A reader for the Nashville Film Festival screenplay competition, Cheryl Laughlin gophers for indie sets throughout NorCal and performs grass roots marketing for micro-budget documentaries via 20KFilms. Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cheryllaughlin.
Every writer has a critic that floats over your shoulder, right? Quick follow-up question… would that unseen critic happen to be a judgmental nun? Because the leftover Catholic girl in me still battles an ethereal nun with every curse word I type or character I plunge into a less-than-Godlike situation. I can practically feel a ruler hovering over my fingers some nights.
So consider me intrigued by faith-based writing, which is gaining momentum as a mainstream genre. How do you align real-life dialogue and tough character situations with family-based Christian films? Truly, what’s a character to do when curse words have been plucked from the writer’s toolbox?
Luckily, I had my own deus ex machina moment when screenwriter/director/producer Tara Lynn Marcelle happened to be shooting her next faith-based film, Divine Appointment, in my Northern California town. With six faith-based scripts written and produced, Tara Lynn was totally game to answer my questions and offer insights into a frequently stereotyped genre.
Tara Lynn and I talked about cliché-bending techniques and how writers can elevate the faith-based genre. Below is the blend of her insights, my takeaway tips from our conversation, plus a glimpse into the future of the genre.
Loss of Faith to Find Faith in Writing
Tara Lynn shared how her growing up in a filmmaking family in North Carolina shaped her experiences in acting, writing and production. But along the way, she became discouraged by some Christian experiences. As an adult, when she returned to the U.S. after three years of missionary work abroad, she was even more adrift.
“Then, out of nowhere, I got a call saying they heard I was a writer and they felt like I was supposed to write their faith film,” she shares. And instead of turning her back on her disillusionment, she used her struggles as the guide to her style of faith-based writing.
Takeaway Tip #1: Let real life be your guide, with all its messiness and weariness and hard-won awesomeness.
So, About Those Curse Words…
As a big fan of a creative turns of phrase – frak this (thank you, Battlestar Galactica) and fork that (props, NBC’s The Good Place) – I wondered what’s a screenwriter to do when all swearing is off limits?
Tara Lynn believes restrictions unearth their own kind of creativity: “You have to think outside first instinct and dig deeper.” She funnels potential swearing into a look or an action. When actors prep one of her scripts, she’ll help them transform strong emotions into body language.
This workaround also reminds writers of all genres that sometimes expletives can be crutches for bad writing. So thinking around the F-word is a great writer's exercise.
Takeaway Tip #2: Sometimes an expletive is all in an actor’s look.
Everything Might Not Be Perfect at the End
You have to admit there’s a problem to fix it, right? So, one of the biggest criticisms of faith-based writing is everything is neatly wrapped up by story’s end. Tara Lynn admits you have to grab a few tropes of the genre and redemption is one of them.
“Try to find moments of despair and inspiration in the story but not necessarily have all the pieces in place by story’s end,” Tara Lynn reminds. “Show broken people finding redemption in tough situations.”
Takeaway Tip #3: Perfect characters is not the goal.
Don’t Be Afraid of Drama
Hand-in-hand with letting go of the perfect ending is the willingness to dive into real drama for non-denominational faith-based writing.
In Divine Appointment, Tara Lynn received some initial pushback when she wrote in a supporting character who was a lesbian. “I wrote the character with no agenda. I left it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. I just let her character be and didn’t tie up the ending nicely, just like in real life.” Tara Lynn chose to write a nonverbal scene where the previously unaccepting father embraces his daughter towards the end. A simple action where audiences are left to interpret what they want.
Faith-based writing has to have drama like any good writing. Middle of the road writing will not inspire anyone.
Takeaway Tip #4: Use drama in faith-based screenwriting to inspire AND to start a dialogue.
Future of Faith-Based Writing?
Devon Franklin, of Franklin Entertainment and one of Variety’s 2016 Top 10 Producers to Watch, backs up Tara Lynn’s belief in the growth of faith films: “People think ‘faith’ and think ‘niche’ or ‘small,’ and I think “mainstream.”
Box-office numbers also support the growth of mid-budget, strong-profit faith-based movies, with films like Miracles from Heaven being produced for $13 million and grossing over $61 million domestically.
But the genre ultimately needs to stay true to strong writing to continue to grow. On-the-nose saccharine-sweet do goodery is lazy writing in any genre.
“I would love to see the faith-based genre change – to see more writers interested in this genre create unique and authentic writing that stops the stereotypes of what Christians do and don’t do,” Tara Lynn forecasts for faith-based screenwriting.
- More articles by Cheryl Laughlin
- 'Woodlawn' - A New Game Plan for Faith-Based Films
- Dialogue Freedom: Getting Away with Writing Lengthy Dialogue
Get tips on the faith genre in Brad Wise's webinar
Writing the Faith-Based Screenplay