Story and the Power of Change

Conflict Changes Life

The essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity can be expressed in just three words: Conflict changes life

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

As our team stumbled forward on this assignment and explored these crazy possibilities, we increasingly sensed we needed to change our way of seeing.

Here’s the full quote from Robert McKee, whom we admire so much and to whom we are very grateful for sharing this foundational insight…

What is a story, precisely? The essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity can be expressed in just three words: Conflict changes life. Therefore, the prime definition becomes: a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

That middle word is so important…

Conflict Changes Life

Seeing this was so helpful for our team, because after we began our initial exploration of the possibility that, if Christianity is the story we are in, your God is the Great Storyteller, Shih Tzu sent me the following note…

Comrade Chow,

You idiot!

You are as dumb as a rock.

The only reason you are wasting your team’s time and China’s precious money by exploring the stupid impossible possibility that Christianity is the story we are in and their God is the Great Storyteller, is because you love to be entertained by story.

What a waste!

You are so desperate and sad.

It’s time for you to change.

As I have told you over and over and over again… we must listen to Chairman Mao!

The enemy will not perish of himself. Neither will the Chinese reactionaries nor the aggressive forces of U.S. imperialism in China step down from the stage of history of their own accord.

Chairman Mao

But you won’t listen to him, will you?

Because you are petrified real action must take place in our fight with the United States.

Your story war fantasy is a fairy tale which will never come true.

But my payback will.

It’s jugular time.

  • Shih Tzu

I hated that note.

But I am grateful to Shih Tzu for sending it our way, because our conflict with him helped to begin what our team joked about as our Change Epiphany.”

You see, after I showed the note to our team, Paula Wong got very excited.

“Change! That’s just what we need,” she said. “If we’re going to fulfill our crazy assignment, we need to begin to change how we think about change.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s far more important than we realized,” she replied. “Because if Christianity is the story we are in, and their God is the Great Storyteller, then he puts change in play — in surprising ways. And conflict is woven in with it.”

And then Paula showed us something which Paul Moser, one of America’s more insightful Christians philosophers, wrote, which gave us a very uneasy feeling…

A better formulation is this: what, if anything, is behind all of the world’s changes, including the movements in my experiences, such as the experienced ups and downs, comings and goings, and dyings and risings?

The fact of the world’s changes  seems undeniable, at least from where I sit (for a time). Is there, however, something behind it all, not just as a cause, but as a meaning-conferring explanation? In par­ticular, is there a unifying power with constant intentions or purposes behind all of the movement or at least much of it? In other words, is there an intentional agent thus involved in the mix as a superhuman guide?

Paul Moser, The Severity of God

We were silent. That possibility was so disturbing for our team.

Paula looked around the room and smiled.

“I know the feeling,” she said. “But something is going on in the world. Change is on the move.”

And a couple of our team members, who were working on trying to understand America by watching YouTube videos, excitedly asked to play for us some music videos they had found which focused on change.

Here are a few of them …

Then Paula began to share observations like these…

Sometimes I have to shake my head in amazement at the days we are living in and the way the world has changed.

Brian Houston, Live Love Lead

The world around us is changing at a velocity unprecedented in human history.

The Table of the Nations, the Tower of Babel, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb: Part 1, by Albert Mohler,, February 24, 2015

Twenty years isn’t what it used to be. Where once it stood for a single generation, now it seems to stand for three. Everything moves faster. ”Change changed,” my father wrote in another book.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Humanity is now in the midst of its fastest-ever period of change. There were almost 2 billion people alive in 1918; there are now 7.6 billion, and they have migrated rapidly into cities, which since 2008 have been home to more than half of all human beings. In these dense throngs, pathogens can more easily spread and more quickly evolve resistance to drugs. Not coincidentally, the total number of outbreaks per decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.

The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?, By ED YONG, The Atlantic, JULY/AUGUST 2018 ISSUE

The digital revolution is easily the most dramatic change of our times. It is a fast-sweeping life change. In 2006, Facebook opened its gates to the world, followed by WhatsApp in 2009 and Instagram in 2010. The first thing we see before we go to sleep at night and get up in the morning is not our spouse, but our smartphone. No change is just good or bad, and when you are talking about a digital tsunami at this scale, one must ask-what are its side effects?

Why is it that US polarization is actually a worldwide phenomenon?, By Daniel Ravner, Better Angels, August 26, 2018

The most sudden and sweeping upheaval in beliefs and values has taken place in this century. No generation in the history of human thought has seen such swift and radical inversion of ideas and ideals as in our lifetime.

The Crisis of Modern Learning, By Carl Henry, Imprimis, February 1984

[A]dvanced modernity produces an unprecedented rapidity of change, through which modern life turns “This too shall pass” into a grand liquidizer of solidities, until everything is reduced to dust, as light as air, fleeting and inconsequential.

Os Guinness, Impossible People

We live in a unique time in Western culture, when the moral landscape is rapidly changing.

David Platt, Counter Culture

I joke (halfway) that my previous book jolt! was released in the same month that the Border’s bookstore chain declared bankruptcy. (At least it supported the book’s thesis that the world is changing faster than at any time in history.)

Phil Cooke, One Big Thing

Changes that used to take generations — economic cycles, cultural shifts, mass migrations, changes in the structures of families and institutions — now unfurl in a span of years.

“The Ten-Year Century As the pace of change accelerates, trust becomes vital currency.” by Tom Hayes and Michael S. Malone, The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2009

Rereading C. S. Lewis recently has reminded me of how enormous the cultural shift has been from the forties and fifties until today. In the long span of history, that’s a pretty short period of time. And yet the world has changed dramatically.

Now, people my age always say things have changed, and they always seem to think change is bad, but I’m not saying that. I think we’ve experienced an unusual shift, similar to a tectonic shift in the plates of the earth.

Charles Colson, My Final Word

Mohler: [T]oday there is a particular topic that is very much on my mind. …. And that is the process of moral change in a society. …. How is it that we now face a reality in which what we are facing is nothing less than a moral revolution. What was once considered wrong is now celebrated and normalized. And what was once normalized is now considered wrong. …. Is there a precedent to this kind of speed in terms of a moral revolution and worldview?

Moral Argument in Modern Times: A Conversation with Robert P. George,, January 24, 2011

We indeed appear to be passing from one age to another. From the certainties of a post-war order of the last three quarters of a century dominated by the United States, to a less predictable, more complex and certainly more contested global order for the future. Of course, at the absolute fulcrum of this change lies the rapidly changing dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship. 

History of course rarely repeats itself. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, we do see the re-emergence of its rhymes, its rhythms and its cadences over time. Nobody is therefore predicting a return to the primitive activisms of 1914, and the carnage it produced. But we would be foolish not to recognize the forces of profound change — geo-political, geo-economic and now geo-technological — that are afoot.

The United States and China—A Relationship Adrift, by Kevin Rudd, Asia Society Policy Institute, September 19th, 2018

So, you can imagine how our sense of – what if? – began to rise, and our discussions as a team became very interesting.

Paula then shared how seeing all this had opened her eyes to this observation about life, once again from Moser..

If some things in my world of experience persist for a while, my overall world of experience is certainly not immutable or even unchan­ging. It features ongoing changes of various sorts: in color, brightness, sound, taste, texture, and so on. In fact, changes highlight not only the objects I apparently experience but also my subjective experien­tial states. On both sides, subjectively and objectively, things appar­ently come and go, sometimes without any apparent rhyme or reason. Indeed, the occurrence of changes may be the only thing that does not seem to change in my world of experience.

Paul Moser, The Severity of God

And that really caught the attention of our team, because we’ve experienced the same world of change in each of our lives.

Then Paula began to share how Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne had opened her eyes to the power of change. Here are some of the insights she showed us…

So what is a story? Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. 

Storytelling That Moves People: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee by Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review, June 2003

This is the first thing I always say whenever I talk about story. Stories are about change.

Shawn Coyne, Q&A with Shawn – Part 1

A story is simply one huge master event. When you look at the value-charged situation in the life of the character at the beginning of the story, then compare it to the value-charge at the end of the story, you should see the arc of the film, the great sweep of change that takes life from one condition at the opening to a changed condition at the end. This final condition, this end change, must be absolute and irreversible.

Robert McKee, Story

The bottom line with change (and change is the substance of Story) is that it requires loss.

Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

Story is the most effective way to get attention because what attracts human attention is change. As long as things are going on in an even keel, you pay attention to whatever you’re doing. But if something around you changes—if the temperature around you changes, if the phone rings—if something changes, that gets your attention.

Robert McKee, Quoted in 5 Content Marketing Trends to Plan Your 2017 Budget, Jon Simmons, Skyword, August 29, 2016

If nothing changes, nothing happens.

Robert McKee, Dialogue

Stories are about change. They start one place, they go another, and they come back.

Shawn Coyne, The Foolscap Story Grid – Part 2

And Paula pointed out how McKee makes it clear that change alone is not enough.

The change also needs to be meaningful

A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax.

Robert McKee, Story

“Event” means change. If the streets outside your window are dry, but after a nap you see they’re wet, you assume an event has taken place, called rain. …. You cannot, however, build a film out of nothing but changes…. Story Events are meaningful, not trivial. To make change meaningful it must, to begin with, happen to a character.

Robert McKee, Story

And when it’s meaningful, the change is emotionally moving…

Since the evolution of human consciousness, all stories in all genres of all cultures have expressed one grand truth: How and why life changes. Fact is what is, but Truth is how and why what is is. As a story expresses its hows and whys of change, the listener’s mind fills with understanding. As a story’s events change a character’s life from positive to negative, or negative to positive, the listener’s emotions ignite.

WHITE PAPER STORY-IN-BUSINESS: Why Story Works, Overcoming Negaphobia, and Authoring the Future, BY ROBERT MCKEE

But, if our version of the story is the one we are in, it’s ultimately all meaningless.

This is so disturbing.

Because, well, the Party can call it a fairy tale all we want, but, if Christianity is the story we are in, then our human drama is full of astonishing meaning.

And one way we came to see it was that first word of those three:

Conflict Changes Life

This was difficult to accept at first. I have this deep desire for somewhere over the rainbow, when my life will become full of peace.

But look what else we found about conflict and story…

The music of story is conflict. As long as conflict engages our thoughts and emotions we travel through the hours unaware of the voyage.

Robert McKee, Story

In Storytelling, conflict is the creative force. Nothing moves forward in a story except through negative forces of conflict. Conflict powers the story. The stronger the obstacles, the more gripping the telling. Obstacles force the core character to act and compel your listener’s interest and involvement.

Robert McKee, Why Did Negaphobia Kill General Motors? September 11, 2014

And look at this …

The essence of dramatic conflict lies in the clash of wants. You need to be certain that the conflicting wants are connected significantly and are over something that the reader will view as important.

Sol Stein, Stein On Writing

And it caught our attention how this famous American business writer would agree with McKee … 

You see, conflict is at the center of every great movie. It is the essence of drama,and it is the reason audiences become and remain engaged in a story.
And so, how is it that we can enjoy one activity that is inherently passive and irrelevant, and loath another that is interactive and relevant? Because screenwriters and directors figured out long ago that if you avoid nurturing conflict in your story, no one will want to watch your movie. And they also figured out that it is during the first ten minutes that they must use drama to hook their viewers, so that they are willing to stay engaged for another two hours.

Patrick Lencioni, Death By Meeting

And conflict brings about change…

Without conflict, the scene has no turning point and so nothing changes; without change, dialogue thickens with exposition, the scene flattens into a nonevent, and we sit bored at best, confused at worst.

Robert McKee, Dialogue

And consider this, in light of that…

[W]hile the quality of conflict changes as it shifts from level to level, the quantity of conflict in life is constant. Something is always lacking. Like squeezing a balloon, the volume of conflict never changes, it just bulges in another direction. When we remove conflict from one level of life, it amplifies ten times over on another level.

Robert McKee, Story

So, if we want to change, we just have to expect there will be conflict.

Look what Paula showed us…

Ongoing flux marks not only my experiences but also my thoughts and motives, including my desires and intentions. My thoughts change with varying degrees of speed, and likewise for my motives. Sometimes my thoughts do not yield to silence, and the inner noise of insomnia results. At times, furthermore, my thoughts revolve around a philosophical question, and their move­ment makes perceived time race ahead for me. An hour passes in an apparent minute, and I find myself late for an appointment, hav­ing failed to remember other significant thoughts. I think one thing and then another, in rapid succession, and the pattern continues through my life. My desires and emotions sometimes follow suit, and I do not seem to be in full control of the ongoing movement. Every bit of short-lived relief from change seems to be followed by another experienced disturbance or at least another problem or question. Who will rescue us from this turbulent world of flux and tribulation? Will we all finally perish in its motion-riddled mix? Meanwhile, in any case, flux often increases the bad severity in our fragile lives.

Paul Moser, The Severity of God

And that got us to thinking again about the possibility that, if Christianity is the story we are in, then your God is the Great Storyteller.

You see, we found this fascinating insight from James Schall…

We are wont to think that the drama of the world takes place outside of the redemptive plan of God. It doesn’t.

The Church’s Worst Enemies, by James V. Schall, S.J., The Catholic Thing, June 12, 2012

So, if those dramas are interwoven, this message from Jesus, which Paula Wong showed us, makes a lot of sense…

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:34-38

Stunning, isn’t it? So, what if this Moser man is on to something?…

We now can begin to understand the otherwise cryptic remark at the center of the ministry of Jesus: “Struggle to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able” (Luke 13:24). Famously, Socrates remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living, but we now can add that the nonstruggling life relative to divine agape is not worth living either. Religion and philosophy, then, should make room for the kind of wisdom that includes a divinely offered and commanded agape struggle and its corresponding distinctive epistemology. This sea change would yield profound benefits for religion and philosophy as wisdom-oriented disciplines. The test of authenticity, ultimately, is in the living through the agape struggle on offer.

Paul Moser, The Severity of God

This is so troubling for both Paula and I, because we have begun to see our lives as a story. 

But if we are in our version of the story, all the conflict we experience in life doesn’t ultimately lead to anything more than meaningless absurdity.

And you should know that as we thought about the story of China, this Kasparov guy made us anxious about those mysterious Black Swans and Gray Rhinos…

People should understand change is inevitable.

Garry Kasparov, Conversations With Bill Kristol