Ralph Winter is among a rare (and elite) group of film professionals who have produced some of the largest budget movies in Hollywood history. With a résumé that includes the Star Trek, X-Men and Fantastic Four feature-film series, along with I, Robot, Planet of the Apes and many others, his movies have grossed more than $2 billion at the box office. The bottom line: Ralph Winter knows how to tell a story.
For the May-June issue of Ministry Today Magazine, we asked Winter, a longtime Christian who spends as much time mentoring a new generation of Hollywood professionals as he does on a movie set, to sit down with us and share his principles for storytelling that impacts an audience. The gospel is the greatest story ever told, and as leaders we have a responsibility to tell it in a way that resonates with people as they hear God’s story of rescue, redemption and restoration of His creation. Here, Winter unpacks for pastors what makes a good story—and good storyteller—in the 21st century:
It’s all about the story, especially the way we tell the story. It’s how we engage the audience, and in my business, how we get the audience to tell their friends. Pastors, sound familiar? Storytelling is what makes us human. The ancients sat around a fire and told stories that captivated their audiences—events of the day, stories of adventure, of conquests, of losses, stories about laughter and fear.
Today, we tell or tease stories in 140 characters on Twitter. We tell a story with one image on Instagram. Advertisers try to persuade you, financial institutions pitch you, musicians craft a narrative of their feelings, charities tell you of moving, emotional stories of pain and need, the courtroom builds a case and a storyline—it goes on and on in our culture. Everyone is trying to tell you a story. Everyone has a “narrative,” and those stories are all competing for the hearts and minds of the public.
Much of the power of storytelling is contained in the structure—or how the story is told. Today, everyone sits around a digital campfire telling stories, trying to get their point across and connect with their audience.There are conventions, particularly in our Western culture, that the audience is accustomed or conditioned to. There are certain formats, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes breaking those conventions can work as well, but generally, stories follow a well-worn arrangement.
Storytelling within a movie allows for a complex and nuanced narrative and can develop an idea or point of view over two hours. It involves experiences, actions and relationships that have many layers. And all of these layers interact with each other. There is an ongoing struggle in the movie like there is in real life, and those encounters and conflicts interplay with our mind as the audience works it out.
Movies can go further and deeper with a character and his or her journey through the story. You learn more about what they value, what they question, what they believe and how they will act on those beliefs, just like those stories around the campfire.
You can isolate what we would call a scene or incident within a movie; in other words, something that captures the moment and propels the story forward. As a pastor or teacher, you don’t have two hours, and probably feel the pressure to make every sermon a TED talk—less than 18 minutes with lots of visuals. The key is to isolate a moment, perhaps something from your own life (that your listeners will benefit from hearing), that propels your story forward. Remember that action is the key (even in the most romantic stories). In the same way, your congregation is expecting you to take them on a journey.
The great stories and encounters in the Bible do this in a powerful way. The chronicles of King David’s life and his actions show us what he believes. The text weaves a clever narrative when the prophet Nathan confronts David with a great sin within his kingdom and then shows him, by David’s own outrage, how he should view his failure and adultery.
Within these great stories, our main character or “hero” learns a deep truth about himself that changes the trajectory of his life. And isn’t that exactly what we aim for in the church? A self-revelation that is learned and transforms us from within, through the power of Christ?
Earlier in his life, when he battles with Goliath, David unexpectedly rejects the normal body armor and time-tested rules of engagement and declares his allegiance to the God of Israel, and then believes God for the outcome. And in a period of history where the normal battle strategy was to approach each other slowly and then swipe away in hand-to-hand combat, the text says David actually runs at Goliath—shocking enough for Goliath and probably making him a bit easier to hit with a smooth stone.
Sometimes in simply telling the story, pointing out the details we might have missed brings renewed understanding and new power to what our hero learns about himself—and God. And then we’re able to work it out in the next adventure.
I have no doubt that later in his career, David, while negotiating treaties with rival kingdoms, kept Goliath’s enormous sword on display—not just to intimidate, but to remind himself of what God did that day. Ultimately it was about God’s power, not his; and isn’t that the intended lesson we strive to get across on Sundays? These repeated self-revelations of David shaped the greatest king of Israel, and defined the character of a man who was after God’s own heart.
By the way, these moments in stories—where the main character discovers something about himself that he didn’t know at the beginning of his journey—are usually emotion-filled moments. They have been for me. When I am confronted with my own failure or how much I’ve disappointed someone I love, it hits me like a freight train and slams me back. It is sobering and emotional. In your messages, does that emotion stop your congregation in their tracks? Does it compel and force them to confront their own failure? In other words, is how you tell the story powerful and compelling?
Great stories ask great big questions that the heroes struggle with on their journey. For me in producing the movie X-Men, the questions were developed in the comics, but we worked hard to bring them to life in the movie. Questions such as: How do I fit in with everyone else? Should I fit in with the crowd? Or should I stand apart? Essentially, is there a place for me? These are timeless and profound questions that apply to all of us, from 14 year olds to retirees.
Perhaps the most important thing we can remember is that great stories are not about providing answers, but about asking the right questions. Jesus was a master at answering a question with a question. He understood that the most powerful way to connect with people was by allowing them to discover the answer.
In the last 2,000 years, that hasn’t changed. Today in movie theaters across America, the audience still wants to figure it out. They want to be part of the process. Our best movies don’t give easy answers; they give the audience the formula or a roadmap to discover the answers for themselves. As storytellers, we give them 2+2 and let the audience figure out the answer along the way.
Ultimately my goal as a movie producer—and your goal in sharing the gospel—is to make your point stick in the audience’s mind. My friend, respected researcher George Barna, says that just two hours after a sermon, most people can’t remember the theme of the message they just heard. But years after seeing a movie, the audience can quote dialogue verbatim. When you have to process the question yourself, work at understanding the formula, and make an emotional connection, the message has a much better chance of sticking.
In my opinion, the film that should have won this year’s Oscar for Best Film is Les Miserables. Early in the movie (and the book), the confrontation of the bishop with former prisoner, Jean Valjean, is a classic and has been told and retold for 150 years since Victor Hugo wrote the original novel. The bishop forgives him for stealing from him, loves, protects, challenges and sends Jean Valjean on the greatest journey of his life. And very simply, the words of Valjean’s response show the gospel in action. Pastors, tell that story; use a video clip if necessary. Les Miserables is a timeless story that has captured what forgiveness and redemption really look like and mean, and is a clear sign post to what Christ has done for us.
As storytellers of the greatest story, we need to help our congregation recognize these kinds of compelling and life-changing stories in the culture today. We need to embrace the way stories are told and develop the moments that ignite their thought processes and emotions. In many ways, you as a pastor and me as a movie producer are no different. We need to be interpreters and ambassadors for great and life-changing stories. And along the way, perhaps we can show the church how the gospel is truly at work in the world.