When working in church filmmaking one of the main areas we wrestle with is balancing the need to create projects that emotionally engage viewers while also needing to simply inform them. Ministry leaders are looking for media that produces a specific result, and while most of those leaders know on some level that telling a story is important, the pull often seems to be towards promos, recaps and profiles. And while there’s nothing wrong with these types of projects, they’re not nearly as effective a well-told story.
So how do we keep the focus on narrative without it drifting into simple promotion? After struggling through this with more than my share of fellow ministry leads I’ve learned that there are some basic rules that can help us distinguish between what’s a story and what’s not. Let’s take a look at them together…
1. A story is about a main character with a deep desire for something
This is crucial, as this central figure is the set of eyes you’re viewer will experience the story through. As hard as this is for people to hear, an organization doesn’t have a story. It has a history, it may have seasons of success and failure, it may have a beginning and end, but without a deep desire you can’t have conflict. Which means you can’t have a story. So remember, a promo is about an organization with multiple parallel desires – a story is about a main character with a deep desire for something.
2. A story has a unique setting and context
A story is about a character that exists in a specific place, at a specific time, within a specific community context. Your main character cannot exist separate from these things. It’s what make them special, unique, interesting. It’s the stage they’re drama takes place on. A good story needs that. Again, a promo tries to appeal as broadly as possible – a story has a unique setting and context.
3. A story features conflict and struggle
So you have a character in a specific setting who strongly desires something. Now the character has to go after what they want. But getting what they want isn’t as easy as it seems. The character begins to experience conflict and struggle. Which is when the story gets good. Interesting. Compelling. Never forget, a promo is positive and aspirational – a story features conflict and struggle.
4. A story provides an emotional resolution
As a result of all of that conflict and struggle the character has had to endure, they eventually experience a climax where their story finds a conclusion. Maybe the character gets what they want (comedy), and maybe they don’t (tragedy). Either way the viewer shares that emotion, that catharsis, with that character. That’s the power of a story. A promo is open-ended – a story is about a main character with a deep desire for something.
5. A story has already taken place
This is a very big deal, and far too often it goes unrealized. The story needs a master craftsman, a storyteller, in order to soar. The storyteller, or in our case the filmmaker, has to know where the story is going in order to craft a strong beginning. This is a non-negotiable. A promo is about an event in the future – a story has already taken place.
So how do we make these rules work for us the next time we’re discussing an upcoming film with a pastor, worship director or ministry lead? The first thing to remember is they make a terrible weapon. In ministry we’re all on the same team, and we want the same thing. Don’t try to use them to get your way unilaterally.
The five laws in filmmaking
Instead of trying to slam a project already in production through this story paradigm, pull up a previous film or two and discuss how the rules applied or didn’t apply. Talk about what makes a film connect with the heart and not just the head. Process together how these rules could help your team create the very best stories, and the very strongest promos, moving into the future.
Remember, most films, including testimonials, succeed or fail before the cameras ever start recording.
Remember, most films, including testimonials, succeed or fail before the cameras ever start recording. These five rules work best when applied in pre-production, while you’re writing your script and creating your storyboard. Then pull them out one more time after you create your first rough draft edit and see how it lines up against them. They’ll help clarify and crystalize and show you where your story has lost its way.
Enough talking. Let’s get to work…