Billy Wilder is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He was nominated for 21 Academy Awards, 12 of them for writing. I’m sure he had no idea what Christian catechesis was, but his storytelling tips for screenwriters can take your RCIA process to a powerful new level of formation.
1. The audience is fickle.
Wilder said that you can prepare as best you can for an audience, but audiences are unpredictable. What works for one audience won’t work for another. “Even if we are telling ‘our story,’” he said, “we must think long and hard during preparation how our story is really their story.”
RCIA takeaway: Do you know your catechumens’ stories?
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
Wilder always started his stories with a hook—an attention grabber. If you’ve stared into the blank faces of a room full of catechumens, you can use this tip. Get their attention and keep it by using variety and unexpectedness. Focus on the beginning and ending. That’s what folks remember most.
RCIA takeaway: What is the most attention grabbing sentence you can lead with the next time you are catechizing? What unexpected thing will you say right after that?
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Every doctrine that you teach has a story of change behind it. The reason we have the doctrine is because somebody changed. Take, for example, the Immaculate Conception. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines this as: “The dogma that proclaimed…that from the first moment of her conception Mary…was preserved immune from original sin.” That’s true, but where is the action? Think about what you know about Mary. What was her life like? While she was preserved from sin, she was not preserved from temptation. What would have tempted her? What did she struggle with? Where and how did she find the strength to fight off her temptations? How did her struggles change her? What is the line of action?
RCIA takeaway: Figure out what the story of change is behind any doctrine you are trying to teach.
4. Know where you are going.
Have you ever heard a speech or a homily and wondered where the heck is this going? You can bet your catechumens have often wondered the same about your presentations. Everything you say and everything you do has to lead clearly and directly to the next thing you say or do. Cut out anything minor or irrelevant. Don’t wander. Wilder reminds us of a dramatic principle from Anton Chekhov: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
RCIA takeaway: You can usually cut out about 50% of what you planned to say. If you have an hour, try to finish in 30 minutes. If you have 30 minutes, finish in 15.
5. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
A movie or a play usually has three acts. You can think of your catechesis as having three parts—a beginning, a middle, an end. What a lot of catechists do is they start filling out PowerPoint slides or a lesson plan in a linear fashion, just cramming data, facts, and doctrines into an outline structure. This leads to a weak beginning, a bloated middle, and a confused or rambling ending that concludes with, “Any questions?” The solution is to start strong (see tip 2) and always know where you are going (tip 4). This takes planning at the very beginning. You have to build a strong foundation at the start in order to have a strong ending.
RCIA takeaway: Try writing your ending first. What exactly do you want the catechumens to takeaway from your catechesis. Another way to think of it is, how do you want the catechumens to change and act differently because of your catechesis?
What’s your story?
Wilder has more tips, but that’s enough for now. I’d love to know what you think. Do any of Wilder’s storytelling tips inspire you to catechize differently? What is one thing you might try next time you are with your catechumens?
(These tips are drawn from a blog post by Garr Reynolds, “10 storytelling tips from Billy Wilder.”)
Check out this webinar recording: “Storytelling in the RCIA—Teach Like Jesus.” Click here for more information.
3 thoughts on “A Jewish screenwriter’s tips for RCIA catechesis”
Starting with yesterday’s Gospel of the 2 sons asked to work in the vineyard, where one says no then yes and the other says yes but does not, We led the group in a story of change our family experienced about 4 years ago. We were “forced” to place our son before his 16th birthday in a wilderness program. (Jesus did his own “wilderness program” as well) While we expected him to be transformed by this, my wife and I also experienced a dramatic change as well. The program included a weekend retreat for parents where the topic really was call “the Change”. The material presented over 2 days in the middle of a Utah winter seemed not only valuable for us at the time but also very enlightening for this period of inquiry where we are asking these candidates to really explore their thoughts and feelings towards all those they come in contact with. Are people human beings as they are or just objects of frustration in a self centered world?
These tips are fantastic… thanks for sharing them! I’ve always said that the best way to understand and proclaim the scriptures is to see it as a storyteller. All good film makers, Mr. Wilder included, will tell you that they are primarily “storytellers.” I think catechists sometimes forget that they too are primarily storytellers. All our scripture, all our traditions, all our doctrine and faith experiences come with a story, and sharing that story with catechumens and candidates gives us the opportunity to be part of that story. Thanks so much for this useful advice!
Great post Nick! I especially love #4-know where you’re going. I think that’s a big problem with most presenters. They don’t go in with what they want the class to know or the change they want to effect. Very important for influencing them. Interesting idea about the story of change behind a doctrine.