Where a monster movie breaks bad


My wife and I went to see “Jurassic World” last night because … well, we’re still not sure why. Maybe because we had a Groupon. Anyway, if you like special effects, dinosaurs, awful writing and wooden acting, then this is your movie.

As with all of the Jurassic Park movies, it’s a glorified Godzilla movie. Man messes with the natural order of things, creates a monster, monster goes out of control, many die, and in the end all agree that the whole thing was a bad idea. At least until the sequel.

This story line can work. It doesn’t work here because the plot is worn, there’s virtually no character development and the acting is beyond awful. As we mentioned during the Writers and Editors Workshop, sympathetic characters are a key building block in any story. Watching “Jurassic World,” I found myself rooting for every main character to be eaten by dinosaurs.

The story was completely predictable. No surprise plot twists, no interesting subplots. People run from dinosaurs and (spoiler alert) our plucky heroes somehow survive.

Maybe I’m asking too much from summer movies, which long ago devolved into video games. But I got angry watching “Jurassic World.” A good film — and any good story — respects the intelligence of its audience.

Take Pixar, which has produced some of the best storytelling of our generation. Movies like “Toy Story” or “Up” build around themes like growing up, or loss. Pixar’s latest, “Inside Out,” is an ingenious take on the emotions surrounding a family’s long-distance move.

The reason those Pixar films become beloved classics, while self-proclaimed blockbusters like “Jurassic World” wind up in the markdown bin, is storytelling. Identify a powerful, universal theme and you can build any crazy world you want to contain it.

Those two elements — strong characters and universal themes — propel true stories of God’s work, too. Then, and only then, add a monster (something bad that must be defeated). Now you have a recipe for something memorable.

Jesus’ parables contain strong characters, universal themes and yes, monsters. It’s why those stories are as easily relatable today as they were 2,000 years ago.

Skip right to the monsters and all you have is a video game.

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Stop and listen

violinAt the ministry where I work, one of our leaders talked last week about quieting ourselves so we can hear God’s voice – and how quieting ourselves is so rare in our culture today. It made me think of Gene Weingarten’s 2007 Washington Post story. The Post sent world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell into a DC subway station to act as a street musician — and to see how many people would stop to listen.

The result was one of the best things I’ve ever read. It never directly mentions God, but God speaks loudly through this story. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. I go back and read it at least once a year because it refreshes my soul.

Here’s the story.

As you read it, notice how deftly it moves between dialogue, scenes and background. You learn a lot by reading this story, but it’s all within a narrative that keeps things moving quickly. Notice the pacing – especially how the quotes from passersby are done in short sentences and paragraphs.

And then, just enjoy the piece as a reader and listen for what God might be saying to you.

*   *   *

Here’s a longer piece I wrote about this story in 2010. And here’s a follow-up story from the Post. Bell played another concert in a subway station last fall — not so secretly this time — and things looked quite different.

Posted in Faith | Tagged , ,

Open-Enders — Questions that Make Your Interview Count

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven the best interviews often start off a bit awkwardly as you’re getting to know your subject and discerning his vibe.

Depending on the subject, you can find a hundred different trails to success. One good way to turn an interview from awkward to undoable, though, is to ask “Yes” and “No” questions.

“Was that a good experience?”


“Did you know that was going to happen?”


“Would you do it that way again?”


If running quotes like that doesn’t get you fired, it definitely won’t get you re-tweeted.

Rather than paint yourself into a corner, ask open-ended questions that get your subject talking about themselves and their memories and the topic at hand. Here’s are 13 “Open-Enders” that will get you the background and the quotes that will make your interview count — and your article worth reading.

  1. That’s interesting — can you tell me more about that?
  2. Then what happened?
  3. What was it like to ___________ ?
  4. Who else was there? What did they do?
  5. Why did you decide to do that?
  6. What did the place look like?
  7. Who were the main players in this situation? What did they do?
  8. What event or conversation made the difference here?
  9. What were the risks for you? For others?
  10. What problems or screw-ups did you have to overcome?
  11. What do most people not know about this that they should?
  12. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you want to mention?
  13. Who else should I talk to about this? (Thanks to the late David Halberstam for this one)
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Says Who?

keep-calm-and-do-what-simon-says-2At the missions organization where I work, we’re moving toward using “says” rather than “said” most of the time for attribution in stories.

The reason is part of our gradual change in voice. “Says” helps build drama. It helps build scenes and narratives that readers can immerse themselves in. There’s a currency about “says.” It’s breezier. Present tense is more like watching a movie, and that’s the feel we want whenever possible.

Now, not every piece needs to read that way. If we’re writing something that’s less of a feature story and more of a fund-raising rationale, “said” might read better. “Said” is sometimes better for authoritative quotes or paraphrases, where instead of building a scene we’re constructing a case.

Sometimes in feature writing we’ll mix present and past tense. It’s a way to show that a person is telling us the story now, but referring to something that happened in the past. Here’s an example from a story I just wrote from Russia. Dasha is talking about the church service where she accepted Christ 15 years ago:

As the service ended, people greeted each other. They greeted Dasha, too, with smiles and hugs.

“And the pastor came up to me. I was still worried that he would rebuke me, but he didn’t. He said, ‘Dasha, I’m so glad that you are here. Do you want your life changed?’”

“Yes, I want that.”

The pastor invited Dasha to make a decision.

“I accepted Jesus Christ,” she says. “It was the moment that my life totally changed. I understood that there is a God — not just God, but a Father who loves me so much. And I am not alone in this world.”

Here’s a deeper discussion about this from Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute:



Posted in Writing | Tagged , ,

Starry, Starry Night

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh

“Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh

I spent Monday and Tuesday visiting a friend and his wife at their mountain home above Taos, N.M. They live almost 9,000 feet above sea level, and one unexpected highlight was stepping outside about 10 p.m. The sky was clear. As our eyes began adjusting to the darkness, the stars came into view.

About a minute later, they really came into view. The moon was just a sliver, and no city lights competed. The only other light came from the stars — thousands upon thousands filling the sky, horizon to horizon, as bright as I’ve ever seen them.

I thought about the people who first worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, and how those first clear pictures must have made their knees buckle in awe. Even from a dark mountainside, a glimpse of the universe took my breath away.

It took some searching to locate familiar constellations like the Big Dipper — not because their stars were hard to see, but because so many more-distant stars shone behind them. The farthest-away star in the Big Dipper is about 105 light years from Earth. The hundreds of stars suddenly visible directly behind it — who knows? That means we were looking back in time hundreds, maybe thousands of years as the light from those stars finally reached our eyes.

I thought about what it would have been like to live before electric lights, and to watch a show like this every moonless night from anywhere in the world. You begin to understand how mythology developed around the stars and constellations … how the stars inspired painters and poets.

You understand why the Psalmist wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

The moment reminded me something as a writer, too. As we report stories from someplace we can’t settle for one cursory look around. Wait. Pray. Eliminate distractions. Let your eyes adjust.

What you begin to notice will astonish you.

Posted in Faith, Writing | Tagged , ,

A Writer’s Mission

newspaper-boy-1Quick: What’s the goal in any story we write about ministry?

Show readers what God is doing in a particular place? Further the mission of Bible translation? Further the Great Commission? Engage people? Inspire more prayer and funding for a particular project or cluster?

Sure, all of that. But above those stands a much simpler thought.

Show them Jesus.

Not just “tell them about Jesus.” Show them Jesus.

How do we do that?

I’m part of a group at work that’s going through a study book called “Missional Essentials.” The book’s central focus is discovering what a life of mission looks like.

Isaiah 61:1-2 lays out the Messiah’s mission statement. At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus quotes the passage (Luke 4:18-19). So if we were to create a motivational poster, we’d use these bullet points:

  • Bring good news to the poor.
  • Comfort the brokenhearted.
  • Proclaim that captives will be released.
  • Proclaim that the blind will see and the oppressed will be set free.
  • Tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

Familiar stuff. But later, Jesus makes his mission our mission: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21).

Back to the mission statement. Look at the verbs: Bring good news. Comfort. Proclaim. Tell.

See the clear connection to our roles as writers and editors?

If we ever doubt how we can show Jesus to readers, there’s our answer. Take readers to places where we can show God’s people doing anything on that list. Even if we haven’t physically been to the place ourselves, we can use reporting and interviewing skills to gather observations and details, and to build accurate scenes and dialogue.

That makes us messengers of the Gospel in a powerful way we might not have thought about before. We are telling previously untold stories of God at work. Sounds a lot like these instructions:

“Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.” — Psalms 96:3 (NLT)

Posted in Faith, mission, Story, Writing | Tagged , , , ,

Creative fuel


Sometimes when I need a creative boost as a writer, I’ll get around people who are hyper-creative in other fields. Photographers, videographers, artists, musicians, designers, inventors, entrepreneurs. People who look at life differently and deeply … who see things that others miss. Sometimes those are people I know. Other times I know them only through what they’ve created.

During last weekend’s ice and snow event here in Texas, my wife and I spent a little extra Netflix time and stumbled onto “Ragamuffin.” It’s a film about the life of Rich Mullins. Three days later, I’m still thinking about it. What walloped me was not so much Rich’s music — though he might have been the best songwriter of his generation. It certainly wasn’t the film’s quality — better than most Christian films but still not great. It was Rich’s words, delivered almost verbatim from talks he gave at his concerts.

Rich liked to challenge conventional thinking, especially within the church. Legalism and false piety made him crazy. He always brought the message of Christianity back to the simple truth that Jesus loves us, no matter what.

Mitch McVicker, the band member who was with Rich when he died, calls him “The greatest communicator of grace that I’ve known.”

Here’s another good look at Rich Mullins’ life in a documentary film called “Homeless Man.”

Then, once the ice melted last weekend, several of us attended the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference in Fort Worth. Saturday night’s keynote speaker was photographer Dave Black. His topic: passion.

Dave’s passion isn’t fueled by seeing his work published — and this is a guy who covered 12 Olympics for Sports Illustrated. “Adrenalin comes from the joy of making a picture,” he said.

In other words, it’s about the creative process — not the audience’s response. Often, though, one naturally follows the other.

Artists express what’s hard for others to put into words. We need them to make us think, to challenge us and to get our own creative side moving again.

Who or what puts you into a creative mode?

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