Leading the Story in the 21st Century

Narrative HeaderStar Wars and Narrative

I recently bought the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.  Together, the people in my household have been watching them one by one.  Unbelievably, everyone under my roof have not seen these movies up until now, except for me.  I have had to explain how one could not truly understand American culture until a person has seen—no experienced–those movies.

Most Americans have not only seen the Star Wars movies, they have memorized them.  But I’ll even take it a step further.  Most people have in some way become a part of the Star Wars narrative.  They have bought the merchandise, dressed up as a character a time or two, had some sort of light saber battle, and/or had some sort of theater experience.

My Mom was pregnant with me when she saw the first movie.  I saw the re-releases at a giant theater in southern California at midnight, where most people were dressed up and reciting the lines with the characters onscreen.  Star Wars is a part of my story.  It’s in my blood.

The reason why this is compelling is not because 1970’s special effects are still cutting-edge, or because no movies since have come close to that level of dialogue and character development.  It is because Star Wars is great narrative, or maybe even the best narrative.  That is what compels people to see it.  But I’m not just talking about the story on screen.  The greatness of the narrative has surprisingly little to do with the plot of the movies themselves.

Yes, the actual story in the movies is great, which is part of what fueled the original success, but there is far more than that.  There are the special features-type stories of where the characters came from, how the ships were built, and even how Lucas came up with novel ideas for filming.  People knew these stories long before home movies were even around.  But beyond that there are stories of “where I first saw…” and memories of all the times that each person somehow interacted with the idea behind Star Wars.  Star Wars is not a movies series, or even a brand.  Star Wars is a story…and it is all part of our stories.  And that is what sets Star Wars apart.

Star Wars is not peculiar in this regard, it is just a great example.  There are other movies, TV shows, books, and even events.  Nor is this a new phenomenon.  What is new is how communications technologies have transformed the popular consciousness and ways of processing information to make this concept of narrative far more important than ever before.

The Revolution in Culture

But the same point about movies is true about companies, products, and political candidates.  Truly, the world is nearing the end of a revolution in communication, a revolution that has changed very fundamental parts of the way people think and act, and ultimately is very good.  But, like any revolution, those who can’t evolve and those who refuse to understand will be left far behind.

You can see the revolution all around you.  You see it when you realize that movie blockbusters get people to wait in line for hours to sit through a brief film that won’t affect their lives all that much, while no one waits in line to hear a sermon on Sunday morning.  People flock to Lady Gaga concerts, when no one would suggest that she is the best musician on the scene.  But beyond these examples, the viral videos and memes of the Internet all become part of the lingua franca of our culture.  The evening news reports of riots in Egypt have been largely replaced by youtube videos and tweets of the average people there.  Story has become not only the message, but the way that messages are communicated, and the way they are absorbed.

Why is this the case?  It is because people crave the narrative.  People think in story.  A good story will draw people much better than a sermon about “3 ways to be a better dad.”  People love the narrative of Lady Gaga much more than her music.  Story motivates, enthralls, and ultimately inspires action.  And it is this concept that will either be a key to success for future leaders and motivators, or guarantee failure in the new social setting of the 21st century.

The 2008 Election

This is why people like Barak Obama and even Sarah Palin have seen success in the last few years.  The election of 2008 was a lock for Obama long before any votes were actually cast.  It had nothing to do with race, or even hatred of Bush.  It was really all due to one simple fact: Barak had a compelling narrative that people felt a part of, and McCain had none.

Remember the election?  Barak Obama stood for hope and change.  He stood for people chanting “Yes we can!”  He was the mixed-race son of an immigrant.  He talked a lot about what he believed and what we could achieve, and seldom talked about how we could do it.  What was his economic plan?  What was his health care plan?  How was he going to extricate us from Iraq and win in Afghanistan?

This isn’t to put him down.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have a plan, or even that his plan wasn’t any good.  Those issues don’t matter to his success, and didn’t matter to those voting for him in the election.  He wasn’t elected on his ideas.  He was elected on his narrative.  That is also the reason why people react to criticism of Obama with such rabid ferocity.  To attack his idea is to attack the narrative, and the narrative is not just his story, it is theirs.  That is why they wear his face on T-shirts, buy magazines and books with him on the cover, and give him Nobel Peace prizes before he’d accomplished anything.

What was McCain’s narrative?  He actually has a great one.  He’s a warrior from Vietnam who spent years being abused in a POW camp.  He is also a long time warrior with results in the Senate.  But during the election, he suppressed all of that in order to focus on the whats and hows of the issues.  When the recession hit hard, he suspended his campaign to come up with ideas to fix it.  That was very admirable, but it further removed him from the story.  Further, although the memory of Vietnam is still rather fresh for many Baby Boomers, it is not the narrative of the last 20+ years, and it certainly could not have been the central narrative of the 2008 election.

When election day came, people did one of three things.  Some voted for Sarah Palin’s narrative.  They marked McCain’s name, but it was the narrative of Sarah Palin that motivated them (look at the polling for McCain before and after her entry to the scene).  Some voted against Barak Obama, for one reason of another.  But many more than either of those two groups joined in the Obama narrative.  Barak won decisively.

Narrative in 2010

In the 2010 election, the story was reversed.  The narrative now was all about a “Tea Party.”  New leaders had arisen, talking about fiscal responsibility, and tying their stories to the story of the founding of the country.  They adopted the American story as their own, and called people back to the ideas that America was originally built on.

Speakers for the Conservative movement started talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution.  The message was pretty simple, American exceptionalism as a kind of gospel, the Founding Fathers as apostles and martyrs, and the Tea Party leaders as evangelists of this new gospel.

Average Americans were showing up at rallies and speeches, joining the new narrative with their own.  No longer was the message about what one was being told by Rush Limbaugh.  Now people were calling Rush Limbaugh to tell what happened in their city, and they were posting photos on Facebook and hash-tagging it on Twitter.  The Mainstream media and liberal commentators were trying to stop it by using terms like “Tea-baggers,” but they were playing into the very hands of the movement.  They were simply adopting the narrative.

The Democrats had no counter.  They had no narrative.  Health care reform had passed.  They were in charge.  There was no compelling story to sell, and no story was told.  The base was barely engaged in the election.  Even Liberal veterans in states like California were afraid, and digging their claws in to hold on.

The election was a landslide.  The story was believed and it motivated people to go to the polls and vote for their favorite story that now included them.  The incredible momentum of 2 years ago now seemed like a political eternity.

He Who Tells the Story…

Narrative is now the main force in American politics.  In a way it always has been, but now the image-makers and strategists cannot ignore it.  The winners of elections and the leaders with true influence will be the ones who control the narrative, and even more importantly include the average voter in that storyline.  The money and power of elections will be not the ones who spend the most on TV ads and bumper stickers, but the ones who leverage social media, viral video, and who tell the most compelling story.

This is because these media are where the narrative is being communicated, and further where the whole tale goes viral, where it joins with the people’s own story.  Facebook for instance, will not be nearly as important as just another type of billboard or position statement, but as a way to interact, and hand the baton of the story off to the community.  Successful leaders must think conversation more than TV ad.  For when Sarah Palin puts up a message on Facebook, people hear it.  But when someone comments on the message she just put up, in a real way now they feel as though they have entered into the conversation with Sarah Palin, and their friends are all now included.

This is not to say that money on print and TV ads will not be important.  On the contrary, those who don’t get their story told to the biggest possible audiences will have no ability to control the narrative or include others in it.  Nor does the focus on social media mean that money can simply be thrown into these technologies in the same way that they are thrown into TV and print.

The real center of power, and money-making potential will be in crafting the narrative and handling the exchange between one way communication and conversation.  The challenge will be in making the message  become a story, and making the candidate’s story become the people’s story.  And the ability to control and manage that narrative will be the difference between the future John McCains and the Barak Obamas. -Ryan

For further research on this, watch this incredible lecture by Simon Senek on Ted.com

Rated Argh!


I recently had a discussion with one of the older members of my youth group present where we discussed the movie Schindler’s List.   I said that movie was one of the very few movies I’ve ever seen in which the sex scenes were valuable to the story-line, and that I felt weren’t a barrier to me watching.  She seemed a bit shocked that I would say something like that.  So did several others (everyone else was an adult), and I felt myself trying to back out of the rhetorical corner I had put myself in.  I don’t feel that I did a good job of explanation.  Maybe I’ll do better here.

First off, I concede that a very valid and well thought out rebuttal could be made to everything I am about to say, and I don’t feel that this is a philosophical hill that I am prepared to die on.  But I do feel that what I said had validity, and I do stand behind my point.

Most of the Christian reaction to sex scenes stems from two things.  First, most movies contain sex scenes that are designed only to titillate.  Whole summer blockbusters are often created just for the possibility that teenagers might spend money to see their favorite star mostly naked, and hear graphic talk about sex.  I would firmly agree with the Christians who are against that.  Heck, I would lead the charge.

The second reason is a bit less reasoned, though.  In much of unspoken Christian theology is the idea that sexual sins are worse than other sins.  While there is a defining element to sexual sin that makes it very insipid, there is no biblical allusion to sex being worse than any other sin.  In fact, most of it is vestigial from Catholic doctrine of original sin being passed through sexual contact in procreation.  In short, Mary must have been a virgin because otherwise Jesus would have been born sinful already.  Further, Mary must have been born of a virgin, otherwise her sin would have passed to Jesus.

Because of this theological fallacy, and the inherent personal nature of sex, many Christians view sex on film as being the thing that makes a movie particularly unwatchable.  But gross violence is often an afterthought.  Coarse language?  Not a big deal.  Violent crime…eh…OK.  But sex, NO WAY!

The fact that Schindler’s List depicts the horrific murder of over 6 million people, and uses actual footage in many cases was never shocking in my conversation the other night.  But when I mentioned that there were 2 sex scenes, looks of horror were shared.  This does not make sense to me, the more I think about it.

There is another step that we must take in looking at all of this.  For the Christian, watching a movie cannot be merely an exercise in entertainment.  We have a mandate to connect the story of our lives, others’ lives, and all of humanity, with God’s story of redemption.  We are committed to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19-20).  We must look at a movie like Schindler’s List and see God’s ever-reaching arms.  There are many movies that I have A-little desire to see and B-little desire to try and connect to that story of redemption, but any good story that isn’t pure trash I feel differently about.  Schindler’s List is one of those movies.

The sex scenes in that movie show a deeply flawed man, who is moving through a process of learning to see the great value in these people who are being treated as vermin by those around him.  Could those scenes show the same thing without being graphic at all, probably.  But the same could be said about telling the story without showing people being gassed to death, or cremated en mass.

I would never recommend a child see such a movie, simply because the themes are far too mature.  But there are many real life things that adults should know about that I don’t think little children should.  I think that adults should know of genocide in Rwanda, or Terrorist attacks on buses of Israeli school children.  The story of Oskar Schindler is a true story, an adult story, and ultimately a story that helps reveal a little of the heart of God.   -Ryan

Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this short series to debut later this week.  If you’d like to stay updated on this and other posts from RyanShinn.com, consider clicking the small RSS button on the very upper right of this web page.

RyanShinn.com Your Source for Movies

Pretty much exactly what meets the eyesPeichi and I saw Transformers last night.  Wow, what a movie.  Wait…that didn’t sound quite right…a missing modifier somewhere.  Let me correct that.  Wow, what a worthless movie.

Still doesn’t sound right.  Perhaps my command of the English language isn’t sufficient to explain how bad this movie really was.  But, I will do my absolute best to anyway.

First, I am completely aware that when one goes to see a movie based upon a storyline originally intended to do nothing but sell small toys, one cannot have the highest of hopes.  This must go double when the story involves interstellar robots who are alive, and also, for some reason become cars and trucks on their day off.

At this point, in the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I grew up watching this cartoon every day.  I had and played with the action figures, including Optimus Prime, the Holy Grail of Transformers figurines.  Because of this, I was expecting more from this movie.

First, I’ll get out of the way the things that I like about this movie (and there isn’t much).  The non-CGI aspects of this film’s special effects are quite cool.  There are planes, tanks, missiles, and machine guns galore.  They paid for everything from an F-35 to an SR-71 in this movie, and burned up fuel flying them.  Apparently, Michael Bay also detonated the largest movie explosion in history during filming as well.  All of that was pretty cool.  But that was where the fun of this movie ended.

A movie about transforming robots should have tons of screen time with transforming robots, but there wasn’t.  What transformers you did get to watch were usually shown in the midst of full screen grapples with other robots.  You know the standard movie scene where some giant factory or piece of machinery explodes with wires and tubes and flying metal everywhere?  Well, imagine a constant closeup of that continually flooding across the scene during any CGI shot.  This made all of the digital special effects not only worthless for me, but a little nauseating sometimes.

But of course, many people were not watching the movie for much other than provocative pictures of Megan Fox.  The movie did not disappoint fans on this one.  The whole thing really seemed at times like little more than a vehicle to show her and other scantily-clad vixens.  Sadly for her, she does nothing in the movie but look pretty.  At times she gets to woodenly deliver lines between that look she constantly makes telling the world “I’m really hot, and I can get anything I want just by looking at you.”  She also gets to do pseudo-romance skits with Shia LaBeouf that are about as believable as that movie where Ellen DeGeneres was looking for a husband.

The most excruciating part of this film was the actual plot itself.  I am fine suspending belief enough to watch emotional robots change into cars.  But we all know the feeling when the logic of a movie chews you up and spits you out, and suddenly you are looking around the theater going “what the heck?”  This happened repeatedly.

Part of the “plot” of Transformers 2 (no real spoiler alert—you wouldn’t notice anyway) involves Shia’s character going off to college.  Here is what we learn about college during the school scenes.  First, college is full of mostly attractive scantily-clad women.  There are no fat women or ugly women at all.  There are also no asian, hispanic, or black women.  They are all white.  They are mostly there to try and have lots of sex.

Your dorm mate will be really eccentric and will be running a super-hacker conspiracy website which will be staffed with 5 or 6 guys.  The whole setup will easily fit in one area of your 2,000 square foot dorm room.  You won’t be spending much time there though, because you will be attending a lot of parties.  In fact, your first night there you will be invited to a massive frat party, even though no one invites freshman guys to frat parties.

You will also be in class with every other person you know at the university.  Your astronomy 101 class (cause every freshman takes that required lecture class) will be taught by a super-sexual 35 year old professor.  He will make sexual innuendo during his first lecture during which he doesn’t talk about the syllabus at all, but instead mentions a few constellations and E=MC2.  There is no real reason he does this.  All the girls also want to bed him.

Then we go pretty quickly to the ultra-secret US military group who is working with the Auto-bots.  Why are the good guys only able to transform into cars, but the bad guys can transform into virtually anything?  Sorry—-I took a detour.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the military.

The military gets to do secret military work in countries like China, and the other governments don’t care about this at all.  In fact, they love it!  They love it so much that our military gets to air drop into Egypt without even notifying Egypt at all, and when the pyramids start blowing up, the Egyptian army doesn’t bother showing up, because, hey, those American troops must have it all worked out.

So, the American troops drop out of 2 C-17’s and set up right at the base of the pyramids.  Ten minutes later, when the Decepticons attack, the military has beemed in 20 tanks and managed to fill the skies with fighter planes.

I could go on and on, and I have.  The point is…well…just don’t watch the movie.  Go and get that original Transformers movie from 1986.  It is much better.