Unmastering the Story of Change

Christy Dena
12 min readFeb 26, 2022


A session by Christy Dena for the 2022 School Revolt Festival, organised by the Anarchist Pedagogies Network

Optional Audio Narration by Christy


I want to share with you a counterintuitive idea. It’s the idea that the pervasive way change is conceptualised in stories, schools, and beyond, is a bit anti-change.

Sure, they’re often all about change.

But change in a particular way.

Change that is forced.

I’ll come back to this.

But, why the focus on stories and schools here?

Well, The Highlander Research and Education Center observes that education ‘is never neutral: it either maintains the current system of domination, or it is designed to liberate people.’

Likewise, Hanna Meretoja observes in The Ethics of Storytelling that narratives ‘can be oppressive, empowering, or both.’

Our education and creative environments can maintain or liberate. Since both these environments are about change — changing the student, changing the protagonist, changing the player or audience — it’s important to attend to our thinking and design.

I’m interested in how we can move the current paradigm of change further away from upholding domination, towards liberation for all.

Part of the work is in noticing the pervading idea of change.

A forced change approach upholds the culture of domination. It upholds a world where other people get to define your change, and with that the world stays the same. But if we want a liberated culture with care, equality, and environmental partnership, then we need a change paradigm that is about, for instance, loving change. Rather than, ‘Oh, when I have to I will address racism, ableism, queerphobia, and ecocidal ideas in my work,’ it can be, ‘I want to work on these in myself, for myself, and for the world.’

It is about choosing change, enjoying change, and being supported in your change.

I’ll explain how the forced change idea plays out in stories, because it exemplifies the pervasive idea.

In narrative design, there is an underlying change structure that is expected to be there in pretty much any project, whether it is conscious or not, irrespective of the genre, and irrespective of whether it is a film, TV show, play, novel, game, and so on. It is called the dramatic arc, the story arc, or transformational arc, and informs the character arc.

The arc dictates what is needed for the protagonist to change. The structure is heavily based on the work of novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag and his pyramid shape. There were influences before, such as Aristotle. And additions after, such as the contributions of Joseph Campbell (and Christopher Vogler). But no matter the source and no matter the counter ideas around, it is the notion of a rising arc of tension that has resonated with people. It has resonated in part because it correlates with a pervasive idea of how change works in the world.

What apparently is needed for change is this:

  1. You begin with an ordinary world, where change is not currently part of everyday life. (And, I’ll add, this is often the ordinary world of the dominant culture, which is framed as not changing.)
  2. You have a flawed protagonist, who desperately needs to change but is oblivious to or not interested in attending to their flaws.
  3. So, you have an inciting incident that imposes the process of change on them.
  4. You have the protagonist refuse or be reluctant to accept the call to change.
  5. You have an antagonist to keep the pressure on to ensure the change happens.
  6. You have the need for the protagonist to go through a reversal where once they were flawed they’ll then be transformed and fixed.
  7. You increase the tension and complications to make sure the protagonist changes.
  8. That tension keeps up until a great crisis or climax when the protagonist faces off against the antagonist, and ideally makes the changes needed.
  9. And then you have the victorious return to an equilibrium where once again change doesn’t need to happen.

All of these reflect assumptions people have about how change works. They are to me, and others, aren’t about change in general. They reflect an antagonistic relationship with change.

They actually uphold an authoritarian world where others incite, define, measure, and force change. It is a world where change is what masters do to others. And where change is something you try to master as quickly as you can. It’s not a world where change is chosen, enjoyed, and supported.

As Francisco Ferrer says, ‘“To educate” currently means to dominate, to train, to domesticate.’ This applies in design with students, protagonists, players, and people in general.

Now, this reading of change may not ring true for you. At least not yet, or it won’t at all. It doesn’t have to. But I’ll expand on the counterintuitive idea by sharing some of the assumptions many of us have about who changes, how change begins, who is involved in the change, and how change develops. I’ll outline some of the implications of these, and add some prompts that have helped me in my own redesign work.

Who Changes

The pervasive idea is: flawed people need to change.

A positive reading is: everyone has flaws.

But, the way it is often practiced: the need to change is equated with being deficient, broken, lesser.

Ways this manifests:

  • Change is perceived as a flaw-fixing exercise.
  • There is a focus on fixing broken bits, rather than a person’s strengths and existing experiences, skills, and abilities people bring to their change experience. Is it really the flawed part than makes them prime for change?
  • The focus on what is not working, dysfunctional, broken situates flaws as an anomoly, something to be fixed asap. I notice this with personal trainers, for example. They often have deep beliefs about fixing your body and working on your flaws. Whose body is wrong?
  • There is the problem of who gets to decide what a flaw is? Who defines the deficiency? This is currently done by those in positions of power over others. See for example ‘deficit discourse’ in Indigenous Health.
  • With this flaw approach the focus is on what is missing. What people need to learn not what they already know. And so people are seen as empty containers to be deposited into. This is what Paulo Freire identified as the “banking model of education.”
  • When change is associated with flaws, the need to change is associated with (and weaponised as) humiliation, embarrassment, feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and incompetence. Change is what losers, what unsuccessful people, have to do.
  • The positive association with change then, is from being the master of someone else’s change. Winners get to change losers. Winners don’t need to change themselves. When change is relegated to flawed people, there is a disproportionate focus on being the ones without flaws who change others. See a lot non-reflective of impact work.
  • Overall, there is a negative association with the need to change. It therefore often refused, ignored, avoided, or there is a rush to get fixed and return to be high status as quickly as possible.

Redesign Prompts — think about ways you already, or can, design differently:

What if you didn’t assume the protagonist, player, or student begins as an empty container, or is deficient? What if you assume they bring a whole lot already, and all of that is actually needed for the change? What if change wasn’t associated with flaws? What if changing was a desirable and respected act? What if people (characters and designers) put more effort into their own change rather than changing others?

“Parents often come to see me asking ‘How do I change my child?’ and end their work saying ‘I’ve changed, and I don’t need to change my child’…”
Tweet by Naomi Fisher: https://twitter.com/naomicfisher/status/1495140635711528967 (+ALT)
“I don’t know who needs to hear things, but it’s ok to change your opinions as you learn. there’s no shame in letting go of beliefs that no longer align with the person you’ve grown to be.”
Tweet by Michell C Clark — https://twitter.com/michellcclark/status/1481317553184063491 (+ALT)

How Change Begins

The pervasive idea is: an inciting incident imposes a change.

A positive reading is: external events can provoke change.

But, the way it is often practiced: change is perceived as disruptive, as something that needs to be imposed by external forces, and is not voluntarily sought.

Ways this manifests :

  • The assumption is that not changing is normal, and change is abnormal, disruptive, intrusive. Attending to the climate crisis, for example, will apparently cause unnecessary economic carnage.
  • Change is believed to be something that happens to us, and with this is outside our hands. People don’t feel agency in change. When people don’t feel they are instigators of change, there is no thought of listening for, preparing for, and facilitating change.
  • The assumption is that people will not change unless forced by extraordinary circumstances. Likewise, people don’t bother changing unless forced. People therefore are unpracticed in noticing the subtle calls to change and so things become irretrievably dramatic. Consider a nervous breakdown due to work pressures.
  • Change is believed to be something that is externally instigated. There is no internal life and internal work that meets the change. Change is purely outside-in. So all the effort is in designing an incident that forces the change to happen.

Redesign Prompts — think about ways you already, or can, design differently:

What if we recognise that it is only compliance that can be forced? What if change is not something imposed on someone, but something they pursue? What if change was about autonomy? What if change isn’t about external forces but is about readiness to change? How do you know you’re ready? How do they know they’re ready? What if change is about people meeting change rather than it happening to them? What if change was an internally-driven experience? How can you design to meet people’s internal work?

“It seems to me that the reality of this ever-escalating pandemic is the nail in the coffin of all the theories of social change that argue that radical change is inevitable if things just get back enough.”
Tweet by Butch Anarchy--https://twitter.com/butchanarchy/status/1478088552755912704 (+ALT)

Who is Involved in the Change

The pervasive idea is: antagonists are needed for change.

A positive reading is: antagonists can help change!

But, the way it is often practiced: antagonists are considered necessary to change, and change is experienced as a violent, antagonistic, act.

Ways this manifests :

  • Disproportionate focus on and belief in force, aggression, hyper critical behaviours to provoke change. For instance, war. And critique methods that require nastiness as hard truths. Trainers, teachers, and managers privilege tough love.
  • Antagonism involves painful, debilitating, humiliating associations with change, which feeds a self-loathing and a desperation to get through the change at all costs. This results in damaging and depriving yourself to get it over with. Domination over self.
  • From the antagonistic experience, there is a heightened desire to become better and more powerful so you can overcome the forces. This keeps the change within the paradigm of superiority and domination. Domination over others.
  • The skewed focus on antagonistics feeds of a lack of understanding of what is actually needed for change. Belief that change is an isolated act you struggle with, instead of one that actually needs to be undertaken with others likewise doing the work. Think of the various supportive communities such as A.A., abuse-recovery, disability groups, and so on.

Redesign Prompts — think about ways you already, or can, design differently:

What if change wasn’t predicated on having power-over another? What if tough love wasn’t necessary for change at all? What if there was an emphasis on what is needed to support and nurture your change and the change of others? What if the focus was on parallel (alongside each other) and reciprocal change, rather than forcing others or being forced to change? What if we reconceived change as needing interdependency rather than antagonism?

“80% of my job as a creative writing instructor is helping my students work through the trauma of so-called critiques made by previous instructors or workshop participants. It’s hard for me to not see the traditional workshop model as anything other than organized bullying.”
Tweet by Anjali Enjetic — https://twitter.com/anjalienjeti/status/1491403849428762624 (+ALT)
“The Grinch is the story of nonviolent property crime being remedied through compassion and forgiveness but every year cops are like ‘this children’s story would be better if someone beat the shit out of this guy’”
Tweet by Sam — https://twitter.com/samfrominternet/status/1474795539619360769 (+ALT)
“If we do not understand that we are interdependent with the planet we as a species will not survive. Interdepence can exist between two people or 6 billion and everything in between. We need each other.”
Tweet by Cindy Frostad quoting Mia Mingus — https://twitter.com/cindy_frostad/status/1483560213441437697 (+ALT)

How Change Develops?

The pervasive idea is: change needs increasing externally-imposed tension.

A positive reading is: tension and conflict can play a role in change.

But, the way it is often practiced: change is a violent process defined and managed by others.

Ways this manifests:

  • Belief that change is outside-in. That the only way change happens is through increasing external factors. This is about imposing change rather than change being something one chooses.
  • Emphasis becomes about how change happens through persuasion, coercion, manipulation, and punishment. As if people wouldn’t want to change unless deceived and experiencing pain.
  • This emphasis results in the myth that designers and teachers need to create difficulty for their protagonists, players, and students. As if they’re not already experiencing difficulty in the process of change, and in the context of their lives and the difficulties there?
  • When forces are the focus, then change becomes about what designers and teachers want and how they want it to happen. Change is about assimiliation and indoctrination. The antagonist, teacher, and designer defines the change.
  • The protagonist, student, and player don’t have autonomy in how they change, and whether the change is working for them. They are measured against general, flaw-focused systems of progression.
  • The focus on escalating tension towards a key change moment, such as a crisis and climax, boss battle, or major assessment, skews change to a single event rather than an ongoing process. It also privileges the reluctance to change rather than the work that is done before, during, and after a decision to change.

Redesign Prompts — think about ways you already, or can, design differently:

What if the kind of change a person wants to undertake is chosen and designed by them, or co-designed ?What if the protagonist, player, student, etc, evaluated their own progress? What if people decide how they’re measured (including if they’re measured), and what they’re measured against? What if there are flexible systems that allow for a variety of progress markers and goals? What if the hardest part isn’t a manufactored crisis, but the beginning when you recognise the need to change?

“Forget Hero’s Journey. We need a new term for modern hero game story, whereby the hero begins with low skills and absurdly high self-regard; becomes obsessed with collection of meaningless objects; & victory only unlocking a post-game purgatory where they repeat the cycle ad nauseam.”
Tweet by Ryan Kaufman https://twitter.com/m1sterfox/status/1491447437890035712 (+ALT)
“Here’s my take away after my first semester with ungrading and self-assessment: when you trust students they’re more motivated to do the work and when you removed the pressure of grades they take more risks and enjoy the work in the process.”
Tweet by Kadin Henningsen — https://twitter.com/transbookhistry/status/1480554606065340424 (+ALT)

Next Steps

From all this, I hope that the pervasive idea of forced change is recognised, and different ways glimpsed. Our relationship with change is going to be a key part of the transformation of the world. It starts with your own relationship to change, and this will spill out to how you interact with people and nature, how you design, and how you teach.

At the live session, I’ll share examples of how I and others design differently (in story and school, all education environments, and in other contexts). I encourage you to think through the prompts for yourself. How do you already address these different approaches? Or ways you know others do? What are things you perhaps can do differently? Do you have questions or concerns about these ideas and different design approaches?

You could bring your own design issues you’re dealing with, and they can be collectively developed. Note, all discussions, ideas, and feedback will be guided to facilitate a regenerative environment of agency and care. No-one will be encouraged to force you to change!

You don’t need to share any of your own prep work during the session, this is for you. Share what you like, when you like.

Whatever does end up being shared will contribute to new insights from on the collective experiences and ideas of the room. Indeed, I’m sharing all this because I’m interested in what you bring to this discussion.

I’ll send the zoom link (and phone info) a day before the event (or with registration if last minute). See you soon! :)

‘The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.’ — James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers.



Christy Dena

writer-designer-director story games, F/S, Crafting Intangibles, EXLab. Currently writing a book about “Redesigning Narrative Design” (this is my 2nd account)