Words, Words, Words: Tips to Writing Effective Christian Sketches
A "Q & A" with the editors of Drama Ministry
Q: What top 3 things should a playwright keep in mind when writing pre-sermon sketches for their church?
A: 1. A pre-sermon drama doesn't have to come full circle. The temptation is to write a complete 5-minute story with a beginning, middle, and end, but remember that the purpose of these dramas is essentially to provide a ‘warm-up’ for the pastor's message; it’s perfectly okay to end a scene before the conflict is resolved or the question is answered.
2. Keep it short. Most pre-sermon sketches should be around 5 minutes: just long enough to provide the pastor with a good solid starting point, but not long enough to make the service seem to ‘drag.’
3. Keep the staging simple. Most of us can envision very elaborate sets and costumes, but these are rarely practical for pre-sermon sketches. As much as possible, try to keep the furniture and costume needs minimal and let the dialogue of the script “set the scene” for the audience.
Q: What are the most common mistakes playwrights make when writing these kinds of sketches?
A: 1. Writing in stereotypes and clichés. Many writers slide into the trap of writing almost exclusively in characters and situations that have been used so frequently that they've lost all effectiveness. Not only does this show a lack of effort and imagination on the part of the writer, it can also lean towards outright offense. Most ‘stereotypes’ are actually an exaggeration of a particular geographic/social class or personality type. Filling a script with them has the misfortune of amusing some people in the audience while possibly criticizing others. Try stretching your imagination a little to create characters with depth and realism, and apply that same effort to creating a location for where the scene happens. While some spiritual conversations no doubt happen at a bus stop or on a park bench, why not explore the countless other possibilities?
2. Writing with heavy sarcasm or critical tones. It's often easy to use a sketch as a ‘soapbox’ to decry all that we perceive to be wrong with the church or world in general; while it’s perfectly appropriate to use drama to identify a problem, writers should avoid hammering their point home with sketches that are really designed to shame an audience, as opposed to enlighten, encourage, or instruct them.
3. Private/insider jokes. While it can be fun to write insider jokes about church staff members and references to events that happened at last year’s church picnic, it can make a person who's visiting or wasn’t there feel left out and a bit slighted. Ideally, a good drama can be done at ANY church, anywhere in America, and still carry its own weight.
Q: Are dramatic sketches or comedic sketches more powerful in front of a sermon?
A: It depends on the pastor and the subject matter. A lot of pastors see their sermon as a kind of extended ‘monologue’ of its own, with specific emotional ‘rises and falls,’ so the tone with which a sermon begins can be important. Often times, worship songs, hymns, and Scripture readings, etc. are all orchestrated to put a congregation in a specific frame of mind to receive the message, and a drama leader must be careful to support that, not detract from it.
Q: How can a playwright improve dialogue? What are the common mistakes made in writing dialogue?
A: A fundamental key to writing effective dialogue is simply to know how people talk in real-life, as opposed to on TV or in movies. Some basic mistakes to avoid:
1. Writing too “on the nose.” Rarely in real life do we actually say exactly what we’re thinking or feeling, or even what we actually want. A lot of writers (particularly in short sketches) have the conversation happen too easily: the characters get immediately to the point and start speaking in very direct questions and answers that don’t ‘ring true’ to the audience. If necessary, make a first draft in that way, but then keep crafting the dialogue with subtlety, wit, etc. to make it rich and more developed.
2. Bumbling Unbeliever vs. Ideal Christian. Another frequent mistake is to write dialogue between two characters that essentially don’t exist in the real world: 1) the unbeliever who raises arguments against God that the average first-grade Sunday school student could answer, and 2) the perfect Christian who has most of the New Testament memorized and integrates pertinent passages into their conversation without missing a beat. This kind of cliché exchange will make any visiting unbelievers in the congregation feel insulted, while fostering disappointment in the believers who can’t relate to what they're seeing.
Take the time to represent real-life situations. Make the unbeliever ask the hard questions, and make the Christian grapple with the answer. Better yet, maybe leave the question unanswered. I’m told that Jesus was asked 183 direct questions in the Gospels, and he directly answered only three. As tempting as it may be for a writer, scenes don't have to be about giving neatly packaged answers to tough questions. Jesus wasn’t.
3. Rhythm & timing. A lot of dialogue looks good on the page but sounds shaky or awkward when it's read aloud. Writers should not only read their script aloud to themselves with the proper beats and pauses but should also try and find others (their spouse and kids, for example) who can read the roles while the writer listens for “rough spots.”
We hope these tips will help as you work on your own original sketches. Now, get out the pencil or computer, and get to work!