Emotional Honesty in Storytelling
I teach Screenwriting and Storytelling at Judson University, in Elgin, Illinois, and one of the first question I always ask my students is: “What do you care more about as a storyteller: proving your point, or entertaining people?”
Then I watch them squirm.
Inside a battle rages. We are taught from a young age (either explicitly or implicitly) that art from Christians must be pragmatic–that it must be used for God’s glory or to save people. But no other storytellers are taught this. They are taught that your primary goal must be to entertain your audience.
Why do so many Christian films fall flat emotionally? It is my contention that at a certain point they cease to be emotionally honest. Emotional dishonesty occurs when the writer puts their point above their story. I don’t really believe this character would react that way, but they’ve just encountered Jesus, so, you know, they kind of have to react that way because, well (kick the dirt), Jesus…you know…saves people…
Unfortunately, if the story hasn’t been built properly, the character change will never feel honest–whether it’s a Christian story or not. Christian films, unfortunately, fall into this trap more than most films precisely because the writers come into the process wanting to use their stories for a purpose, rather than wanting to simply tell good stories. It’s as if we don’t trust ourselves. Do you really think what you believe isn’t going to come out in the stories you create? Free yourself from the shackles of purpose-driven storytelling and just entertain me.
I always get nervous when I hear Christians talking about how we have to make media that will be “tools” for salvation. I’ve made two of the most hardcore Christian films around (Finger of God and Furious Love) and both have been used quite often as tools for salvation and change, so in one sense I realize that media can in fact be used this way. But where I see the danger, and where I think a lot of our storytelling problems are coming from, is the temptation to approach a story with this explicit intent. When I made Finger of God, I honestly had no thought that it would become an international sensation and would directly lead to people’s salvation. But when it came time to put it together, my number one priority was to make this movie as entertaining as possible. I left a lot on the cutting room floor for both films that was great content for evangelism, but since it didn’t service the story, it had to go.
For my students, this is perhaps the biggest hurdle standing in their way of making things with real impact and potential with the masses. Before we can tell great stories that truly change hearts, we need to agree that changing hearts probably shouldn’t be our #1 priority. Telling a good story should. No one wants to be converted when they sit down with your story. But everyone does want to be entertained. C.S. Lewis was fond of talking about the power of good stories to get past people’s “watchful dragons”, the natural walls we put up when someone is trying to change our belief system. He understood the power of a well-told, entertaining story. In a culture that has been inundated with stories since infancy, entertainment is now the primary currency. If we want to change the world, we need to do so in an entertaining way. If not, our stories, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, will be devoured by every watchful dragon they encounter.