In part one, we discussed how the first five of Irving Thalberg’s Ten Commandments could impact our storytelling in the Church. Thalberg created a system at MGM that curated and told stories that connected with a generation. The final five commandments challenged his crew of writers to refine their storytelling skills and seek out material that would move audiences. As before, this can go a long way to helping us grow as storytellers.
6. See at least two full-length motion pictures each week, one from this company, one by a competitor.
You may not work in a “company,” but you are still producing content. Take time each week to review things you’ve done in the past. Celebrate your successes, remind yourself of past techniques, or take time to review things that may not have worked out as well as you hoped. At the same time, you cannot expect to excel at your medium if you live in a bubble. Review work from others. Not for the sake of copying, but for the sake of inspiration, creative critique, and to celebrate their successes. I try to make it a habit of keeping up with what other video teams at other churches are doing so that I can be inspired as well as join in celebrating their successes, and I’m extremely encouraged by others who do the same. Twitter and Vimeo allow for such community to build.
7. Everything else is secondary in your work to the finding of a strong dramatic situation … an interesting clash between principal characters.
Stories are created in three acts because it is a tried and true method of storytelling. Comedies, action films, dramas, and many of the stories we tell today use a dramatic structure to tell their tale. A strong dramatic situation includes your introduction that ends in an inciting incident. This gets the ball rolling and sets the protagonist in motion. You let them wrestle with the confrontation during the second act. Finally, you let it end with the climax and resolution. No matter how you use this structure, it must be well constructed. The conflict must be interesting — it must have significance and weight to it — or audiences won’t engage. We will discuss this a bit more in #10.
8. Prove your ability to recognize creative material by writing and submitting stories of your own.
You yourself must be exercising your creative muscles if you expect to be able to tell good stories. Playing around creatively, even if the content will never be used outside of your sandbox, allows for you to try new things and better understand what does and does not work. It is in this area that you are able to push yourself to refine your skills so that you can successfully apply new storytelling methods to the bigger projects. Shoot experimental short films, build your own dollies or jibs, take risks that you wouldn’t take in a normal project. You never know what you’ll come up with that will make you a better player in your organization.
9. Be proficient in one language besides your own. The competition for good stories is so keen that the supply written in English was long ago insufficient.
It is important to not spend all of your time just in the realm in which you work. If you only spend your time learning about storytelling methods and viewing other people’s stories, you’ll miss out on what may be relevant to your audience. It is important that you spend time in other media that may have nothing to do with your stories. Read a classic book, study and get to know a culture foreign to yours, pick up a sport and learn the intricacies of it. Learn to speak a different “language.” You never know where you’ll find something that will strengthen a story you have to tell. And, you’ll learn something new and build new relationships in the process.
10. Above all, train yourself to recognize sincerity in a story. Talking pictures, particularly, have made the public very sensitive to false notes in plots.
One of the biggest complaints about modern day “Christian media” is that it is not sincere. The stories are not realistic. Viewers have problems connecting with what is going on because everything happens so unnaturally. Thankfully, we’ve made great strides in growing beyond this in recent years, but it is important to be reminded of this. As noted in #7, we need a strong dramatic situation. A leads to B which drives forward C. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, discuss the idea that a story should never have an “and then” that drives the story. (Here’s the interview, but be warned — it includes some bleeped profanity.) There needs to be proper motivation for the characters and events. The story should instead be either “This happens, therefore this follows it,” or “This happens, but this changes things.” Everything must have a logical or emotional motivation in order to have a story that connects. Thalberg noted that in the 1930s, the public was sensitive to a false note in a plot. Just imagine what the Internet, along with modern television and movies, has done to increase that sensitivity.
Thanks for walking through Thalberg’s Ten Commandments with me! As people who serve the Church, we have important work to do, so here’s to finding and telling better stories.