do this, you might want to consider the events before the biblical story, or the events that happened afterward. You could use the actual characters, or secondary characters, or made-up characters with this approach. Ask yourself: what led up to this event? What were the possible consequences of this event? It could be very effective to write a story, for example, that ends just as Delilah is contemplating a pair of scissors, or just as a conscience-stricken Roman soldier builds a cross to be used later that week. Similarly, you could write about what Lazarus does after he walks out of his tomb.

6. Move the biblical story to a different setting. The most common way to do this would be to move the story into a modern time period, and usually to a different country (America, for example, or whatever country you’re comfortable with). Often, writers who do this will further fictionalize the characters by giving them modern equivalents of their names, having them speak in modern idioms and use modern items (cars, cell phones, and the like).

7. Write an allegory that alludes to the biblical story. You could do almost anything here—totally made-up characters, symbolic characters, animals, fantasy creatures—and there doesn’t have to be an exact correspondence there with the biblical account. The events that happen in an allegory can suggest the biblical story, or have the same lesson as the biblical story, arrived at in a totally different way, but a way that reminds readers of the scriptural account. An example of this can be seen here.

To summarize this lesson:

1. Biblical fiction that is merely a paraphrase of scripture may not be well-received by the judges or by readers who are already very familiar with the story.
2. There is a continuum of ways to approach fiction that references events and characters in scripture.
3. These different approaches get further and further from strict adherence to the biblical accounts, but such creativity is permissible and may be well-received by readers who appreciate a fresh approach to a familiar story.
4. If you’re a person who has stayed at or near #1 in this list, consider easing your way toward a higher number. Stretch yourself!

Comments? Questions? I’d especially love to see links to stories you may have written that fit #2, 3, 5, or 6.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby CatLin » Sat Apr 02, 2016 10:39 am

I love reading Biblical fiction, but I haven't attempted much because of the "fear" of changing or adding to Scripture. I wrote this one when I first joined FW for the "Lifeguard" challenge but I didn't enter it. (I wrote a different story for the challenge.) It would fit in your category 4 - a made up character.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby pheeweed » Sat Apr 02, 2016 11:46 am

I've tried 3 and 5. I don't like 1 or 2 because they feel like I'm playing around with the integrity of scripture. But I agree that God intends us to use our creativity, which is why I'm comfortable with the others.

I enjoyed Waves of Grace, Cat. The drama was excellent.

Here's a link to one that fits best in #3, I think. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level3.php?id=39211

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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby Allison » Sat Apr 02, 2016 12:43 pm

Oh boy. This is one of my favorite genres to write in, and I do it quite frequently. Lately, I've been doing poems based on Biblical stories, only because since the challenge changed to being judged by editors, I haven't placed with with anything but poetry or humor.

Interestingly enough, Jan, I have stories from the POV of three that you posted. The rocks, a leper healed by Jesus, and someone watching Noah build the ark.

Oh, and as Jan said, I do not expect anyone to read all of these. I am going to try to restrain myself and only post a few. :lol:

For number 1, I have an example that I'll post where I stuck TOO close to the original. Pretty much all I changed was the wording. So even us "experts" in the challenge (Ha! I do not consider myself to be an "expert" by the way) can have duds. This is also in third person, and, in general, I do better with first person.
Cups, Crows, Cows, and Corn

For number 2, here is a very VERY early challenge entry of mine where I did the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume from the woman's POV.
Alabaster Jar

For number 3, here's one I did from Sarah's POV when Abraham went to sacrifice Issac. Now on this one, I may have strayed a bit TOO far from the Biblical perspective. I made a few assumptions that probably weren't true. We have no idea if Sarah knew what Abraham was doing, and I don't think she did. But in this story, I had her knowing what was going on.
A Firm Foundation

There's another one I wrote that I wish would just disappear, where I definitely strayed too far from the Biblical story, almost to the point where I made it UN-Biblical. :oops: Don't do that either!

For number 4, I'm going to post one with the same POV that Jan did, just to show that you and have the same unique idea and have two unique stories. This one is also from the POV of the rocks on the way to Jerusalem.
Still Silent

For number 5, I have one that just happens to be one Jan mentions... The man who makes Jesus' cross. This is another early one, and honestly, still one of my favorites, even though it didn't do well in the judging.
He Bore My Cross And... Oh my goodness. I just NOW, nine years later, caught the double meaning of my title. I 100% meant the title to refer to the spiritual concept of "baring our cross" but Jesus also bore the physical cross this man made. Funny how we can have hidden meaning in our stories that even WE didn't intend and don't see right away!

For number 6, I have a few, but I'll choose one. I LOVE playing around with the script format, and have a roving reporter, Eli, who likes to interview Biblical characters. I have a few like this, but my favorite actually isn't a challenge entry (and would be too long for the challenge) but rather it's one I wrote for a woman's missions lunch at my church. It's the story of Mary and Martha. (I also had to change Eli to Eliza, since it was a woman's event. :) )
Service with a Smile

For 7, I'm sure I have some that are closer to a straight allegory, but I can't think of any, so I'll share this one, where I share the Easter story in the form of a painting. At least I THINK this would be considered and allegory.... Jan?
Wirtten in Red



Okay. That's more than you wanted, I'm sure, Jan. But there you go. And if there's any one piece of mine you had that I didn't post, let me know and I'll try to find it. But, honestly, I feel like I'm taking over and have already posted too many!
Last edited by Allison on Sat Apr 02, 2016 8:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby beff » Sat Apr 02, 2016 1:54 pm

I appreciate all the information and wealth of ideas here, Jan.

Most of my "Biblical Fiction" falls into the #4 category. I do have one that might fit #6. Locusts and Wild Honey, a modern setting for a John the Baptist-type character.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby glorybee » Sat Apr 02, 2016 2:10 pm

I just want to re-emphasize something that may have gotten buried in the original lesson because it was very lengthy.

If a person wrote something and asserted that it was equal to scripture, or should be considered for doctrine along with scripture, or said that it was additional verses to the book of Acts, for example--those would be 'adding to scripture' and would clearly be wrong.

But writing fiction is just that--it's writing fiction. People who read it KNOW that they're reading fiction. If the writer doesn't claim it's new scripture, then it's totally fine.

I've said many times that I'm not a theologian, but I'm quite sure of this. People needn't feel fearful or guilty about something that is not sin.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby Shann » Sat Apr 02, 2016 3:26 pm

For some reason, I'm attracted to Judas and what might have really made him betray a man he had spent almost every day with for the past couple of years. I've tackled this a couple of times. Not everyone agreed with it, but I think it may have made people think, and as a writer, I think that's always a good objective. I think the main things I would change today is the dialog. I noticed I tended to slip from what might have been used in Biblical times to modern language. If editing it today, I would commit a bit more to the modern language, although still use words like schlepped.

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=42668

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=41954
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby glorybee » Sat Apr 02, 2016 5:53 pm

Thanks to all of you who have left links.

Does anyone want to weigh in on the 'adding to scripture' or 'just writing fiction' issue?
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Apr 02, 2016 6:26 pm

LOVE writing Biblical fiction. In fact, I wrote nothing but one quarter for the challenge a few years back

This one, one of the first I wrote for the challenge, would fit under #3. The Unbroken Line

The writing fiction/adding to scripture issue does fascinate me. It's hard, sometimes, to find the right balance. Fudging facts in historical fiction is definitely frowned upon - and it should be the same in biblical fiction, I would think. We need to remain true to scripture (especially if it is in the same biblical setting - not so much so in Jan's examples 6 or 7), but using our imaginations to "flesh out the story," I think, is fine. But that is MY opinion.

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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby trudynewell » Sat Apr 02, 2016 7:29 pm

Hi Jan -

This is not my day. I really did send a note early, and that glitched. I do want you know just how much your lessons are appreciated.

Now I am embarrassed as I'm not sure this is link for my article The Good Samaritan 2014. At this time is should be the very first article there - as I just published it.

http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... ?id=183368 Please forgive me, and I'll try to get the right info so I can do links properly.

Our good friend Shann helped to edit this. It fits in category 6 - as the take on this familiar parable is in a modern-day setting. I wrote it a couple of years ago.

With Biblical fiction there is a fine line between staying true to Scripture and making the story real. It can be fun :)

Thanks for all you do - Trudy

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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby glorybee » Sat Apr 02, 2016 7:53 pm

Thanks, Trudy. That's very kind.

I fixed your link so it goes to your story.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby CatLin » Sat Apr 02, 2016 10:18 pm

Shann wrote:For some reason, I'm attracted to Judas and what might have really made him betray a man he had spent almost every day with for the past couple of years.


Shann, Tosca Lee wrote about Judas in her novel "Iscariot". I've read it twice - you should check it out. Tosca writes AMAZING biblical fiction!

glorybee wrote:Does anyone want to weigh in on the 'adding to scripture' or 'just writing fiction' issue?


When I wrote Waves of Grace, and the only other biblical fiction I remember writing, I read and reread the Scriptures, read commentaries, and tried to make sure my details and descriptions were accurate. (I did err in not researching my characters names, and that was pointed out to me by a gracious critiquer. Because it's in the general articles I've been able to edit and tweak, so that's been fixed. ) I didn't enter it because I was afraid that saving an Egyptian soldier from the Red Sea might be changing, or adding to, Scripture.

Nothing irks me more than reading a fiction book with errors about real places or things. I quit reading a novel recently where the author used the airport in Atlanta for a scene, but it was obvious he had not bothered to find out what it was even like and made the whole thing up. If an author does that when writing biblical fiction, I think THAT would be altering Scripture and as bad as adding to it.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby pheeweed » Thu Apr 07, 2016 7:10 pm

I agree with Joanne that writing Biblical fiction should be treated like writing historical fiction - after all, that's what it is. So the facts need to be researched and it needs to feel authentic. I'm not sure I've done that, but as a reader I notice.

But I think a bigger problem could lie with interpreting the meaning of the events within the story. That's where I get scared as a writer. It's the same fear I have when writing a devotional or Bible study. Do I understand it correctly? Am I playing around with God's word? That's the thing that makes me hesitate to write it and why I stay away from the big stories.
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby glorybee » Thu Apr 07, 2016 7:23 pm

pheeweed wrote:I agree with Joanne that writing Biblical fiction should be treated like writing historical fiction - after all, that's what it is. So the facts need to be researched and it needs to feel authentic. I'm not sure I've done that, but as a reader I notice.

But I think a bigger problem could lie with interpreting the meaning of the events within the story. That's where I get scared as a writer. It's the same fear I have when writing a devotional or Bible study. Do I understand it correctly? Am I playing around with God's word? That's the thing that makes me hesitate to write it and why I stay away from the big stories.


But people who write historical fiction also do so with varying degrees of accuracy to the time period of their setting. Some stick very close to the historical facts--although even those writers are making up dialogue and events that aren't on the historical record, by using speculation in combination with research. And some writers of historical fiction just set their story in a particular time period, with all events from their own creativity. Others write purely speculative fiction: what would have happened, for example, if the Axis powers had won WW2?

It's kind of astonishing to me, frankly, the amount of fear and guilt that has come out on this thread, and the trepidation about 'playing around with God's word.' Surely that passage in Revelation is talking about people who claim to have new revelation, or those who write with the intention of subverting scripture. If I write a story about a little boy who hides with Zaccheus in the sycamore tree, that's NOT altering scripture. In fact, it would be extremely prideful of me to say that my little 750-word story had any effect whatsoever on scripture. I have written a story--it is fiction. How limited God's Word would be if my silly words were all it took to alter it!
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Re: Writing Biblical Fiction

Postby Deb Porter » Thu Apr 07, 2016 8:19 pm

Good discussion on this important lesson. My feeling is that biblical fiction must be well researched, but is best when written from a fresh point of view. Jan's example of Zaccheus in the tree with others is a really good one. I can't get back to the actual message here (on my iPad and having big internet problems), but when biblical fiction is written very much as speculative fiction to make the reader curious about what may have been going on around well known scenes, or is set in today's culture, it isn't tampering with truth.

The key is to make sure it is clearly recognised as fiction. Put it this way, I was saved after reading The Robe, which was biblical fiction based around some real biblical characters. The main character did exist, but there is virtually nothing known about him. He was the centurion who crucified Christ. The author wrote that this centurion won Christ's robe. The story unfolds as fiction, and very much speculative, but it was powerful. Changed my life.

However, about 20 years ago, a book came out that was the Bible written supposedly like a novel. A woman in our church found it easier to understand, so she read it thinking it was a type of paraphrase. I didn't know anything about it other than that the Christian bookstore was selling a lot of them.

Some months later at a Bible study, I asked the group to share their favourite story from the Bible about Jesus. We all shared, and then this lady (who had been a Christian for about five or so years by then) said her favourite story about Jesus was when the fat lady fell on him. My husband and I looked at each other to see whether either of us knew what she was talking about. Drawing a blank, I asked her where she read that story. Guess where? From the novel-like Bible.

To me, this is where the line has to be drawn. As Jan said, in writing biblical fiction, we are not in any way saying this is equal to scripture. It is very clearly a fictional "what if?" It uses what may have happened, interspersed with the truth, to create something that spurs the reader on to explore more.

I feel if a person feels uncomfortable writing biblical fiction, it's probably not their genre.

A straight rewriting of a well know biblical scene does nothing for me (personal opinion only). To me, that's what the Bible is for.
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