Discussion for Writers: Bridging the Religious and Secular in HBM Excerpt, Pt 2

The first time I encountered the term “manipulation” in reference to what fiction writers do, I was mildly offended. Manipulation, after all, is a negatively charged word. Yet as I thought about it, I couldn’t come up with a better word offering for what writers do. Oh sure, writers should entertain and, certainly in the case of lit fic, provoke, but how do we do that? Answer: by manipulating readers.

To manipulate is to skillfully manage or influence another person’s feelings. Think aobut it. A skillful writer can tap a few black marks onto a screen or a piece of paper and those words, when read by another human, can completely remove that person from his real-world experience. A paragraph of well-placed words can make a sad man laugh or a happy woman cry. Amazing, the power in that. So if words can completely alter our emotional state, can they alter our thinking? I believe so.

I’m a former college composition instructor and I spent a fair amount of time teaching argument to young adults, showing them techniques by which they could persuade others to accept their viewpoint. But I am not talking about persuading anyone to change his/her thinking  or, for that matter, ideology. Persuasion admonishes, through the use of reason and evidence, a person to adopt a new thought or behavior. It is long-term, hopefully. But manipulation is more an “in the moment” approach to changing someone’s outlook. This is why manipulation seems like an underhanded approach, because, in real life, it is often meant to get someone to think or do something in order for the manipulator to be readily gratified. If a novel sets out to persuade, it will run its entire course to achieve its desired change in the reader. Readers will sense its message quickly and either stay in because they agree or opt out of completing the book. Propagandic novels rarely keep readers long enough to achieve any change in readers who aren’t already “with the program,” which is why non-LDS readers tend to stop reading devout and devoutly written novels about the LDS. So I am definitely not equating manipulating a reader with persuading a reader.

While I am a believing Latter-day Saint, I most certainly am not crafting a book to persuade anyone to “get with the Mormon program,” nor to persuade any to abandon it. Instead, I aim to create a story that uses Mormon characters to investigate a societal issue that divides Americans. In my last post, I gave a rather simplistic approach to one way to unite those who are divided, those who might feel alienated in reading a book with religious themes. Providing admiarable secularist characters interacting with religious people who admire and appreciate them is likely to serve well the writer who wants both audiences. But of course, it won’t be enough to sustain readership.

The way to sustain this readership, page after page, is with well-thought out manipulations–manipulations, both emotional and intellectual, that repeatedly get under the skin of those readers who would not be inclined to accept the protagonist’s worldview. These manipulations must be honest representations of the universal human experience, written situations that ring true to all, regardless of religious, political, or social views. Literary types love to speak of the universal, of universalities, and of the Every Man. We often preach that there is more truth hidden in the mundane ways shared by all of mankind than in the high tension moments that befall the individual. There is, of course, truth about who and what man is in both the mundane and the high tension moments. But we don’t often talk about how it is that some writers succeed in writing what I call the “gentle novel” (Think Gilead by Marilynne Robinson) and some don’t. Why is Gilead captivating and the lit fic novel written by that guy in your writer’s group boring?

Marilynne Robinson knows how to manipulate. Gilead is a book brimming with religious themes that secularists–including those in the Ivory Tower–consumed joyfully. This post isn’t about Marilynne Robinson, though I suppose I should follow this up by digging into her work and demonstrating her manipulations. She’s obviously well in advance of me. But this blog is about me and my work, so lets look at the excerpt I put up earlier this week. How did I manipulate readers so that even the secularist would back my protagonist and his worldview, the Mormon worldview?

It wasn’t easy, though I hope it reads easily, and it wasn’t by accident. I decided, first and foremost, that this first real scene in the Egbert storyline, had to pull the secularist into Joe’s life, had to leave him rooting for him. First impressions, even in books, matter. As I discussed in Pt 1, I intentionally set the scene in Quincy, Illinois, a town that treated the exiled Mormons with genuine charity and respect. I knew two things: 1) all scenes must have some form of tension, and 2) it’d probably be wise to set up a contentious situation in which readers end up cheering for my protagonist because this would cause them to unconsciously align themselves with him. I realized if I put Joe in contention with a non-Mormon–even a non-Mormon from another town, even a non-Mormon who picked a bone about something other than Joe’s Mormonness–I ran the risk of undoing any gains made by all the positive chatter about the good people of Quincy.

Joe had to be in a contentious situation with a Mormon and I chose his slightly older brother, Robert, because most of us identify with sibling teasing that feels more like a shot to the ribs than playful banter. There’s my mundane, my universal situation. But from this, I had a lot to milk. Yes, I had a love story to set up, but that was my secondary goal at this point, the story goal, yes; but not necessary my writerly goal, not my manipulation. My manipulation goal was to align even the secularist with some aspect of the Mormon worldview.

Remember, the scene is filled with tension. Joe has tried hard to keep his cool in the face of his brother’s slovenly behavior and as Robert embarrasses him in front of a girl. I hope, by this point, the reader feels compassionately for Joe’s predicament, even thinks s/he would blame Joe for losing his cool. When the reader’s emotions are at this point, its time to skillfully influence the reader to accept the character’s worldview as something that simply is. Here again, I paste the climax of the scene I posted a few days back:

Robert looked at him slyly. “I hear the Allred family’s housed over in the Methodist church. Maybe I’ll feel like praying tonight.”

Joe faced him, stared. He brushed by his brother, heading back to the splitting stump.

“You know, they say the skinnier the bride, the fatter the babies she makes.”

Joe stopped in his tracks.

“All those little Mormon babies, just waiting to come down from heaven.”

And there it is, the introduction of a Mormon way of thinking that is likely different from that of many secularist readers. If the secularist reader is prepared properly, s/he should receive it without any need to judge it. They shouldn’t even notice it: It is a natural extension of both character and story. Most importantly, though, if the readers are aligned with Joe, they will feel the comment as Joe does, as crude and ungentlemanly, and, like Joe, they’ll seek the emotional satisfaction of Joe is about to provide:

Joe felt something ball up inside him. Not anger exactly, but whatever the feeling was, it pulled his fingers into fists as sure as if each tip was connected with marionette strings of iron to the stone churning inside him. Joe wheeled and rushed his older brother, landing one and then the other of those fists solidly against either side of his jaw. The second swing, the left hook, sent Robert flying into the pile of well-split rails.

The scene finishes out in a couple quick paragraphs, with Joe, a very sympathic character, storming off in hope of cooling down.

I’ve shared this scenedozens of times with those who do not share the Mormon worldview, namely academic secularists and evangelical Christians who are unabashed in their belief that Mormonism is a cult. I get the same reaction from all: They love that Joe took Robert down–and no one notices the Mormon ideology presented in the climax of this scene, or seems aware (unless I’ve said something after the fact) that it was the crude presentation of Mormon ideology that was the emotional last straw for both Joe and for them, as an aligned readership.

I suppose some who read this may think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. That this is one little scene and that what it accomplishes is a small victory. I agree. But I don’t believe I’m overstating the import of its effect. I do believe that if I, or any writer who chooses to write for a readership that does not accept,or is offended by, the worldview of the progatonist, remains consistently aware of the skillful ways to influence through writerly choices (the small manipulations) the end result will be a novel that truly bridges both worlds.

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