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The Fundamentals Of Screenwriting

The Fundamentals Of Screenwriting

Most of my life I’ve worked in television, starting out on the technical side and growing into managerial positions. Much of my experience has been with Christian television, both at the independent station level and as a vice president of a national TV ministry. Having a moderate amount of creativity and the desire to communicate Christ, Christian TV had always seemed like the logical thing to do.

About three years ago, however, a strange thing happened. I stumbled into a screenwriting seminar. As the instructor was describing the essence of storytelling I was completely enthralled. I began to irresistibly devour everything I could on the subject. A few years later I received what I believe to be a clear call to pursue this craft full time. My wife was fully supportive, and we were in a financial position for me to begin this journey from my office at home. However, during my final days at my television job I learned, to my delight, that our finances would be strained much more than I had anticipated. After 11 years of trying unsuccessfully, my wife and I were expecting our first child.

Little did I know that my new vocation would be primarily as a stay-at-home dad and secondarily as a writer. Most of my time now is spent caring for my son while my wife is at work. During his naps and on occasional evenings, if I’m not feeling too much like his pureed squash, I try to do a little writing. Although I’ve never worked so hard and have far less income, I can’t remember when my life was better.

The greatest challenge for me, though, is neither time management nor finances, but something I had never considered. I am essentially a fundamentalist Christian. Have been all my life. The label conjures up all kinds of negative associations, most of which are inaccurate and undeserved. But there is a negative that I can at least in part attribute to my theological heritage. Somewhere along the way I forgot what it means to be human. Nothing will expose this flaw any quicker than attempting to write a story.

Being a fundamentalist Christian means, among many things, that I have been trained to regard and guard the preeminent authority of the written Word of God and the doctrines derived from, for the most part, a literal, historical interpretation. The result of this is that my approach toward communication involves first, a responsibility to investigate the meaning of a text and how that meaning fits into my particular theological system.

And second, being very direct and "on the nose" in my communicating that meaning so as not to leave any room for error.

One problem with this approach is that outside of the church, nobody gives a rat’s patootie about what a Biblical text means. In fact "meaning" itself is questioned. Also, the least memorable way to communicate anything is to be "on the nose." I do hold to a "sola scriptura" position, but 500 years of three point sermons and systematic theologies have demonstrated that preventing error in one’s interpretation of the revealed mind of Almighty God is impossible.

Being a fundamentalist Christian also means that I make a conscious effort to live as holy a life as possible. The command is, "Be ye holy, even as I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16). This striving for perfection means that I attempt to steer my thoughts and desires toward heavenly things instead of earthly things. I want to avoid people and places where I might be tempted to sin or where there might be the "appearance of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

A particular difficulty that arises from this is that in telling a story, the window to an audience’s heart and mind is through the characters, particularly the protagonist. If the audience does not identify with or feel the same feelings as the protagonist, there is no window. I must therefore climb inside the thoughts, desires and assumed values of a character whom the world understands, and I must do it honestly. This is an exercise which is in direct conflict with my lauded thoughts of "heavenly things."

Also, since I have the scriptural warning that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood," it’s much easier for my stories to retreat into the world of the supernatural (Ephesians 6:12). And since all stories must have conflict, my protagonists prefer to do battle with demons, antichrists and apocalypses rather than the more common pains of human love and loss. I came to realize how muted I am when the daughter of a close friend died. My volumes of theological clichés were pre-empted by his wounds. It seems the world has no connection at all to my religious predilections-only my humanity.

And finally, being a fundamentalist Christian means that I am required to demonstrate my devotion to the cause of Christ through evangelism. This means striving to bring people to the point of making a decision to follow Christ and then helping them grow. I therefore feel obligated in my storytelling to have a governing, decision-oriented theme.

However, nothing is a bigger turn off to an audience than a theme-driven piece of propaganda. I will have violated their trust and censored myself from all future communication with that audience. My shotgun evangelizing severely limits the number of people I might actually reach. They see me coming before the opening credits.

It seems that I am forced to decide whether to restrict my writing to a Christian audience, to cease writing at all or to unlearn what I’ve learned about being a Christian and being human. Amazingly, the journey towards being human lies within a fundamental theological doctrine—the Incarnation.

The Word of God is not a text, but a person revealing himself through the text. He is not a means to a theological end, He is the end. John 1:14 says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The very radiance of the glory of God, holiness itself, became a man-no, became a baby. Holiness drew in the stench of animal dung with his first breath. He lived in the skin of a peasant. He associated with people I don’t like. He was executed as a criminal. Indeed, to "be holy as he is holy" is to condescend and be present among the worst of this world.

Why would I not want to embrace the total spectrum of everything it means to be human when the Son of God (who is still human by the way) did it so fully? I think the truth is that my concern lies more for my religious performance than for humanity. In reality, despite my self-righteous repression and deceit, my humanness has always been present; boiling beneath the surface of a steaming religious pot, ready to explode either in secret, or in full view of the press. I am among the worst of the world to which Christ condescended and condescends. Philippians 2:5 makes it clear that now, as a recipient of God’s grace, I must model the Incarnation: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5).

The incredible news is that the greatest storyteller and source of all in the universe has already paid dearly and sufficiently to possess me. I am therefore free to explore the social and psychological aspects of any character to discover the essence of what makes them human, and by doing so, begin to learn the craft of good storytelling. Christ in me will inevitably make His way into the story and perhaps into the heart of the audience. You will find, as C.S. Lewis demonstrated, that He has already made His way into every good story in every culture and era of human history.

He is the virtue of Atticus Finch, the gentleness of Melanie Wilkes, the bravery of William Wallace, the passion of Maria von Trapp, the conviction of Father Barry, and the resolve of Rocky Balboa. He is the “La Marseillaise” sung boldly within earshot of tyranny. He is the ring on the hand of Oscar Schindler. He is the reason all are repulsed when injustice is played out, and the source of the stirring in our hearts at the site of truth and goodness.

If I ever manage to tell a good story, which Stanley Kubrick said is "a miracle," the audience will have met Christ. And though I am not obligated to make an "on the nose" Gospel presentation in anything I write, my audience and the Incarnation place an absolute demand on all that I write—be human.


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