Church Communications resources and tips from Justin Dean

Hourglass Storytelling

Storytelling can be so simple. Beginning, middle, end. ?Once upon a time?? the standard narrative arc of protagonist overcoming an antagonist or challenge. The kind you might tell to your child, invented on the spot. The kind a child might tell you.

Storytelling can be so rich. Symbolic parables and allegories, moral dilemmas and uncertainty, unreliable or ambiguous information, experimenting with form. We can explore narrative voice ? third-person, first-person, second person ? along with tone and style.

And we haven?t even started talking about the visual aspects.

Of course, for hundreds of years, some of the world?s most moving and powerful sermons, stories, and lessons have been told without the help of high-definition screens or editing software.

But it?s 2013, and if you?re reading this there?s a good chance you have some kind of presentation technology in your church. This article is about ways you can give your movies and presentations more impact, drawing upon some simple but powerful editing principles. These techniques apply equally to standalone movies or scenes that accompany your narrative.

Plan ahead for editing later

If you?re storyboarding or about to shoot, keep these rules in mind. Maybe you?re editing existing footage, combining them with stock footage or stills. If you keep the hourglass structure in mind, you can make better decisions on paper or while you?re shooting, so you have more editing options later.

Shoot with the end in mind

Cinematography is the art of camera work, and in this article we can?t scratch the surface of this sophisticated craft. If you?re lucky enough to have a professional filmmaker or dedicated hobbyist to shoot for you, communication is key. Explain not only what you want to see, but also the emotions you want to stir, and the intentions for each scene. Storyboards, even quickly sketched ones, can make a huge difference. (Here?s a good introduction to storyboarding.)

If you?re a beginner shooting scenes yourself, say on a DSLR, use a tripod, external microphone, good lighting, and most importantly, restraint when it comes to composition and camera motion. (Here are 5 good tips to shooting better video.)

Edit for the hourglass

Think of a scene as a paragraph?a component of a story with a natural beginning and ending. Like in writing, a paragraph can be varying lengths. In editing, using scenes of various or similar lengths can add interest and rhythm (respectively) to your movie.[quote]Think of a scene as a paragraph?a component of a story with a natural beginning and ending.[/quote]

Establishing shot
Medium shot
Medium shot
Wide shot at the end
?repeat for each scene.

The establishing shot literally sets the scene in context. A meadow, a landscape, a farmhouse?even the universe or the sky?depending on the subject.


The medium shot shows an actor or character in their surroundings, often from the waist up or otherwise slightly cropped. (Beginning filmmakers often worry too much about cropping feet and appendages, but too much headroom or ground can create a distant, stiff-looking composition.)


The close-up and extreme close-up (XCU) are used to convey more intimate emotions and facial expressions, and are often used during important or subtle dialog and to emphasize body language. Hands in particular can convey an actor or character?s expressions very effectively.



The final wide shot can be used to show the passage of time (a different view of the farmhouse, perhaps with the sun setting) ? or the end of the movie. If another scene follows, its establishing shot can act as the hourglass ?filling up? again. Think of it as a transitional shot.

Learn the rules before you break them

The hourglass structure gives a framework that lets you introduce scenes in a natural and intuitive way?that is, from big-picture to detail, just like when you tell a simple story. Beginning, middle, and end, like the children?s story example I mentioned at the beginning. Used over and over, it can become predictable. Varying the pace at which your hourglasses empty and fill, or skipping components (say, the medium shot or close-up) can add variety and interest.[quote]As with any craft, the more you edit, the more effective your storytelling skills will become.[/quote]

Consider, for example, a movie that begins with an extreme close-up of a woman?s face, a baby?s toes, or a well-used violin. Now you?re telling a richer story that begins with a fascinating detail, rather than ?once upon a time, in a farmhouse in a meadow?.

As with any craft, the more you edit, the more effective your storytelling skills will become. In this way the hourglass is both a technique and a metaphor ??it reminds us it takes time and dedication to become a good storyteller. Read all you can, learn all you can, and consider taking courses in your city or online ( offers an excellent introduction to editing).

Good luck on your journey!

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