A few years back, former Pixar story artist Emma Coats posted a list of principles for developing stories that really connect with people. Given the fact that millions of people have flocked to the movies for classics like Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story franchise and, most recently, Finding Dory, there’s a lot that preachers can learn from this master storyteller that can help us capture our audiences as much as these beloved animated characters capture the crowds at the multiplex. I’ve put some of Emma’s storytelling principles in bold here, followed by a little commentary on how they apply to preaching:
- You admire a character for trying more than their success. This applies to every biblical character, does it not? We love the Scriptures because the people in the story reflect our imperfect selves. Connect people to the flawed character who is trying to follow God’s way and they will relate to them more than the perfect hero.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to the audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different. Yeah, parsing those Greek verbs and using words like “hermeneutic” is a ton of fun, but as my wife told me on our way home from church one Sunday during my first year of ministry, “Nobody except you really cares about that stuff.”
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. What do you want to leave your congregation talking about on the way home in the car? That’s your ending and it’s the most important part of the sermon. Start there and work backwards.
- Finish your story and let go, even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, you have both, but move on. Do better next time. As preaching professor Tom Long puts it in his marvelous book What Shall We Say, “Sermons are never actually finished. There are always loose ends, questions that could have been pursued in more depth, stones left unturned, intriguing aspects of the biblical text unexamined, thoughts not quite fully baked, an untidiness at the heart of things. At some point, though, preachers have to take what they have, stand up, and speak. Preachers do not preach because the sermon is finished; they preach because it is Sunday. The time has come.”
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it. Jeremiah called this the “fire shut up in my bones” (20:9). If the message is burning in you then it will more likely ignite the congregation.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations. The Bible is full of unbelievable situations. What would you do if you saw a burning bush or someone walking on water? Pull the story off the page and into real life.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later. Even if what you’re producing looks like a square peg in a round hole, save it somewhere (create a “cutting room floor” file for stuff that doesn’t work right away). Sometimes, especially when the blinking cursor is mocking you, those pieces you trashed earlier might become useful again.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself. If you preach long enough you’ll keep coming back to the same texts. It’s tempting to look at certain passages the same way every time (like the Christmas story in Luke 2, for example). Go past the obvious and boldly go where no preacher has gone before!
You can find a complete list of Emma’s story ideas here. There’s a lot of food for thought for those of us who are spend our days trying to get people to live within the greatest story ever told!