Updated: Mar 11, 2021
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
-Robert McKee, "Story" Indeed, it is. If you think about it, some of the most emotional and meaningful experiences you've ever had came while you were immersed in Story; whether it be a film, song, book, concert, video game, or listening to a friend complain about their day. No matter the medium, we are always immersed in Story. Story has a way of speaking to us, truths (lower case t), that we would not otherwise see, hear, or understand. Story takes us on a journey. In most cases, we journey through the eyes of the protagonist and what they learn, we learn, whether it is true or not. When you tell a story you create your own world, and whatever happens in that world and whatever lessons your characters learn from the conflicts they encounter are "truths" as they exist in your world. Your world's version of truth may align with reality and it may not. Of course, humans can't agree on much of anything so agreeing on empirical truths is a near impossibility, anyway. For the Christian, though, we are fortunate enough to be bound together by the Truth of God's word - His revelation of Himself and His character, the truth of His creation, the truth of our condition, and the truth about eternal life. Though we are fortunate, this is also the Christian storyteller's plight. It's become well accepted that Christian stories are cheesy and predictable. These films are not very good - at least, they don't move our hearts and minds other than telling us what we already believe so passionately that it strikes a chord. But to others it is contrived and boring. We seem to have this habit of putting the God-cart in front of the movie-horse. Basically, we're doing it backwards. We start with a thematic moral conclusion and we try to build a story around that. And the results seem to always be preachy, cheesy, and contrived. Robert McKee puts it this way in his end all be all book on writing screenplays.
“When talented people write badly, it's generally for one of two reasons: Either they're blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they're driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They're moved by a desire to touch the audience.” Christians are guilty of the former. We seem to want to preach as a primary motive and we think that stories are just the medium of choice. After all, didn't Jesus teach using stories? So why can't we? Perhaps they are, but I would challenge you that pulpits and churches are for preaching, and the theater and the screen are for stories (more on this in another post). Even so, it doesn't mean that we can't tell powerful and moving stories based on the truth of God's word - truth that has at some point changed us for the better. This is where we are motivated to move our audience in the same life changing way that we have experienced. So then, how do we tell stories that are mentally, emotionally and even spiritually engaging without creating predictable plots with ham-fisted moral conclusions? The answer is simple: craft. My goal with this blog series is to inspire Christian storytellers to tell better stories and to write about some of the mechanics involved in good storytelling craft. I think it safe to say that there are not many people, currently, who want to listen to Christians or what they have to say (especially if they think they are being preached to). If you want to tell someone of how your life has been changed for the better, tell them a good story. They will listen. We all know a good story when we see/hear one, and a good story always leaves an impression on our hearts, minds, and sometimes our life. It challenges how we think, believe, act, and live. And sometimes, for better or for worse, it changes who we are. Before I go any further, I would like to make a disclaimer. I am advocating for good stories by people who have been changed for the better by the Gospel, or in some way moved to understand more about the Truth of God's word or the stories therein. I am not devaluing the tried and true testimony of life change to a stranger on the streets. After all, a testimony is a story right? So it is up to us to tell the story well - whether it be in the streets or in the theater, between the front and back cover of a book, or a TV Show.
We need good stories. We need them badly. McKee writes:
"When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates." Once a month, we will dive into some of the mechanics of the storytelling craft (particularly screenplays - even though the principles generally apply to all mediums) and take a deeper look at how and when stories do and don't work - and why. I am not a screenwriting professor. My goal isn't to teach you everything there is to know about screenwriting, but to inspire you to dig deeper into the craft of storytelling. The majority of my inspiration comes from the mind of Robert McKee and his book, "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting." And we will also use some of our favorite movies as examples of how the different storytelling mechanics have been used. I would like to leave you with something I read from a religious forum several years ago (so long ago that I can't give proper citation or credit). Nonetheless, in the midst of a debate on this same topic I read, "I'm an atheist. But, show me a good movie about faith and I will show you my movie ticket." That's the power of Story.