I just took a bunch of kids to an LTC conference on Christian arts and communication. There, we saw a variety of arts from drama and puppetry to chorus and visual arts. While judging the drama division, I saw some strong, vibrant dramas, and some that were weaker. Many adults involved in this type of writing may be doing it without the benefit of tips or a mentor to help them through the process. So, for what it's worth, here are my suggestions from my years of training and work as a professional novelist and playwright.
TEN TIPS TO WRITE A GOOD CHRISTIAN DRAMA OR SKIT for LTC or other events:
1) Understand the difference between a drama and a sermon/lesson. Sermons and lessons are wonderful in their own right, but they do not make good drama. The closer your skit becomes to a sermon or lesson in its style and content, the less effective it will be.
2) Avoid too much direct discussion of scripture or writing a ‘teaching’ scenario such as a parent teaching children or actors portraying "a Bible class." This is usually a sign that your material is sermon or lesson-like; instead, tell a STORY with strong characters.
3) Pick a creative setting and unusual characters. Skits set in schools and churches tend to produce sermon-like material. It’s harder to write sermons set in outer space! That’s not to say that all skits must be wacky, but it’s much more interesting to set a skit at the police station or sewage plant than at church. Another overused scenario is the “radio or TV interview.” It’s really hard to make the interview style fresh and exciting. If you must pick one of the overused, everyday settings, use unusual, memorable characters, not just “an ordinary kid or teenager.”
4) Base your skit on one major problem and conflict. Conflict drives all good drama from beginning to end. Not all conflict must involve characters battling one another. Sometimes, the main conflict may be a character’s internal conflict (“should I or shouldn’t I?”). Characters don’t have to argue directly or fight, but instead they may have strikingly different goals that place them in conflict. For example, one character on stage may be desperately trying to make a new friend, while the other character on stage really has to go to the ladies’ room and has no interest in small talk! Such minor conflicts can make some of the funniest and most poignant drama. If there is no conflict but only talk and explanation, the skit will be deadly dull.
5) Help your actors by writing strong characters with intense motivations. Strong characters have strong goals. They also have quirks and overriding personality traits that make them recognizable within the space of a short scene. At the same time, you don’t want them to be so stereotypical that they are boring (such as the jock, the nerd, the vain girl). If you do use very common types, make sure their goals make them more memorable. A jock making vague macho statements is less interesting than a jock so driven to win the state championship that he’ll take steroids or sabotage his rival teammate. The nerd is dull if he’s just a kid in a pair of black eyeglasses. He is much more appealing if his goal is to outwit the school bullies and he actually says smart or witty things about history or chemistry.
6) Use humor. Make a choice about whether your skit is all-out comedy or more serious drama (perhaps with a sprinkling of humor). Do not choose the non-existent genre: “this is a sincere and earnest skit.” Aspire higher. Your goal may be to write a skit that is moving, troubling, or hilarious, but if your goal is “a nice, earnest skit about spiritual matters” you are probably treading dangerously close to boring. Humor is the easiest way for amateur young actors to do well onstage. They feel more comfortable and they usually enjoy it. For high school performers, a serious drama may be possible, but the lead actors will need to be experienced and talented to make it work. The goal for the skit should be to get the audience to laugh loudly (not forced polite laughter) or be truly moved emotionally at some point during the skit. If neither of these things happens, it’s a sign that the skit may be ineffective, or in a word...boring.
7. Include music/sound effects. Music and sound on a portable boombox are a simple, inexpensive way to produce a much richer theatrical effect. If your skit needs gunshots, download sound effects from an online music store. The internet has made sound design much easier. If the students are enthusiastic singers, don’t be afraid to use their abilities. If not, consider using background music to enhance mood.
8. Costumes matter: write characters that allow fun costumes. Costumes matter to the audience, and more importantly, they help inexperienced performers have more fun and loosen up onstage. Do not choose everyday clothing as your costume, or even worse, event t-shirts. You will lose one of the most powerful tools to help your student actors enjoy their show.
9. Write a variety of big and small parts. Don’t listen to any voices telling you that everyone must have an equal part. Drama doesn’t work like this in any other setting, and there’s no reason why it should at church. Some kids simply don’t yet know how to project their voices and make themselves heard. Other young actors start out very wooden and unemotional. Allow these less experienced actors time to grow by giving them fewer lines. Try to make their small parts into especially fun and animated roles.
10. Take the assigned theme seriously and make it central through a story, not sermonizing. If your skit will appear at a venue with a required theme, make sure the theme is central and clear in the STORY of your work. This is not the same as having a bunch of characters talk about the theme at length…that is a sermon. Instead, figure out what kind of story will *show* the theme without specifically saying it out loud. Then, if one of your characters does openly state the theme, keep it to a minimum. Audiences prefer to be respected and allowed to see the theme for themselves.
Bonus tip: Keeping all of these tips in mind can be a tall order for a first-time playwright. One good way to help yourself get started is to pick a classic story—a fairytale, a well-known movie, or a classic novel—and imitate the structure and conflict of this classic story. For example, how could “The Three Little Pigs” become a story about forgiveness? What could “Little Red Riding Hood” show us about temptation? But don’t just use famous characters to create chaos: for example, slapping Captain Kirk and Spock into a skit won’t necessarily make it good, unless the skit also has a strong central problem and conflict that ties into the theme. The most common problem with skit parodies of famous works is that the writer gets so caught up in the humor and characters that the storyline becomes unfocused and hard to follow. Keep that central problem/conflict very clear.
Happy writing, and thanks for your service!