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Loving Human Journeys Over Genres

Scripture isn’t first about kings, tents, and donkeys; other stories aren’t first about worlds, battles, and dragons.
| Sep 26, 2013 | No comments |

What if someone approached me to ask what I’m reading? “The Bible,” I say. And in reply the person doesn’t display any preconceived notion about the Scripture. Instead he or she asks sincerely, “Oh? What’s it about?” Then what if responded with the following “pitch”?

It’s a series of narratives, histories, and other literature set in human history from (approximate date) B.C. to the latter first century A.D. The New Testament has all this theology, letters to churches, and especially the parables based on first-century life with spiritual application and even hints of fantasy. The Old Testament is also fantastic: It has kings, real battle accounts, miracles, assassinations, revolutions, an Exodus and exile, mythological(?) creatures such as in the book of Job, and donkeys.

machinecogsWhat’s the problem with this approach?

It’s the same problem as when some fans describe a fantasy story. I first noticed this about prospective authors (including myself) at writers’ conferences, but the difficulty is deeper than a flawed aspiring-author pitch. Christian writers’ and readers’ pitches for their favorite fantastic or otherwise speculative stories are often doomed to resemble this:

It’s a [name of genre] set in [name of world] with [fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi elements such as dragons, zombies, or intergalactic portals] and plenty of [select one or more adjectives or genre modifier: action, adventure, grit, intrigue, mystery, romance, wholesome moral content] that is suitable for [insert reader group(s)].

I’ve come to conclude that this may be one of the singular worst ways to sell a story. And it’s especially ineffective when tried on someone who isn’t part of the semi-professional fantasy-promoters’ “club.”1 Why is this method so mad?

1. The define-story-parts method resembles industry talk (but isn’t even that).

You’d think that “it’s a genre set in world with genre elements and adjectives suitable for readers” would be meant for editors or marketers. But surely that doesn’t even work for them. If they’re any good, even they want to hear something more interesting, fascinating yet familiar, and attention-grabbing. How much more will readers with even more basic interests want to hear about the story — not the story’s parts, but the human story itself?

2. This method is flat-out boring.

The “sell the parts over the story itself” approach reminds me of business, engineering, or even faux academia. It’s the surest way to put potential hearers right to sleep. Reject that stuff. Ask yourself: who or what sold you on the things you now love? Was it your hearing about the chemical makeup of the thing, or simply by taking a sip to sample it for yourself?

3. This method reinforces the worst sort of pragmatism.

recyclingcenterEven if a friend asks and you “sell” a story you love by using the “define the parts” method, you’ve just accidentally reinforced one of the least beneficial motives for loving stories —the motive of “how can I use this for X alternative goal?” rather than “how can I receive this, rejoice in this, and in that joyous experience explore God’s beauty and truth in worship?”

Wrong pragmatism seeks to salvage a story for parts, “useful” for wrongfully self-interested goals such as entertainment, moral edification, or evangelism. Rightful pragmatism seeks to receive any good story on its own terms, for the better self-interested end of glorifying God.

Selling Scripture, selling stories

So how would I sell both these stories to those who ask sincerely, “What’s the story about?”

Scripture. It’s about a wonderful, infinite, perfect, holy, loving God Who created the entire universe, including man in His image to manage it on His behalf. But all went wrong when man rebelled. Through ages of humanity, God in His love chose a people and sought to reconcile them to Himself while preserving His own nature. How can a loving Creator show His holiness in not excusing evil, and His loving mercy to creation? The answer is stunning.

Another story. It’s about a person of fascinating yet familiar qualities, who might remind you of someone you know or someone you wish to be. There is nothing in his/her fantastic world she wants more than her goal, which should also be fascinating yet familiar. But all goes wrong when something happens. With her friends she must keep pursuing her goal — which may slowly change as she errs, learns, and grows. On that human journey she faces incredible odds and explores amazing places (fascinating yet familiar! and all described in functional yet beautiful language that gives pleasure and wonder to the whole experience).

How have you “sold” favorite stories? How have great stories been sold to you?

  1. But as for fantasy fans, they are not so rare as claimed by the myth that Christian opposition keeps fantasy a niche genre.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Great points! I’ll have to keep this in mind when discussing my novel or when recommending a story to friends.


Yvonne Anderson

I love your blurb describing the Bible — perfect!

Austin Gunderson

I think the difference between a taxonomically-correct-yet-tediously-blasé story-description and one that’ll actually attract readers is specificity. So your book is a profound and thrilling Tolkienesque masterpiece of high fantasy. But isn’t everything? Those are subjective adjectives devoid of actual meaning. Compare such potentially empty promises with the back-cover self-description of the original Tolkienesque masterpiece itself:

“In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

When Bilbo reached his eleventy-first birthday, he disappeared, bequeathing to his young cousin Frodo the Ruling Ring and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.

The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard; the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider.”

No flowery superlatives here; there’s no need. The plot and characters, presented in plain, straightforward language, are sufficient to pique my fascination by themselves. Notice also that there’s no declaration of genre. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t think of itself as “fantasy.” Instead of using classification as a crutch to appeal to “those who purchased similar items,” it offers itself freely to anyone and everyone who enjoys good fiction. It’s the antithesis of niche marketing.


Austin, I love your point. Specifics are really useful, but in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember the details and can be easy to fall into genre cliches

Kristen Stieffel

Yes, despite all the advice to pitch a story as the journey of a character, we do fall into the trap of naming parts. I will say this though. The naming of parts is useful in one place: your Amazon description. Because those are keywords. But SEO has no place in a real conversation, which is what a pitch should be.

Paul Lee

But SEO has no place in a real conversation, which is what a pitch should be.

The day that Google uses analytics from its brain implant product to influence SEO placement based on real-life conversations will probably be the day that the Antichrist takes over.

Kristen Stieffel
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Rightful pragmatism seeks to receive any good story on its own terms, for the better self-interested end of glorifying God.

Stephen, I have to admit, I stall on a lot of your uses of “glorifying God.” Can you give me a simple sentence definition of what it means to you?

How I understand the word, it’s impossible to do if you’re receiving something. I have the same problem when you talk about reading as worship. I think there has to be a redefinition of terms in order for that to work. I guess I’m old school.