"The Verbal Transition"

This is an excerpt from Dr. Marcia McFee’s new book [Think Like a Filmmaker © Marcia McFee, 2016]. Find out more HERE.

Structure is the friend of creativity. It provides a container that helps us organize and move content along in the story-telling process. It keeps us on point, it gives us a goal, and it keeps us from rambling. And structural choices can give a series a particular “voice” or “feel.”

"What distinguishes screenwriting from other forms of fiction is this compelling need for compactness, for concision… much of the advantage of visual storytelling is that it compresses so effectively. At its best, compression creates a compelling density. Every moment, every story beat does double duty or more… screenwriting is structure." (Jon Boorstin, Making Movies Work, p. 51)

One of the most important contributions of the verbal artist is one that doesn’t get a lot of attention in books about writing liturgy or worship leadership””the art of the verbal introduction or transition””a kind of narration. Knowing when to guide a congregation more deeply into a moment by offering a “signpost” is a gift that can help worship feel like a spiritual journey. At my retreat for worship designers and leaders each year, we spend time thinking about who we understand ourselves to be as a leader. One of the models I have for myself is that of worship leader as a kind of spiritual director. A spiritual director doesn’t do all the talking and certainly is not there to tell you exactly what spiritual journey you should be experiencing. But a spiritual director does, occasionally, help us notice aspects of the journey we might miss without their guidance. Thinking of verbal transitions in this way can deepen our spiritual leadership by moving us away from simply being “bureaucrats of the agenda,” with perfunctory comments like “let us turn to page thus-and-such and sing…” Instead, we might say, “Dumiyah means ”˜silence’ in Hebrew. As we sing this simple chant using this word from our Jewish roots, I invite you to breathe deeply before each phrase, and when the music fades, continue simply to breathe in a time of extended silence, knowing God is present with each breath.” This verbal transition includes a way to move more deeply into the experience by sharing more about the words of the song and provides suggested guidance for how to experience that meaning in the following silence. Notice that the instructions were carefully crafted so that they were more spiritually-rich than didactic.

We can often do more harm than good by over-explaining what is about to happen. For example, I created a layered sequence for an experience of the 23rd Psalm that combined the song, “Shepherd Me, O God” with inviting the congregation to whisper aloud, on their own time, the scripture passage between verses 2 and 3. The people sing only the song refrain and a soloist sings the verses, allowing both participation and deep meditative “soaking” time for the congregation. I carefully thought through any instructions the people would need to know in order to participate confidently. I decided to print the musical refrain that they would sing in the worship guide along with the scripture they would whisper. This would eliminate the need to explain to them that they should turn to “this page” in a hymnal and “this other page” in the pew Bible. I also did not need to say that they would sing only the refrain because that is all they have in front of them. And I decided to simply say, “I invite you to whisper aloud, on your own time, the 23rd Psalm that is before you” just before they did it””after the 2nd verse was sung””rather than explain it beforehand. And I begin to do so into the microphone right after I issue the invitation, which models it for them and gets them going (I then back off the microphone since folks will be saying it in their own rhythm). This facilitates a flow inside the experience rather than a whole lot of explanation that doesn’t make sense before we start: “We are going to sing a song you’ve never sung before. You will sing the refrain and a soloist will sing the verses. After the refrain after verse 2, you will recite the Psalm aloud, but whispering, on your own time.” Oh my! The congregation is anxious and closed down before we even get to the experience. It is vitally important to think through, write out, and practice all instructions to make sure that we are using only the most necessary, concise, and clear wording. Especially when leading the congregation in something new or “out of the box,” making sure they feel confident while not taking them out of the worship “vibe” is crucial to building trust for other new experiences.

Just as important as discerning the right moments for these kinds of guided verbal offerings, is to also know when no verbal introduction or transition is needed. Sometimes I can discern this as I’m writing my script and sometimes I figure it out in the cue-to-cue rehearsal. And sometimes, the spirit strikes in the midst of worship. What I will tell you, however, is that I wasn’t always comfortable trusting that I could just make it up in the moment. When I first began to lead worship I would write out every verbal transition word for word. My theater background taught me not to read it right off the page, but at least I had thought through it very intentionally, plotting exactly the economy of words that would express everything I needed to say and no more. If you tend to ramble off-the-cuff, this is an excellent practice. If intentional focus on verbal transitions is new to you, I want to highly recommend that when your worship script is finished, go back and make sure that you write in all verbal transitions and instructions.

**Questions to Ponder:

When we use verbal transitions in worship, what are they like? Could we use more artful expression at these junctures between worship elements?

Why might it be important for us to pay careful attention to how we transition from one ritual to the next?**

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which we’ll be discussing another one of the five major arts areas: the musical arts. If you’d like to learn more about Think Like a Filmmaker, visit the book's website HERE!