Pro Storytelling Tip: Embrace Change

“There is nothing permanent except change.”
— Heraclitus

If variety is the spice of life, change is the seasoning of story. It’s the inevitable result of tales the world over: incomplete characters (and real people) setting out to fulfill a need. Lucky for us storytellers, change is all around us. But why is it so important? Let’s delve into three decrees of change in stories.

Change is a Law of Nature

Change is inevitable — in stories and in life. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago, or even two seconds ago when you started reading this sentence. Every moment that passes slightly nudges us to an updated version of ourselves in a same-but-different form of the world. Each decision we make rules out other possibilities, shifting our trajectory. To not remain the same is to live; to change is to be human.

“Every deep story involves a subjective person slamming into an objective world.”
— Jon Franklin

In the case of Jon Stoklosa’s parents, having a son with Down Syndrome changed their lives. And in turn, how they chose to parent him is helping change the way society looks at people with disabilities.

Jon Stoklosa celebrates a record lift. Credit: CBS News.

Jon’s parents, Liz and Hank, are the perfect blend of love and wisdom, soft hearts and hard truths. The moment they picked up the Skype call for an interview with What We Do, I wanted to greet them with a hug. Society tried to put their son in a box, but they know better. And time and time again, they prove the world wrong.

They saw how some others parented their Down Syndrome children — hovering over them, constructing emotional bumpers so they never had to come face-to-face with life’s difficulties. Though it may seem like a kind thing to do, Liza and Hank realized that style of parenting wasn’t in the parents’ or the child’s best interest. By shielding a child from adversity, they miss out on a key element of life: failure.

That’s an inevitable part of change in a story, be it fiction or documentary: Whether good or bad, change comes at a price.

Liz and Hank chose to let Jon fail because without it he would lack the necessary experiences to change and grow. Without failure, there’s no way Jon could have held his job at Acme Supermarket for all these years, or be able to keep in touch with friends and family with his own smartphone.

It’s not all roses, of course. Liz and Hank have to make sacrifices parents of non-Down Syndrome children don’t have to make. But that’s an inevitable part of change in a story, be it fiction or documentary: Whether good or bad, change comes at a price.

Change Requires Loss

“Change, no matter how small, requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately. Stories give us scripts to follow.”
— Shawn Coyne

Change is uncomfortable. We’re creatures of habit, after all. Our monkey brains too often link the unknown with potential threats rather than with possibility. But even more frightening is that change always requires a person or character to lose something along the way. After all, you can’t step into a new life without giving up parts of the one you’re leaving behind.

A character wants to go from small town karaoke singer to pop star diva? They have to give up their old way of life, losing the previous version of themselves and possibly close relationships along the way.

A grandson wants to disobey his father and set out to learn the truth about his grandfather’s role in World War II? What he’ll learn will change how he sees the world. It might even cost him his innocence and the rose-colored glasses through which he saw his grandfather.

Stories are a crucial part of helping us understand our own adversities and empathizing with the struggles of others.

Change and loss are both key elements of the human condition. They stir up a need for expression through stories in poetry and music. They make us desire to fight off the sands of time by constructing museums and producing historical documents.

This uncertainty, this pressure from just being alive, is a universal experience. Stories are a crucial part of helping us understand our own adversities and empathizing with the struggles of others.

Have you heard of liminal space? Me neither, until recently. It’s the timeframe in a story between what was and what will be. It’s the space where change takes place. This is the heart of many stories, the part where thrashing (resistance to change) must take place for a character to understand what they must do. It’s why they’ll come out a better version of themselves on the other end.

Change Endures…Until it Doesn’t

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
— Shawn Coyne

Just as we’ve gotten used to a change, another one comes along. And another. But these changes don’t stay the same. They, too, will change. Because change unfurls so gradually — like a slow-moving glacier or a puppy who seemingly out of nowhere is now full-grown — we find ourselves blinded from a simple truth: We’re in a constant state of change.

From our physical appearance to our worldview, and from what triggers euphoric moments of nostalgia to our list of favorite movies, we’re a collection of experiences bumping against one another. They’re vying for our attention to help us make choices and better understand the world around us and our place in it.

Both the beauty and heartache of change is that it’s never-ending. With it driving narrative storytelling, we storytellers have a bounty awaiting us. All we have to do is embrace it.

Key Takeaways

  • To change is to be human
  • Change requires loss
  • Liminal space is where transformation takes place
  • True change endures…until another change comes along

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