You may be a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, or just a parent struggling to keep up with your 7-year-old's questions about Scripture. At some time, you've probably felt that your ability to play that role fell short of your aspirations, your best intentions notwithstanding.

Because I have felt those things too, I was delighted to stumble across some new resources which gave my own teaching a little boost. Surprisingly, they weren't books about teaching, but thought-provoking books about filmmaking. Here's why they were so helpful: if your role requires you to understand great narrative, it may be beneficial to consider what it means to create great narrative.

These books on filmmaking increased my passion for narrative by helping me understand and appreciate God's genius for crafting us into his bigger story. What follows are some observations from these books.

Engineering the tale

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat: the Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need (Michael Wiese Productions, 2005) is written like a text on interpretation in reverse. Screenwriters often ask themselves the same questions interpreters do: how does this story work, and what are its central themes? But in screenwriting, by way of contrast, one isn't interpreting but engineering.

In the world of film, a production starts not with actors or special effects but with a screenplay that lays out the story and foreshadows most of the merits and challenges of the film. And writing a good screenplay requires an understanding of how stories tick, their main categories, how to focus the audience in on the main points, and, how to sum up all of that into a summary sentence, which Snyder calls a "logline." (Sound familiar to anyone who has studied preaching?)

I have been told by many wiser preachers to "stay with the text," meaning "don't run off and think you're ready to preach this before you really know what the text is about." Make sure that, among all your exegetical insights, you do in fact know the story's central point. It's not surprising that screenwriters belabor the same point, but in reverse. They work to make sure that, among all the underlying motifs and catchy one-liners they have written, they have in fact given the story some unmistakable and abiding central plot. As an example, Snyder mentions a logline from Die Hard: "A cop comes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists." Whatever else the film does, it must stick to that central storyline. And building in such central, underlying themes makes things easier for everyone.

Article continues below

Snyder's discussion of the major components of any screenplay ("Opening Image," "Bad Guys Close In," etc.) struck me as particularly relevant to Bible teachers. He does an amazing job of showing how virtually every movie I could think of has these different components, and I was particularly intrigued by the underlying spiritual thrust of his categories.

He describes one major component as the "Dark Night of the Soul" moment, which takes place from page 75 to 85 in each screenplay he writes. Even more thought-provoking was his description of a section called "All Is Lost" as the "Christ on the Cross" moment: "It's where the old world, the old character, [or] the old way of thinking dies."

For a person who had never thought so deeply about story-making, especially screenwriting, Save the Cat opened many doors for me. It lays out all the components of a story in a lucid (and often amusing) way.

Every picture tells a story

Did you know that good guys usually enter from the left side of the screen because that is our normal reading direction, and bad guys enter from the right because it strikes us as an odd path of movement? Neither did I, till I read Jennifer Van Sijill's Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know (Michael Wiese Productions, 2005).

Cinematic Storytelling

Cinematic Storytelling

Van Sijll explains how, using exclusively a camera's movement, positioning, and focus, one can induce viewers to think a certain way about a particular character or development in the story. Even though we have the benefit of sound, each shot—in fact, each movement of any camera—ought to somehow help us understand the story and its characters better.

When recorded sound was added to films in the 1930s, many people feared that the art of cinema would disappear because, instead of having to use camera angles and conventions to build characters and explain the story, one might simply put a camera on a tripod and let people talk. This helps explains why Citizen Kane is so famous. It showed that films with sound could still be examples of how to develop characters and aid the viewer in understanding the story simply by how one used the camera.

Van Sijll's book attempts to explain 100 different film "conventions," so it's impossible to mention every noteworthy insight. But most intriguing for someone who teaches about the Bible was the book's discussion of "Pudovkin's 5 Principles of Editing." When film began to rise to fame in the 1920s, several Russian theorists, including Vsevold Pudovkin, developed a whole literature of thought on the science of editing. Van Sijill gives a short lesson on Pudovkin's basic premises (Contrast, Parallelism, Symbolism, Simultaneity, and Leitmotif) and shows examples from many films that illustrate approaches to each technique. I recognized them as the same editing (or "redactionary") techniques I had learned in seminary, and It struck me that the Gospel writers would have been able to lead an interesting conversation with the Russians as to how one edits, or compiles, a narrative account to highlight certain facets of the story.

Article continues below

Though the book's formatting is awkward, it widened my thinking about story. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting a big picture look at the different means of presenting a story well. Van Sijill gives the most advanced look at the subject of all these books, and I'll be chewing on its insights for a long time.

Don't clutter the scene

In The Filmmaker's Eye (Focal Press, 2010), author Gustavo Mercado begins his book on "framing shots" with a story that illustrates much of the challenge of both filmmaking and exegesis. He describes a party held for the first viewing of a short film. The opening scene of the film takes place in a living room and features an arguing young couple. He describes the set as full of visual detail: shoes under the couch, video games stacked up on a table in the foreground, large movie posters on the back wall, and a host of other potentially important story cues.

The Filmmaker's Eye

The Filmmaker's Eye

Once the film ended, questions flew about the "significance of the shoes under the couch" and "whether the girlfriend's anger was due to his overzealous interest in video games." The questions puzzled the rookie director who stated that those things "had absolutely nothing to do with the story!" The thing to notice, he explained, was how the man's hand was shaking as the couple argued. But no one noticed that detail because there were way too many extraneous things to catch people's attention.

"Anything and everything in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as directly related to and necessary for understanding the story they are watching," Mercado writes. "If something is in the frame, everything about it, from its placement to the angle from which it is shot, must be meaningful."

The key then, explains Mercado, is knowing exactly what the story is about and controlling everything which appears in that story for maximum clarity. If something cannot be tied to the story, do not let it appear in your frame. If something is part of the story, make sure its prominence in the film is in proper relationship to its prominence in the storyline.

Article continues below

For a screenwriter, this means being careful to keep a set or scene clean of anything which does not contribute to the main point. The same holds true for biblical teaching: Don't "clutter the scene" with peripherals. It only results in confusion in our hearers.

While Mercado's book is perhaps more for people who are serious about filmmaking, it has helped me understand the importance of knowing all the different angles from which one might possibly frame the exact same moment of the story, and how to decide on the one that most perfectly aids the story.

Tell it in a fresh way

Roberta Munroe's How Not to Make a Short Film (Hyperion, 2009) made me laugh out loud more than I have in a long time. The book explains the good, the bad, and the ugly of making a short film. While it doesn't offer as much in the way of round-about exegetical insights as the other books, it soars in its discussion of cliché—something most of us could learn a thing or two about.

How not to make a Short Film

How not to make a Short Film

A former worker for the Sundance Film Festival, Munroe screened thousands of short films. In my favorite section of the book, an appendix, she lists the top 50 short film clichés. Some of my favorites:

  • Is there a Japanese tea ritual in the opening scene?
  • Does your protagonist drive down a foggy road, all of a sudden seeing a child in a white nightgown, who mysteriously disappears on the reverse shot?
  • Does your film's score begin with solitary piano? Acoustic guitar? The theme from The Mission?
  • Is Jesus Christ in your film? Is he black?

Munroe says many short films fail because they are "too self-indulgent, poorly written, and not enough research [has been] done."

These descriptions made me think of two things. First, given the number of authors, span of centuries, and scope of the undertaking, the lack of cliché in Scripture is surprising. Each new era of redemptive history seems to open up whole new genres of writing and new twists in the story. Second, if screenwriters and film producers want to avoid cliché, and if God has avoided it, it would behoove us to avoid it in our preaching, teaching, and group discussions.

You might pick up Munroe's book only to learn about the dangers, pastorally and also theologically, of cliché. It raised the bar for me several notches as to what I ought to consider acceptably fresh in my own work.

Article continues below

Renewed insight

None of these books are written by evangelicals, nor are they intended for teachers or preachers. They were written by sometimes crass but mostly just witty film people, and you may be disappointed if you expect them to serve as companion volumes to anything by Gordon Fee or Daniel Wallace.

Still, these books might help you compose more gripping stories, and can help you be a better interpreter of story. It helps you appreciate what God has done with history to a greater extent if you consider how difficult it is to write good stories. And books like these might just give you the renewed insight you need to tell people that the greatest story ever told is, in fact, true.

Ben Stevens (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is raising support to serve long-term in Berlin with Greater Europe Mission. He blogs at Haunted By Paradise.