Conversion Cheese

The conversion.  It’s something that’s a given in most inspirational books.

Almost always, especially in romances, there’s one character who is seeking– he or she is lost, hurting, angry, broken, challenged, wandering, etc, and the only way the character can find peace is to come to an understanding in the salvation of the blood of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes it’s the climax of the book– when the character finds God.

It’s the most important thing we can do as inspirational writers– point our readers in the direction of Christ’s saving grace. 

But how do we, with our limited human vocabulary, do justice to the magnificent, majestic power of God’s grace and mercy?  How do we capture that moment– the instant when a human being realizes that Jesus is everything?  How do we eloquently do justice to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the true reality of eternity that we grasp when we reach out and take his extended hand and follow his path?

It’s always sometimes a beautiful thing if done well— most of the time.

I really don’t enjoy books where the character “gets saved” and everyone lives happily ever after.  That’s not realistic.

And nine times out of ten, I skip reading the “conversion scene” in a novel.  Why?  Several reasons.  But mostly because there is no cheesier part of the book than the conversion scene.  It’s a very difficult scene to get right.  It takes a lot of inspired and purposeful thought and consideration.  It can be done, and done well.

And a “bad” conversion scene can ruin a wonderful story. 

If you are a writer or connoisseur of inspirational fiction, you know what I’m talking about.  For example: (These are my words, not taken from any particular novel.)

       Johnny knew there was nothing else he could do.  He was broken.  And he was a dirty sinner.
      “Jesus, come live in my heart,” he whispered.  Suddenly a warm feeling spread through his body, penetrating deeply at the center of his chest.  Bright lights glowed before his eyes, and he began to cry.  Instantly the answers he had been seeking popped into his brain.  He knew what to do.  Everything was going to be okay.
     “Thanks, God,” he said.
      He went immediately to Carol and apologized for all of the horrible things he had done.  
     “Now I’ll marry you, Johnny,” she said with a smile.

Okay, that’s just an example of a scene in which a character creates a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or “finds God.”  And it’s a really, really bad one.

I don’t want to focus on the theology behind it, because most Chrisitan authors have pretty much the same general theology.  So instead, let’s talk about the details in the creation of the conversion scene and how we can improve it. 

Tone down the cheese.  For real.  Warm fuzzies? Bright lights? Sobbing tears?  All of this is simply over-kill and can become purple when done in a flowery, King James Version kind of way.  When the Holy Spirit comes into us, most people don’t feel any sort of physical reaction.  It’s more of a spiritual reaction and very often an emotional one.

If you want to include a physical reaction during the scene, keep it real.  Make sure it fits with the personality of your character.  For example, a Marine in the heat of battle who didn’t even shed a tear when he was shot in the leg might not break into weeping sobs when he seeks Christ.  But, he might.  So if he’s going to, make sure it seems realistic.  If your weepy damsel in distress doesn’t shed a tear when she comes to know the Lord, that might be unrealistic, too.

If every character in all of your novels finds God and feels some sort of warm glow inside, that can become majorly cheesy, too.  I actually stopped reading inspirational fiction when I was in college because of this problem.  My absolute favorite author had every single one of her “sinner” characters find Christ, and every single time there was a “warm glow” that encompassed them.  Is it possible?  Sure.  But not always realistic.

The ship is tossing in the storm and it’s every man for himself.  Walter the sailor screams out for God to save him.  Does he have time to weep?  Does he have time to feel the warm fuzzies?

Again, think about the physical reactions and really consider what works best for your story based on your character’s personality, setting, and plot. 

Anchoring it in reality.  I’ve never talked to anyone who became a born-again believer in Jesus Christ who suddenly and instantly had all the answers to their problems in life.  It’s just not realistic.

Christ never promised us that if we follow him that we’ll suddenly have an understanding of the universe, even of our own little universe.  In fact, it is said that we will be persecuted.

Plainly stated, being a Christian ain’t easy, so writing it like it is a piece of cake isn’t truthful.  Even in a fiction novel the conversion needs to be grounded in reality– Jesus doesn’t solve all of our problems instantly, but he holds us close, offering support, love, comfort, and a helping hand in the hard times.  HE is the ultimate hope.  Submitting to God’s will is what brings us to a place of peace, so instantaneous answers can be super cheesy. 

As my mom once said to me about our Christian walk, “You’re either going out of a storm or coming into one.”  Being a Christian doesn’t make life perfect, so we really shouldn’t insinuate that it does, even in fictitious novels.

Forming the faithful forgiver.  Forgiveness of sins is the whole point of Christ’s death on the cross.  Yet there are many, many conversion scenes in which the actual sinful nature of man is ignored.

Do faithful followers of Christ still sin?  We all know that they do.  So writing your character as a horrible, nasty sinner before finding God, yet nearly Christlike immediately after isn’t going to work, either.  Human nature is still insictive, and while it’s easy for some to turn away from sin, for others it’s a real struggle.  What kind of character do you have?

In one of my novels, I have a character who comes to an understanding in Christ after years of selfishness, hurting other people without regard for them at all.  One of my concerns in writing him after he found Christ is that he didn’t run immediately and seek forgiveness from those he hurt.  He finds Jesus, but still has to fight the sinful nature he’s known all his life.  In fact, he convinces himself that staying away from the people he hurt is actually better for them, even though he knows he has to eventually face his past and ask forgiveness.  But it’s a while before he gets around to it.  Sending him groveling wouldn’t work for the story, nor for who he is as a character.

Another thing that doesn’t work is when a character does seek forgiveness and immediately gets it from all those they have wronged.

Reality is that there are those, both saved and unsaved, who don’t forgive easily.  Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s realistic. When I’m reading and suddenly all of the characters want to make nice because someone found Jesus, well it takes me out of the story.

Decide who you are writing for.  If you are writing to an audience of people who already know Christ, you might not have to explain as much theology, but if you are writing for an audience of unbelievers, you might need to include a little more.  If the reader can’t understand why the character suddenly cries out for Jesus, the scene won’t be very powerful.

If the reader can’t grasp the meaning of forgiveness or redemption, you might need to include a little explanation of the importance.

Also, it’s difficult to read about a character who has never even been in or near a church who spontaneously has a grasp of deep philosophical theology.  It can work both ways, and usually not for the good of the story.

And as a side note, a conversion scene followed by a character engaged in the same sinful behavior doesn’t really work, either, does it?  Kind of misses the point, and doesn’t really resonate with reality.  We don’t often have time to make disciples out of our characters in a novel, but we certainly should indicate that a person who has come to an understanding in Christ is seeking, over time, to leave his or her old life behind and truly become that “new creature.”

Write to your testimony.  No two people have ever had the exact same experience with Jesus.  We all have our peaks and valleys in our walk with Christ, so no conversion is a blanket for all.

And no matter what I think of conversion scenes, what’s good and what’s bad, God will use our words to His glory if we ask Him to.

So how can you improve and move away from a cheesy conversion scene?

– Pray over it.  Nobody can give inspiration like God himself, especially if you truly desire your story to touch others.
– Talk to people about their experiences with that “moment” when they came to know Christ.  What did they say?  How did they feel?  Listening to the testimonies of others can give birth to beautiful scenes of true faith that are certainly grounded in reality.
– Listen to what your critique partners and people in the publishing industry are saying about your work, and aspire to make these scenes better.
– Tone down the cheese.  🙂

Share with me:  How do you feel about the “conversion scene?”  Do you usually read them or skip them?  What books or authors can you think of that do these scenes really well?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Conversion Cheese

  1. Oh my goodness, this is awesomeness. Complete and utter awesomeness. Holy cow, I love this post. That is all I have to say.

  2. Great post, Jennifer. I DO enjoy reading conversion scenes if the author has given me the thread throughout the book. Seeing other Christian characters work through their faith issues inspires me. But it really falls into the show-don't-tell category for me on this one. Your post summed it up nicely!

  3. Hi Jennifer! This is great and exactly what I was attempting to say over on Katie's blog. Only you said it better! 🙂 Like you, I normally skip those scenes. I don't know if I've ever read one that I really liked. Lots to think about. Thanks!

  4. Thanks so much for this post! I've been worried about writing an upcoming conversion scene. I hope I can manage it without the cheese!

  5. Katie- Thanks, friend. 🙂 I was excited to get this one out there because it's my biggest hangup with CBA…our posts go together nicely today. :)Jill- Agreed. Definitely a show-don't-tell moment. Too much telling can make the whole thing just too much. Thanks for the comment!Lacie- It is definitely difficult to find a conversion scene that doesn't make being born-again look like Disney magic. But it can be done, and beautifully if we'd just consider the reality of who Jesus is! Thanks for your comment! Joanna- I wish you TONS of good luck! 😉 Thanks for your comment!

  6. Well Said-well said indeed 🙂 I also skip reading any conversion scenes-and to be honest-sadly I have a hard time reading ahead to finish the book b/c what follows is usually very cheesy. It is not that my heart does not rejoice when I see someone lost come to know Christ-it's just that it is usually written in a very unrealistic way. The most effective conversion scene I've read (and I don't even remember the name of the book) had you "see" a conversion by the way the main character's friend changed their life choices and later you found that Jesus was the change.

  7. Yep, they sure do. Just like WE go together nicely. 🙂

  8. Yeah, we do. Can't wait to hug your neck in Sept! 🙂

  9. Marion- Agreed! It's the lack of reality that I just can't buy into, and like you, if the cheese-factor is off the charts, I might not finish the rest of the book. Thanks for your comment!! 🙂

  10. I popped over here from Katie's post and am so glad to find others who recognize one of the reasons we lose potential readers. At one of my writing group sessions I asked if our members ever read Christian fiction. One person answered, "No. Why would I? When I'm looking for a good story I'm not interested in reading about Christianity. If I feel the need to be preached at I can always go to church." In conversation afterwards she admitted she'd read one Christian novel but couldn't relate to either the characters' behaviour or the plot, and decided she wouldn't bother to read another. Realism is an important element in our writing regardless of our target audience.

  11. Very good article! I agree, it's a tough one to pull off. We want to show the difference Christ makes in a life without selling a false expectation of instant perfection.

  12. Okay, I popped on her because I loved the way you tweeted this post. So, so funny! And I was not disappointed. I love this. I tend to skip a lot of conversion scenes. I actually don't read too many books with conversion scenes. Not sure why.

  13. Carol- SO true! Some element of realism is what helps readers identify with our characters (no matter the genre). Something about human nature has to be real, and a cheesy conversion certainly isn't!Michelle- Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. It certainly is tricky. I'm still trying to work through it myself. How horrible would it be for me to post this and then end up writing some uber-cheesy conversion scene? (Horror!!)Heather- I'm glad I'm not alone in skipping those scenes! I kinda feel guilty for it, but I also skip disgustingly cheesy romantic scenes. (She swooned and whispered, "I love you, darling.") Gag me.Thanks for your comments, y'all! 🙂 Help me get the word out about this post! I'm loving these comments!

  14. If I say I don't think a conversion scene is required, am I ruining my chances in the inspirational market? As a reader who is a person of faith, I am more drawn to reading about believing characters living incarnationally toward other characters. Many of our readers are people of faith. Rather than conversion scenes, we can lead them to lean into their faith more deeply by giving characters,

  15. Olivia- You make a fantastic point! Not all CBA books require a "conversion," especially if the majority of the reader audience comes from believers. I love books about characters who already have a faith in God and the issues they deal with bring them into a deeper relationship.But if a book is going to have a conversion, please hold the cheese. :)Thanks for your comment!

  16. I agree. An awesome and helpful article.

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