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I’ve been in ministry going on three decades and I’m always looking for new ways to keep my messages fresh. I stumbled across a unique study method that helps put me more deeply into the text. Last year I began writing a short screenplay based on the Biblical text. Usually about 7-10 pages. Sometimes I’ll write the from a particular person’s point of view. Like what caused a certain person to seek out Jesus for healing? Sometimes I’ll take a person who was part of the account, and have them explain what they experienced. For example, I wrote about a person who was fed by Jesus among the 5000. I imagined how he would explain that miracle to his nominally Jewish parents.

What do I do with the screenplays when I’m done? Does someone act them out or read them in church? No, actually no one ever sees them outside my own household. It’s just a way for me to understand the Biblical text more first person. You might be thinking, “I don’t have time in my week to waste writing a script that will never be used!” Trust me this process has helped me look at every passage differently and that is reflected in how I preach my message.

By the way of full disclosure: Before I was in ministry I worked in broadcast television. Although I was never formally trained as a screenwriter, I have familiar with scripts for a long time.

Why Screenwriting?

Screenwriting is an art, just as much as painting, drawing, photography or any other art. The process uses a different part of your brain and, for me anyway, engrosses me in a time and place. You have to envision the scene like you were actually going to put this on the screen. You have to image conversions and speech. You have to give your people backstories and lives. In short, you really have to understand the culture of Bible times in order to write a screenplay.

I have always been fascinated by First Century life and culture. I have lots of resources on my shelf and in my Kindle that assist me in building these scenes. One classic reference that you may not have touched years is “The New Manners and Customs of the Bible” by James Freeman. Another great reference is the “NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible” from Zondervan. You may also want to watch a video series like “Drive Thru History: Holy Land” or “That the World May Know”. These are great tools to help you visualize the people, lives times and places for your scene.

The goal is not to write a perfect script that will be picked up by a film studio. Your goal is to make the scene come alive for yourself. We are all aware of the power of a good story in your preaching and teaching. If that Biblical account has depth and fullness in your mind, those listening will be much more engaged. In your screenplay, you will write what is seen and heard in the Biblical account as if you were there or as if a camera were capturing the event.

The Format

The screenplay format has several basic elements, and the film and television industry has certain rules to follow. However, those don’t need to be so hard and fast if this is just for yourself. But, there’s noting wrong with learning to keep the proper format. Every script begins with those famous words: “Fade In”. You’re imagining that you’re in a dark theater, and the screen suddenly comes to life. What will you see first? That’s called the “Scene Heading”. It’s always upper case and begins with either INT for an interior scene or EXT for an exterior scene. Then there’s a quick notation about the location. It will be something like “EXT. POOL OF BETHESDA” or “INT. HOLY PLACE OF THE TEMPLE”. Finally, you give it a dash and put the time of day. Is this day, night, morning, etc.? This is the first place where you’ll to dig into the scriptures and discover where and when does this event take place?

The second step is the “action” and where your creativity will begin to flow. If I had a video camera rolling as this scene opens, what would it capture? Are there people moving about or is everything empty or quiet? You begin on the left side of the page to describe, in the present tense, what is being seen by a viewer. It might be something like, “The pool of water is at the center of a group of colonnades. The are people with all manner of sickness lounging around. JESUS enters with a few of his disciples.” In the action step, a person’s name appears in all caps when they are first seen. You might also include a description of the person and their age. Descriptions should be a short and to the point as possible. You can see that writing like this is going to require more research, and consulting some of those artists renderings from your study Bible.

After you’ve given the scene a good description, you begin the “Character” and “Dialogue” parts. The character is just the person’s name 3.7” from the left of the page, all in caps. The dialogue begins 2.5” from the left side of the page not all caps. This is where you will focus on what is being said and by whom in the scene. I also think it’s important to give each person a name. If you Google “first century names Israel”, you’ll find several references to help you. This is another great research point. You need to discover if the person Jew or gentile? Where are they from? What, in their background, would lead them to ask that question?

As you continue to write the dialogue, you may want to give the person other actions. Try to imagine what the person is doing while they are speaking. You create another action step and describe what’s happening. Something like, “ Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the leper.” Then you go back to your character/dialogue again. If the same person is speaking, you add “(con’t)” after their name. If you need to add emphasis to what the person is saying you’ll add a “Parenthetical”. This is a line between a character name and their dialogue, or between the lines of dialogue. This is placed 3.1” from the left side of the page. It should be very short and not an action. Something like (yelling) or (softly) indicating how the dialogue is spoken.

The Tools

These are just the very basics and there are other elements like “Transitions”, “Shots”, “General”, etc. Each of these has a specific purpose and aren’t used as frequently. The good news is that there are some great screenwriting tools that will format everything quickly and easily, so your script is set up correctly. The one app that is considered the industry standard is “Final Draft”. It’s available for PC and Mac and is relatively expensive. It has a lot of tools for filmmakers that you will probably never use. The good news is that there’s a mobile version that’s completely free. It’s totally stripped down to just screenwriting, and gives you all the proper formatting with just a tap. This is my favorite way to screen write. I use an iPad mini and a Bluetooth keyboard, and get lost in the process.

There are other programs like “CELTX” and “Writer Duet” that are web based and allow you to use the basic tools for free on your Mac, PC or mobile device. There’s also “Trelby” that’s free for Windows and Linux. Another great mobile app is “Fade In” that has a free version as well a pro version. You can also find screenwriting as part of other word processing apps like “Scrivener” or templates for “Word”. It all depends on how serious you want to get with your work. For the serious screenwriter, the original is called “Movie Magic Screenwriter”. It was originally introduced 40 years ago as “Scriptor”. All of these give you the basic tools to format your page properly and allow you to focus on the scene.

The bottom line is that screenwriting is way to help you think more deeply about the scripture. It’s like an artist painting a picture of a biblical scene. It helps to illuminate and magnify what’s happening. The goal of any screenplay is to let the written word translate into the visual world of movies and television. This, after all, is the language of our culture. By writing a script, it allows you to immerse yourself in the Biblical world and requires you to research your text in different ways. This will help you do better job presenting the Biblical narrative in your preaching or teaching. Why not give it a chance this week? Download an app and let your imagination loose on your text. 

Jeff Chaves is pastor of CHRCH Online based in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
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