Dialogue Sketches 6 The Way to Write Dialogue Sketches

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
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Chapter 4
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Chapter 6 The Way to Write Dialogue Sketches.

By inviting individuals and groups to write their own sketches, I hoped that lay participation and the life of a congregation would be enlivened. I have quoted with appreciation a number of references to the need for participation in worship [1], and feel that not only is it right and necessary, but that people who have engaged with producing or performing a sketch will be more alert to sermons, sketches and other teaching subsequently. They will certainly be more firmly identified with the congregation in which the sketch was performed.

It was clearly necessary to give some simple advice to those who wrote sketches, whether as individuals, or as those writing up the thoughts of a group, and so the “10 commandments – well, suggestions” were born. These points are key parts of my conception of a “dialogue sketch”.

Advice on Writing Dialogue Sketches

Of course, you are perfectly capable of making up your own guidelines, but until you get the experience and confidence to do so, here are some suggestions.

>   You need more than two, and less than six voices.

The number of voices is critical. Thompson and Bennett used 2, and that defined the rather adversarial style of their dialogues. [2] Michael Botting and Dave Hopwood [3] vary their sketches from monologues through 2 and 3 voices to quite large numbers. My reasoning was that two voices make for “debate”, where resolution of the question often requires one person to “lose” the argument – something I wanted to avoid (see point 4 below), or for a very “didactic” style, where they both agree and take turns in pushing the point home [4]. Three or more voices allow for cross-cutting questions, and a discussion in which the alliances vary. I see this as a healthier pattern for conversation among Christians, and wanted to model a way of talking about God and faith which allowed for disagreement, even argument, without offence or lasting division. The need to teach and encourage Christians to talk naturally and easily about their faith, both among believers and more widely, has been recognised by courses like CPAS “Lost for Words” [5]. My hope is that, even in very tongue-tied settings, dialogue sketches might help by providing examples.

The need to limit the number of voices, while recognising that all the members of a small group might want to take part, is related to the need for characterisation. As far back as Plato6 and Malachi7, it was recognised that for a dialogue to communicate, each voice had to cohere, to have a consistent character. Dialogue sketches do not allow great development of character, but “grumpy”, “depressive”, “questioner”, “knowledgeable but bored” can be recognised in a number of scripts. The more voices there are, the harder it becomes to maintain consistent characterisation – harder both for the writer, and for the listener to distinguish and appreciate.

>   Your sketch should last more than 4 minutes (c400 words) and less than 15 (c1500 words).

In less that 400 words, it is hard to have any discussion – so there is no point in the complication of more than one speaker8. The 15 minute / 1500 word limit probably represents a reasonable attention span limit for motivated people. The upper limit is also a guess at the point where the limitations of dialogue sketch (a read script, without much costume, set or props) become critical, compared for example to a more fully dramatic performance. My Anglican tradition rarely preaches for more than 20 minutes, usually 10-15 or less, though I know a tradition of longer sermons, and have occasionally preached them (in what I hope were appropriate settings). The sermon of 30 or more minutes is not simply an extension of the shorter, but rather a different style, and I suspect the same might be true of dialogue sketches.

>   A good script will have short sentences, questions, and reactions and interactions between the speakers. It will not have any one speech longer than, say, 6 lines

This again is a break with Thompson and Bennett, and the formal debating style, and intentionally closer to conversation, and to the Botting and Hopwood sketches. It also highlights a resource of dialogue sketches which is not available in the same way to a monologue preacher – the emotional reaction. Professor Grace Davie [9], speaking to a Clergy School, noted that two forms of worship were comparatively more successful in contemporary Britain: the Charismatic Evangelical, and the Cathedral styles. She linked these as “experiential”, distinguishing them from the more “cerebral” character of the liberal Protestant tradition. Dialogue sketches can be written within any theological tradition, but have an experiential element, and can readily include characters whose reaction is more emotional than logical, or who reflect the reactions of some part of contemporary culture.

>   No character is an idiot. They may have different levels of understanding, but all contribute, by information, question, mediation, etc.  In the same way, no-one is unaffected by the discussion, all learn something.

This is not always easy to embody, but important for the modelling of Christian conversation, and of Christian congregational life! (Note the deliberate breaking of this rule in the Clergy School Sketch, on the Parable of the Vineyard [10]). While a monologue sermon tends to reinforce ideas of hierarchy and passivity, I hope that dialogue sketches help people understand how faith is shown in a variety of personalities and circumstances, and how a congregation is strengthened by many gifts. Knowledge and experience are valuable, but so too are energy, questions, a desire to learn, and the need to relate faith to new situations and circumstances.

>  The dialogue is firmly linked both to the text and to the contemporary experience of the characters. Where the characters are fictitious or made up of several expressed views, they are fairly credible, but can be “larger than life”.

The idea that realistic, effective Christian faith must be firmly grounded in both the plans and purposes of God and in human life as it is experienced is at least as old as Irenaeus [11]. Dialogue sketches appear to have the advantage of being in more contemporary form than a monologue address, but that advantage is lost if they have nothing of significance to communicate. The link between heaven and earth, the divine and the mundane, is as important in Christian teaching as it is in the theory of the Incarnation. Characterisation is important for the dialogue to have an impact. I have tried to allow for varied levels of skill, from a simple representation of oneself (where a group member voices in the dialogue sketch the opinions they had contributed to the group), to the merging of two or more contributors into one voice in a sketch, to the imaginative creation of characters by a solo writer. Some sketches depend heavily on characterisation [12], while in others they provide little more than pleasant background colour.

>   The group engaged in the study and producing the dialogue may be already established or specially convened. It may be just interested people, or a housegroup, Mothers’ Union members, young people, . .

“How can the housegroup (or Youth Club, or Mothers’ Union, or . . ) advertise itself, get new members, and be linked in with Sunday worship?” These seem to be common questions in Parish life, and it seemed that here was a way of providing a positive answer, encouraging helpful links of fellowship and participation.

>   Let people talk about what they feel as well as what they think; what they actually experience as well as what they think they ought to.

I have referred above to the importance of engaging the whole person in education13. As a relatively “cerebral” or “cold” personality myself (I test as a Myers-Briggs INTJ or ENTJ), I find it easier to take emotions into account when I write a dialogue sketch than to engage and communicate them in a sermon – although I think the former experience is beginning to affect the latter. Equally, the varied characters in a dialogue sketch will allow more members of a congregation to identify with one of the presenters, some favouring the logical, some the more emotion-led, “feelie” types. This should increase the level of involvement, and thus the efficiency of communication.

I think it is still necessary (at least amongst Anglicans in Wales) to remind people to try and deal with what is, rather than some notion of what ought to be. Younger people are generally happier with this, but the older and more traditional people who make up more of our congregations not uncommonly need encouraging to be honest about failure, departure from past religious habits and disciplines, and the abandonment of Christian living by other family members. If this is their context, dialogue sketches with a realistic setting may help them face up to it, plan a faith response, and be supported by others in attempting it.

>   Begin with some different views, and try to bring them to some resolution or understanding of one another.

I have commented above on the possible similarity between a dialogue sketch “plot” and a Lowry loop. [14] What is also implicit here is the idea of aiming at resolution or understanding, rather than victory for the “correct” view. I do not believe that all views are of equal value, but my practise of ministry has taught me that many disagreements are about the meaning of words in context at least as much as about incompatible apprehensions of God. (I find some support for this view in 1 Tim 6:4 and 2 Tim 2:14 – perhaps the problem is not new). A dialogue sketch offers an easy way for two characters to realise that they are saying the same thing in different words, or that they are saying different but complementary things in words which appear contradictory. They may even be persuaded that they are saying what they do not really mean!

>   A good sketch needs no introduction (beyond perhaps “And now we have a dialogue sketch”), and no epilogue to hammer home the “meaning”. A moment of quiet, then continue with worship.

A number of people have suggested that in presenting a dialogue sketch, I ought to follow it with a comment, drawing out the main points. I have resisted this (while asking if it meant that my sketches were too condensed or too short), not wanting the sketch to appear as an extended “illustration”. A good sketch will raise questions and evoke feelings, which could be spoilt by a switch back to an authoritarian interpretation. If dialogue sketches have value as an occasional alternative, they do not need a sermon context, and will be diminished by it – no matter how much the force of habit longs for a monologue element.

>   The actors read their words from the script with appropriate feeling and timing. They may present themselves, or take on a different personality and outlook. They read the script rather than memorising and acting fully because that makes a dialogue sketch easy to put on, and encourages people to do it again, and again, with different readings and scripts.

Here is the instruction which makes a dialogue sketch so much easier to present than a drama. The script is read, not recited from memory. It needs an absolute minimum of “production”. I should perhaps have noted the need for audibility and visibility, but these are a matter of common sense – and the members of a congregation are best placed to know the characteristics and problems of their building. The amount of rehearsal is a matter for the participants. What seemed to me most important was to encourage people to do this, and to feel able to continue to do it. Flexibility, making dialogue sketches accessible to small rural congregations as well as larger urban and suburban ones, and allowing sketches to fit into traditional, liturgical worship, as well as contemporary, spontaneous, and even “new forms of Church”, is a great advantage.

>   Enjoy it – if it’s fun, everybody will probably learn something.

This is not a flippant comment! At a time when British Christians are a minority group, with memories (some accurate) of having greater influence in the past, presentation of the gospel can easily feel negative. Too often those outside the churches will find little good news in what is said, despite the New Testament. A new form may help in finding gospel presentations accurately focussed on contemporary reality – for those inside the churches, those outside, and those who “hover” on the boundary.

How do I use a dialogue sketch in my church?

There was a need to give more instructions. A web page used a number of internal and external links, underlined below. It outlines three stages:

How do I use a dialogue sketch in my church?

The easiest way to begin is to use a sketch that has already been written by someone else. [To view some existing scripts, click here]. follow instructions A for this.

The next stage would be to write your own dialogue sketch using guidelines on a particular passage – as in instructions B.

Then you do the whole process yourselves, as outlined in instructions C.

The process seemed quite straightforward to me, but getting congregations to do it – or at least getting feedback – has been more difficult. I hope this is a question of advertising and time, though the second questionnaire (see below) was an attempt to investigate underlying causes.

Instructions A To use an already written script.

1. You can simply recruit the necessary number of speakers, giving each a copy of the script beforehand to read through. (They may find it helpful to highlight their own part). Then give them clear instructions: when they are to perform, and where they are to stand, and – do it!. (Often the best time will be after the reading/s, and standing at the front in a semicircle facing the congregation – unless they need to be behind fixed microphones).

2. A better way would be to recruit the speakers and give them a copy of the script to read before meeting together. At the meeting, you might explain some of the background (using material from this website?), read the passage of scripture concerned, and pray, before reading through the script as it will be presented. (So, standing, and with sufficient volume for the church building). Allow time for questions, and let the group work out answers. Then do the dialogue in the worship setting, and hopefully agree to try stage B.

This is the simplest use of a dialogue sketch – “off the peg”, or rather the website, where sketches for the first Sunday of each month were supplied for over twelve months, and continue (based on Revised Common Lectionary readings). I have allowed, indeed encouraged, participants in Sketty to adapt the wording of their parts where they found it did not flow easily or express the thought clearly. Perhaps I should have made this more clear, though the paragraph introducing the sketches for lectionary year B, or year A, says, “These sketches, like all “sermons”, were written for a particular time and place. They might not suit your setting at all, but they may help you see the possibilities of the technique. (You may freely copy, adapt, and use any for Worship, but they remain copyright Andrew Knight).” [15] There must be people who, encountering these scripts, find them unusable in their own context (for reasons of language and style, theology, or even my sense of humour). The argument of this dissertation is that appropriate dialogue sketches could be written for any context, by following the instructions supplied. Thus the second stage:

Instructions B To prepare a script on a given passage using questions and helps.

1. Gather a group of people, explaining that not all will “perform”. Study the given passage (hopefully all will have already read it, and some looked up commentaries etc) with the aid of the questions given. (If the people are familiar with a pattern of meeting, you may want to modify the pattern to fit what they are happy with). The group leader will want to encourage the group to work (drawing people out, avoiding red herrings, restraining the verbose . . ), and work on the passage in the first stage.

2. After some time – it can be a fixed time eg 1 hour, or when the stage is reached – stop the study and reflect on what has been said and learnt. Try to identify two or three strands of thought, approaches to this passage or reactions to it. Each may have been expressed by one person, or more than one. It may be necessary to simplify, and certainly there will be a lot to leave out – some personal experiences, all red herrings, anything helpful to the group but not to people outside.

3. There are (at least) 2 ways to produce the dialogue sketch script:

[a] Identify 3 people who are going to present the parts, and the “role” each will take. (Stick to 3 unless you have very good reason for 4 at this stage). Have a tape recorder running, and get them to “ad lib” the conversation they want to present for about 15 mins, after agreeing how to start, and possibly how to finish. Let a member of the group take the tape away, type it and edit it (keeping the actual words spoken, but possibly shortening it to keep it clear). The final script should be 600 – 1000 words, roughly 6 – 10 minutes long. Give each of the speakers a copy to read over (allowing them to make minor adjustments in their own parts for ease of speech), and let them read it over together before presenting it.

[b] Identify 3 people who are going to present the parts, and the “role” each will take. (Stick to 3 unless you have very good reason for 4 at this stage). Work out what each will contribute, remembering the rule that says everybody contributes something to the discussion. Then let one person take this away to write up – this need not be a speaker, nor the group leader. The final script should be 600 – 1000 words, roughly 6 – 10 minutes long. Give each of the speakers a copy to read over (allowing them to make minor adjustments in their own parts for ease of speech), and let them read it over together before presenting it.

This is the heart of the group composition method. I have used it successfully with a group in my Parish, with an ad-hoc Ecumenical group (which produced the dialogue script on Mark 4:26-34 [16]), and a colleague has followed these instructions in his Parish (to ensure that I was not “cheating”!). I also used it at a seminar in the Diocesan Clergy School. In 75 minutes, I explained the process, got two groups each of three clergy to brainstorm Mark 6:1-13 (the set gospel for the following Sunday, 9 July 2006), look at my questions on it, and produce dialogue sketch scripts. (They then insisted on performing them, and while a little “rough” this speed test provides an interesting contrast to the 30 hours preparation dauntingly quoted by Thompson and Bennett [17]).

There is a deliberate flexibility in the format of the meeting, to allow both for an established group with a settled pattern of meeting, or for a specially convened group. I also wanted, tactfully, to try and allow for a cleric or other leader to exercise as much, or as little, control as they felt was necessary. Either during the group meeting, or in the process of writing up the script, a degree of guidance or simple censorship can operate. I would not encourage heavy-handedness, but recognise both that it may be the only way lay groups are allowed to operate under some leaders, and that leaders may want to check, from a standpoint of theological literacy, that the overall direction of a script has a reasonable balance, and no unintentional heresies or ambiguities. The aim, of course, would be for both leader and group to grow in confidence and mutual trust, and to arrive at the ultimate stage:

Instructions C – to write a dialogue sketch script from scratch.

1. It really does help if you have done A and B first, or at least B if you think you are “advanced”. Even if you are a preacher working on your own, remember that you will need speakers to present the dialogue, and they need to be fully involved. It is possible just to write something and find volunteers (that’s where I started!), but you lose a lot of the benefit that way!

2. Meet with your group, and study a passage of scripture. I strongly suggest you use the lectionary readings for the Sunday on which you will present your sketch, but you may be part of a locally decided series of texts, or be preparing for a special occasion. At any rate, don’t waste time deciding what passage, get a text and study it. It does help if people have been given it beforehand, to think, pray, and read around it.

3. Use whatever techniques of study, reflection and discussion you find helpful, (there are books on the lectionary readings, and articles in the denominational papers, as well as courses for groups from eg CPAS) but engage with the text and check the ideas and opinions expressed against it and against other scriptures people may suggest.

4 How is the script going to be written from your ideas and discussion? There are several stages:

A Assembling the material

 [a] Before the discussion you could ask one member of the group to note ideas, arguments, reactions and questions as they rise.

 [b] You could spend 5-10 minutes at the end of your study reviewing where people came from (ideas and emotions/reactions), what affected them and where they ended up

 [c] After the study the group could agree who will speak in church, (possibly those most involved in discussion or moved by it, possibly other people representing them, possibly people to take a part “made up” from several contributions), and the roles they will take.

B Putting the material into a script

 [a] You could get one person to write a script from the material collected

 [b] You could get the speakers to “brainstorm” their parts, dictating to a fast writer or typist, and then editing the result.

 [c] You could get the speakers to “ad lib” some 15 minutes of conversation, which is tape recorded, and edited to produce 6-10 mins of script.

The editing probably needs to be done by one person (to make the sketch hang together), but they need to use the original words, cutting where necessary but not “tidying” or “correcting” grammar etc.

These instructions have clear similarity to and overlap with “Instructions B”, but are a little fuller. Using a text from a lectionary has the advantages of that system – notably a systematic coverage of scripture – but also saves the group wasting time over which text to look at. Point 3 tries to underline the need for the group to engage with the passage, neither wandering off on anecdotes or side issues, nor proceeding too quickly to think about what the dialogue sketch will say – but these are common concerns in the leadership of study groups, well covered by John Mallison [18]. This process has worked in practice, but whether the perceived difficulty is a factor discouraging people and groups from making the attempt is something I tried to investigate in the second questionnaire.

This completes my description of the concept of the dialogue sketch, the way I described it to potential users, and the rationale behind it. What remains it some assessment of its effectiveness.

References cited above:
1 page 6 of this dissertation, quoting William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon chapter 3; p24ff; page 8 quoting ibid p72; page 10 quoting McClure p54
2 see pages 6 and 7 of this dissertation, referring to William D Thompson and Gordon C Bennett, Dialogue Preaching chapter 3 and chapter 5 p73ff
3 M Botting, 50 Sketches for All Occasions; Dave Hopwood, Playing Up and A Fistful of Sketches
4 I have written dialogue sketches for 2 voices – see Sketch E p66 – but the greater depth and scope with 3 or more will be seen quite plainly.
5 CPAS / James Lawrence, Lost for Words
6 see the discussion on page 4 of this dissertation.
7 see the discussion on page 4 of this dissertation.
8 Bearing in mind the comment on page 7 above, it would be interesting to ask whether it would be possible, or wise, to preach a “Lowry-loop” sermon of that length.
9 Grace Davie, address to Swansea and Brecon Diocesan clergy school
10 Sketch A, p58 in appendix
11 “he (Christ) became what we are in order that he might bring us to be even what he is himself” Irenaeus Adv Haer V ii, quoted in MF Wiles, The Nature of the Early Debate about Christ’s Human Soul.
12 eg the Clergy School sketch on the Parable of the Vineyard, which breaks several of these points.
13 page 16 above
14 above, page 7
15 introductory paragraph to the pages of my website called “SketchesA.htm” and “SketchesB.htm”
16 included in “SketchesB.htm”, and as Sketch B p59
17 see page 8. above.
18 John Mallison, Growing Christians in Small Groups, especially chapter 5.