My Pathway to Christian Screenwriting

Elli Gifferson (Hutchinson, Minnesota USA)

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About the presenter

Elli Gifferson studied Media Arts and graduated from Bethany Lutheran College in May of 2021. Though interested in film production, her primary passion is screenwriting. Elli particularly enjoys collaborating with fellow creatives and building stories in a supportive team. In addition to screenwriting, she also writes poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Most recently, Elli has started investing her passions in faith-based projects and she eagerly looks forward to exploring further the Christian storytelling industry.

A writer cannot create authentic characters. For characters to feel real, a writer must first meet them… And then, rush to write down everything they possibly can before that character has vanished from their thoughts. Simply put, a character cannot be forced to fit the writer’s story. The character, who they are, is the story. Hence, sometimes, the most challenging part of writing is surrendering to what the character is telling you. As writers, we always have an idea of how we want our stories to start and end, but an authentic character can shrivel that perfectly molded structure into mere ash, shambles, the remains of what was. But if a writer is willing to take chances to discern the voice of their characters over their own, the story will likely be stronger and more captivating, real. Thus, in a way, screenwriting offers the unique opportunity to meet characters firsthand and to collaborate with them in sharing their stories. If the concept sounds crazy, it is. However, the writer-character relationship is the primary reason I enjoy and appreciate screenwriting over other aspects of production. No other process will ever provide the same windows of personal reflection, growth, and depth. After all, as the writer, you are at the heart of the story. And story is why I fell in love with screenwriting.

From the age of seven, I was always avidly watching and following dramatic television shows and concurrently writing “fan-fiction” as well as my own original stories. Yet I did not start exploring the world of screenwriting until I was in the fourth grade. I had dreamt up this huge story and was desperate to share it with whoever would listen, but in my head I could see the story unfolding only as a television series. Though the story obviously never went anywhere, it was my first experience writing a television pilot, and it sparked a passion that persists today.

Personally, screenwriting and television provide both an escape and an opportunity to grow. Going into college I was set on a legal studies and government track. However once I started taking creative writing courses as part of my generals, my writing passions and aspirations were reinvigorated. I threw myself into every textbook, article, screenplay, and video tutorial that I could find, researching and studying screenwriting whenever I had the chance. In many ways, my discipline in learning the craft later enabled me to write more efficiently and effectively because the “rules” became second nature. Similarly, as I dove into more and more research, my educational perspective evolved and I came to view my education as wholly my own. In other words, only I had the power to invest in my classes and to seek additional resources to further my knowledge. Essentially, if I wanted to be a good writer, I would have to do the work.

Consequently, during my sophomore year, I committed to completing my first official screenplay and was blessed to find a mentor in one of my English professors. Together, we built story and discussed my writing projects in weekly meetings. Then, in the spring of 2020, I studied screenwriting at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (LAFSC) while interning at Rideback, a production company in Los Angeles . During my time at the LAFSC and Rideback, I met so many amazing people and learned the true value of a supportive and collaborative team, particularly through my experiences with the Rideback family. Yet, with the sudden uncertainties of the Covid-19 Pandemic in March, my Los Angeles dreams were cut short, at least for the time being. Though I did not know it then, God had an even better plan for my life.

A piece of a Gifferson screenplay

After returning home, I completed my internship and spring courses remotely. Shortly thereafter, I began working in childcare to pay for the upcoming school year. Although I tried to find the energy and motivation to write and develop new stories, my heart lost its drive amidst everything going on in the world. I spent the majority of my summer going for long drives and looking for inspiration I could never seem to find. But sometimes God’s plan takes you down the most unexpected of roads in the direction you were always going but never knew.

August brought tragedy, the reminder to cherish family, the deepest of loves and joys and memories, a closer relationship with Christ, and blessed introductions to people who have changed my life. August taught me that first and foremost writing is a vocation, a passion to pursue not a pressure to force. I realized that so much of my life centered around the future rather than living in the moment with God. Thus I stepped back from writing for almost a year to focus on living my faith more strongly, deeply, and actively. Since then my inspiration has come from seeing and witnessing Jesus in the goodness of people. My hope is that in returning to my writing I will be able to share their stories, some of which I have already started working on.

Therefore as I continue to pursue my passion for writing as a vocation I am excited to collaborate with and meet new people, but I am most looking forward to spreading God’s Word. Though I anticipate that there will be obstacles along the way, particularly regarding time management and balance, I am thankful for the opportunity to use my gifts to serve God. Over the past year I have grown closer to becoming the person God made me to be and I have witnessed His presence and plan in my life more than ever before. Every day God continues to guide me in surrendering to and trusting in the goodness of His plan. He leads me to choose love over fear and to find beauty in even the most broken of places. Going forward I hope to use my resources and abilities to accomplish as much good as I can in service to Christ. I pray that as I share true Christian stories audiences will be inspired to further strengthen and actively live their faiths. Likewise I hope that in writing such stories I will be able to build close relationships and to seek more opportunities for outreach and service work. My ultimate aspiration is to work in the Christian non-profit sector and I especially look forward to exploring Christian music, public-speaking, and storytelling. Given the life-changing values and priceless path of the past year, I can only imagine where God’s plan will lead me next, but I am excited for the journey.

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Andy Muske (Bethany Lutheran College) 2021-10-18 8:26:15pm
I really enjoyed reading about your character/story development process, and how God used you in different ways than expected. As a college freshman, it is a good reminder that I do not know everything about my life yet, no matter how much I think I do. I really like how you also are combining your love for writing in with your love for your Savior. Media Arts is a broad field, and there are many opportunities to share the gospel within it and you are a good example of that. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Elli Gifferson 2021-10-31 9:40:53pm
Andy, thank you for reading and for your kind words. If you are interested in learning more about the story development process, I would strongly recommend looking into the "Hero's Journey" template. Though I try not to use it when initially creating/building a story, the template has always helped me to find plot gaps and to fill them accordingly. I hope you enjoy the rest of your freshman semester and wish you well on your journey as well!
Don Moldstad (Bethany Lutheran College) 2021-10-26 2:42:42am
Elli.... This is so wonderful to hear that you are involved in Christian screenwriting. What a great way to use your Bethany education!

Jesus tells us that "repentance (Law) and forgiveness of sins (Gospel) should be preached in His name..." This is how His truth is brought to the world. I have found that is is challenging to work these concepts into a storyline without being too predictable. Do you have any suggestions?
Elli Gifferson 2021-10-31 10:13:05pm
Chaplain Moldstad, thank you for reading my presentation and for your wonderful question.

In my writing experience, I have found that the best way to counteract predictability is to use irony. In this case, because you are talking about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, I would suggest implementing a twist that carries the theme of unforgiveness. For example, perhaps the story centers around a pastor who preaches forgiveness but struggles to forgive himself for the sins of his past. Here, the story is interesting and unpredictable because audiences not only want to learn more about their main character and the past that burdens him, but they are also intrigued and captivated by the journey that will ultimately lead to his ability to forgive himself and grow in the process. Oftentimes, the key to keeping a story unpredictable is to ironically pin a character's weaknesses up against the goal they are trying to achieve. In the example above, for instance, the pastor's weakness is his inability to forgive himself. Yet, his weakness hinders his ability to effectively preach the Gospel. Thus, in order to achieve his pastoral goal and mission, he must overcome his weakness.

I hope that helps! Thank you again. I wish you well with any future story concepts!
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2021-10-30 10:44:53pm
Check out the challenges faced by Christian screenwriters at the top of the industry, as described by professional screenwriter Jas Lonnquist in the spring 2016 GOWM conference: copy and paste the URL
It's a tough field. Jas is a good one but we need a flood more of good Christian screenwriters to make an impact. Be a pioneer, Elli !
Abby Bloomquist (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-04 3:47:09pm
Elli, I admire your insight and perspective as a Christian creator. As a theatre and communications student, I was very interested to hear about your process. I have spent this semester writing short plays and would love to know your thoughts on writing creatively. I loved your thought on following the rules and how that helped inform your writing and solidify your process. There is the that old saying: "you need to know the rules to break them." Do you feel like that is true when it comes to writing, whether it is theatrically or screenwriting? Another comment that caught my attention is searching for inspiration to write. How do you write when uninspired? When do you lean into the hard and when do you take a step back? I always find comfort in writing, but how do you handle constructive criticism? I feel that my work is an extension of myself and that it is sometimes hard to accept feedback on something that is a part of myself. Thank you for any insight you may have, I wish you the best!
Elli Gifferson 2021-11-08 2:01:56pm
Hi Abby, thank you so much for all of your wonderful questions! I'm excited to hear that you're interested in creative writing as well!

1) There is the that old saying: "you need to know the rules to break them." Do you feel like that is true when it comes to writing, whether it is theatrically or screenwriting?

To answer your first question, I would definitely agree that, "You have to know the rules to break them." I studied screenwriting for almost a year on my own, reading and memorizing every writing rule that I could find. When it finally came time to start my first screenplay, the rules were second-nature. They acted as a supportive backbone that gave me the confidence to focus on the story as opposed to over-concentrating on the technical aspects. In this way, knowing the rules was incredibly helpful because I was able to dedicate my time to plot and character development, and the story was certainly stronger because of it. I would guess that the same would be true with theatre and other creative mediums.

2) How do you write when uninspired? When do you lean into the hard and when do you take a step back?

This is a really good question too! I wrote my first screenplay while in college, and I always found that inspiration could strike at the worst possible time--for instance, in the middle of a class. For this reason, I often carried a paper copy of my work-in-progress screenplay so that I could scribble down changes and thoughts/ideas throughout the day without forgetting them later. Though some days are harder than others in regards to inspiration, I have personally found that the key is to be disciplined in your routine and to always have the story playing in the back of your mind. When you're starting from scratch and have no story, I usually sit down and make a list of images, topics, studies, places, and people that interest me. After a while, I look back on the list and start connecting some of the items until a story emerges. For example, your list may include: Family, movies, art, theatre, writing, choices, photography, New York, storms, music, medicine, loss. Perhaps, this story is about a young college student who travels to New York to study Medicine but feels her passions for the arts calling her. Meanwhile, she is struggling to deal with the recent loss of a close family member and mentor. The reason I suggest the "list technique" for inspiration is that it's always easier to write a story when you are passionate about the topics that build it. In terms of leaning in or stepping back, I typically just force myself to sit down and write regardless. Usually I have a set schedule with a goal like, "Write for two hours a day or until five pages are complete." This pre-determined goal gives me the motivation to get the story done even when it gets hard. I will say that it's a lot easier if you write with an outline and know how the story is going to play out--I would recommend the "Beat Sheet" or the "Hero's Journey."

3) How do you handle constructive criticism?

Criticism is hard, but if it comes from the right people, it can make you better and enable growth. I would strongly suggest finding a mentor to read your work and provide constructive criticism. I had a wonderful mentor in my college English Professor. When criticism comes from someone you know very well and trust, their words will make you more excited to keep writing and make revisions rather than hurt your feelings. That being said, I completely agree that writing is an extension of the self. Thus, if your mentor says something that you disagree with or suggests a change that you don't want to make, stand up for yourself and the story. You are it's best and only advocate, and you are feeling the story rather than just reading or writing it. It is a part of you, and it's important to preserve authenticity. Just make sure you're open to their thoughts and are willing to have an open and honest conversation. Some of my best work came from letting go and listening to my mentor. When feedback comes from someone other than your mentor, my best advice is to listen, reflect, and then turn to the story, more importantly, look to its characters. If a suggestion or criticism conflicts with your characters' innate goals and personality, I would hesitate to make the revision. However, if their thoughts support the character and preserve the authenticity of the story, I would consider the change and explore the possibility further with them.

I hope I answered your questions. I wish you well with your writing and the rest of the semester! Thank you again for reading and for this discussion.

Justus Borgwardt (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-04 11:04:55pm
Thank you for sharing your story. The pandemic definitely caught us all off guard. I am glad to see how God used that situation to bring you to where you are now, a perfect position to share his love with a world that needs it.

It is no secret that the film and TV industries for the most part are not very religious. That could make it difficult to achieve your goal. But there are some Christian production companies. For your goal of sharing God’s truth through screenwriting, do you foresee yourself working in a Christian setting or would you infuse your Christian worldview into your work with a secular company?

Thank you again for your presentation. I love to see how God uses his people to carry out his work in various different vocations. You are blessed to have an opportunity to evangelize while doing what you love.
Elli Gifferson 2021-11-09 12:43:13am
Hi Justus, thank you for your comments and your great question! Ideally, I would like to work in a Christian setting while pursuing my screenwriting career. That being said, although I would love the opportunity to serve as a screenwriter for a Christian production company, I am currently hoping to break into the Christian nonprofit sector and Christian education. My hope is that I will be able to find a position in Christian nonprofit work/education while pursuing screenwriting on the side.

I would also like to comment on what you said about, "infusing [my] Christian worldview into [my] work with a secular company." I really appreciated how you said that! I think that, ultimately, being a Christian means infusing your worldview into all that you do, not just your work. My goal isn't to spread God's Word through screenwriting, but rather to spread His Word through all that I do. Screenwriting is just one of my passions. I really try to approach it as another opportunity to serve. The last year has brought a lot, but it has really taught me that everything can be done in the glory of God. We have the free will to make that choice. It sounds simple, but it really changes your life when you start actively seeing every situation through that lens. It has not only greatly strengthened my faith and enabled personal and spiritual growth, but it has also challenged me to be a light in the secular world. Thank you again for your wonderful question!

Many blessings,

Rees Roecker (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-05 1:22:50am
Dear Elli,

I enjoyed reading about your journey to become a writer. It definitely inspired me as a future pastor to just think about things long-term, and know that God always has a plan for us. It is really encouraging to read about someone like you that has such strong faith that God will get them through all troubles, and I know it is also a difficult field you are going into.

I have a question for you as well. How do you handle these setbacks and keep on going with the awesome dream that you have? I know that we should trust in God in all these situations, but what do you do specifically to ensure that you stay on the path that you want to go on?

Thank you so much for your inspiring presentation, and I pray that you get far in the Christian storytelling business, and I am eager to hear your response.
Elli Gifferson 2021-11-09 2:36:39am
Hi Rees, thank you for reading and for your wonderful questions! Setbacks can be difficult, but I have found that the best way to ensure that you stay on the path you want is to let go and realize that it's not necessarily your path to choose. God has a plan and sometimes the hardest thing is to surrender your wants to His callings for your life. For the longest time, I was certain that I was going to live and work as a screenwriter in Los Angeles for the rest of my life. Yet, God unexpectedly placed a series of events and people in my path that changed everything, calling me to a different path with indescribable clarity. I like to think that he helped me re-navigate and narrow the road to becoming the person He made me to be.

When you're really open to God, surrendering everything in prayer, and ready to listen, He shows you His path. The most challenging part is letting go of a false sense of control and trusting Him with the wants to which you cling. I think that that is a daily struggle and something to be prayed for--the strength and courage to fearlessly surrender everything to Christ and to fully trust in His plan for your life. It's certainly something that weighs heavily on my heart and that I pray for every day.

Looking at my life today, I see the beauty of His plan unfolding and I am so thankful for taking the leaps of faith to listen to Him. You ask about setbacks, but I try to see them as opportunities to grow in different directions and to find beauty in trusting God that something better will happen, that His plan will provide even greater goodness and will bear even more beautiful fruits. I like to think that my dream is to spread God's Word using the gifts that He has given me, whether that be through screenwriting or something else. Hence, as long as I am growing in my relationship with Christ, nothing truly can or ever will be a setback, rather just a different direction in which to grow as I said before.

I'm not sure if I answered your questions, but I really valued the discussion that they prompted. Thank you again! I wish you well on your path to ministry.

Many blessings,