Audiences know when a writer or filmmaker runs foul. They call the poor sap out, lambasting the creator on Twitter or their Facebook accounts, easily picking apart holes and identifying moments that simply felt false. Everyone, it seems, knows best how a story should be told.
And what if they do?
When viewing story within the context of human psychology this flow towards criticism bears greater understanding. Seen as a model of a single human mind working to resolve an inequity, stories take on greater meaning through analogy. Stories are not simply entertaining experiences, they’re familiar experiences.
Everyone’s a Critic
Everyone one possesses a mind. Though some function better than others, the basic physiology works the same. The mind’s processes, its problem-solving capabilities and its ability to build from one emotion to the next, breed a commonality of human experience.
It also explains why many find it so easy to criticize.
“She would never do that” or “[insert plot event] didn’t even make sense!” do not exist because of poor character motivation or bad plot development—they exist because people inherently sense when a model of human psychology (story) deviates from the true biological process. They know what naturally should evolve based on what was set in place at the beginning and quickly identify the counter-productive offenders. It’s not a hole in the story as much as it is a hole in the story’s mind.
In other words, bad story equals a dysfunctional psychology.
Why is she doing that?!
(or why Saving a Cat might not always be the best approach!)
In Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi horror classic Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives the terror of her space-age nemesis and stands on the brink of escape. But she doesn’t leave. Why? To retrieve her cat of all things. Why would she do that?! everyone in the audience asks and for good reason:
Logically, she shouldn’t have.
In the ninety minutes leading up to this strange choice, Ripley solves every problem she encounters logically. By attacking obstacles in sequence, Ripley acts more male than female—which makes sense when you consider the fact that the character of Ripley was originally written for a male actor. As Weaver herself put it:
[Ripley] was written as a man. So it was written in a very straight-forward way, a kind of direct person where she didn’t have these scenes where she’s suddenly vulnerable…
Weaver describes a character who solves problems logically NOT holistically. By holistic, we refer to the kind of person, or character, who works the balance between things, focusing more on relationships rather than things…the kind of character who would re-enter a deadly spacecraft to save their feline friend.
Unfortunately, Ripley has proven to be decidedly NOT holistic. Her choice ran counter to her character’s initial setup and thus this moment came off false.
Who cares what they decide?!
The same sort of thing happens within Christoper Nolan’s caped-crusader sequel The Dark Knight. As the Batman races to stop the Joker, citizens of Gotham must make a fateful decision. Two ships, both laced with explosives, sit idly in the harbor—the detonator for each on the other ship. The Joker offers a simple choice: blow up the other ship before they blow you up. Tension mounts and eyes grow wide as each side kibitzes over the morality of such a choice…
…Only we, the audience, could care less what they end up deciding. Why? Because ultimately it will have no effect on the story itself.
Prior to this moment, every major plot point turned as the result of an action, NOT a decision. The Joker stealing the mob’s savings, the incarceration of their money man, the murders of the police commissioner and the judge, and of course, the end of Rachel and the subsequent creation of Harvey Two-Face. Major turns in the story preempted by action. This pattern of action-driven plot points sets up an expectation on the part of the audience: the final plot point, the one that concludes the story’s events must be an action, not a decision.
The Joker’s game does not tie into the actual story structure of the film and thus comes off as a false and almost silly moment in an otherwise terrific film.
Why are they hugging now?!
Finally, Dreamworks’ animated film Kung Fu Panda 2 offers the last example of dysfunctional psychology in cinema. Both Main Character Po and fellow orphan Tigress begin a relationship over shared personal issues. This emotional conversation—key to the creation of any great story—starts out well enough with their initial discussion on the boat. They argue over how best to solve their issues with the past and decide to do things their own way. Fair enough. But in the very next scene continuing this throughline the two share an awkward hug that comes out of nowhere…and then don’t speak to each other for the rest of the film.
The resolution of a relationship like this typically does not resolve itself until the end of a story. Cutting it off halfway and then refusing to address any of their shared emotional issues cheats the audience from a fulfilling and meaningful experience. Relationship throughlines develop naturally with the introduction of an inequity between the two and a gradual building up or gradual decline depending on the kind of story being told.
The quick and sudden end to their relationship breaks the natural flow of emotion with the story’s mind and fractures the film in half.
The Structure of a Story’s Mind
These false moments do not find their basis in random opinion. They don’t work because they break key concepts of the story mind—or what many used to call story structure. Alien fragments what is known as the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style. Whether logical or holistic, Main Characters must solve their problems consistently or risk destroying the integrity of the story.
The Dark Knight offers silly diversion by damaging the Story’s Driver. All major plot points (think Act turns) must propel a story forward through action OR decision, not both. Star Wars, The Matrix and yes, The Dark Knight move on action; The Godfather, The Great Gatsby and Casablanca all move on decisions. Again, inconsistency tears a psychological divide within the story by fracturing the logic of the argument being made.
Kung Fu Panda 2 eradicates emotion by failing to adequately explore the story’s Relationship Throughline. Seen often as the heart of a story, this passionate argument between two conflicting points-of-view provides a key counterpoint to the more traditional logical argument going on within the larger story (i.e, bad guy vs. good guy). By refusing to address these emotions in a way consistent with natural psychological growth the film loses any of the good faith it had built with the Audience.
Keys to Trust
Audiences expect stories to think and operate the way they do. The films and novels they read don’t necessarily have to line up 100% with their individual beliefs, but they do need to work through them in a logical and emotionally fulfilling way consistent with the mind’s problem-solving process. If stories are to be seen as models of human psychology then it only makes sense that the degree to which they adhere to this model determines how true the experience will be, and to what extent an Audience will take a story to their heart.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The very best model of story as human psychology exists within the theory known as Dramatica. The Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style, the Story’s Driver and the Relationship Throughline provide some of the building blocks of this analogy. In all, over 75 separate story appreciations work in concert to create one unique storyform. While stories may differ in the way they are told, some end up telling the same story_form_ (Think Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story).