Monday, February 25, 2013

The Snake and Dove Principle for Writers

Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. -- Matthew 10:16b (NIV)

Though it might not seem to be, this command from Jesus is very applicable to writing. As writers, many of us will be called to deal with tough subjects, from sexual immorality to abuse to murder. How we deal with these subjects and the content that may be associated with them will have a significant impact on our stories.

It is not an easy thing to have stories that are both shrewd and innocent, but it is necessary to have both qualities, so that we keep from whitewashing everything or drowning in the darkness of the world. Writers with good intentions can easily fall into the rut of one side or the other.

Most of the writers who are wary of tough subjects don’t truly want to hide them, just be careful about them. There is certainly a place for “safe” fiction, but in general if tough subjects are handled they need to be faced rather than skirted around. Otherwise the story may be weakened or ineffective.

Most of the writers who explore the darkness of the world truly want to reveal the light and bring change. However, they can get desensitized to the darkness and let it have too much influence over their writing, so that their message is contaminated or hidden. Stories that are too explicit are even more flawed than stories that are too timid.

A balance is needed, and the Bible makes it clear what that balance is: Giving a shrewd assessment of the problem and the solution, while portaying it in a way that preserves the innocence of the author and the readers.

If we keep our writing equally shrewd and innocent, with the courage to face tough issues head on and the wisdom to handle those issues carefully, then we will succeed in writing powerful stories that reveal God’s truth.

If you are a writer who deals with tough subjects, have you sought to make your writing both shrewd and innocent? Have you encountered authors who have gone to one extreme or the other in their stories instead of finding balance?


  1. I've thought about this principle numerous times since you shared it with me and it's been a very helpful thought. I'm so glad you have an article written on it now, Jonathan!

  2. Most of my stories are geared more toward a young crowd, so the tougher subjects rarely come up. Still, when writing for young readers, there are a myriad of difficult topics which we might not even think about as being something to watch for. Children especially are vulerable in this area as they are still discovering so many things about the world. A silly example is the classic 'monsters under the bed'. When we grow older, we know to look for so-called monsters in other places and things, but as a child, a frightening monster might be anything at all. So even though the subjects are lighter and easier in a sense to handle, the issue is still the same: to take care in our writing. Being both shrewd and gentle.

    Thanks for the post, Jonathan!

    1. Yes, that's an important aspect of it.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kay!

  3. I really appreciated this post, Jonathan... it's an important principle for writers to remember. Thank you! :)

  4. Very good point Jonathan.

    Look at how the Bible applies this. It addresses some of the hardest issues there are to address, and, of course, it is utterly without blame.

    1. Exactly. The Bible is the best example.

      Thank you, Patrick!