A Lecture on Narrative Psychology
I was going through some old back-
Alas, after being invited to speak, I met with one of the principals involved (a Freudian psychiatrist) and he was so appalled by the “radical” concepts I was proposing that he canceled my appearance, rather than subject the members of his group to these dangerous and subversive concepts.
Hey, I thought I’d toned it down. Go figger….
Though many of the notions I had included have since been significantly expanded and refined, they have also remained as valid as they were at the time. So, I thought perhaps it would be edifying to publish the text of that undelivered lecture. So, here’s the transcript of what I would have said, given the chance….
By Melanie Anne Phillips
Stories, especially those told in the media of film or television, can have a tremendous impact on an audience. Experiencing a story is similar in many ways to experiencing events in “real life”. Stories can make us laugh or cry, leave us feeling euphoric or depressed, lead us through a logistic consideration, or leave us in an emotional state.
In this age of broadcast media, CD ROMS, and high-
From one perspective, we might identify four areas in which this impact manifests itself:
One, the emotional mood an audience is left with at the conclusion of a story.
Two, the emotional journey experienced by an audience during the unfolding of a story.
Three, understandings arrived at by the audience by the conclusion of a story.
Four, logistic considerations made by the audience during the unfolding of the story.
Because these are so basic and important, let me take a moment to expand slightly on each of these concepts.
1. Emotionally, a story can change the mood of an audience from what it was at the beginning of a story to a completely different emotional state by the time it is over. This might pertain to the way the audience feels about a particular topic, or simply might change the underlying mood of the audience overall.
For example, in a story such as “Remains of the Day”, an audience might be brought to a saddened and frustrated emotional state that might linger well after the story is over. This mood could even recur when some symbol or set of circumstances in everyday life triggers a conscious re-
In addition, an audience’s emotional response toward a particular topic, symbol, circumstance, or pattern may be altered through the story experience, leading to anything from changes in likes and dislikes to changes in attitudes, loyalties, or motivations in regard to a specific topic.
2. In the process of experiencing a story, audience members may be carried from one emotion to another in an order that might conform to or differ from their experiences in “real life”. This can either reinforce or alter habitual patterns of emotional response, albeit in a small and perhaps temporary way. For example, if an audience member were to identify with a character, such as Agent Mulder in “The X-
3. By the end of a story, the audience may be brought to an understanding it did not possess prior to participating in the story process. For example, in “The Usual Suspects”, the big picture is not grasped by the audience until the final pieces are dropped into place near the end. This creates an insight, as opposed to a logistic argument, and can be used to change audience opinion in regard to a particular issue, either through manipulation or propaganda.
4. As a story unfolds, a logistic argument may be constructed that leads linearly from one point of consideration to a conclusion. In “JFK”, for example, a continuous chain of logic is built link by link over the course of the film in an attempt to prove the filmmaker’s contentions about the Kennedy assassination. This method can exercise audience members in logistic methods that may be repeated unconsciously in their everyday lives.
From this brief look at the power of the visual media, we can get a sense that many people might be better understood by becoming aware of the kinds of stories to which they are exposed, and many people might also benefit from carefully tailored story experiences.
But what exactly is the mechanism of story, and precisely how can one use that mechanism to create specific impact on an audience? Those questions have plagued authors for centuries, and are also of utmost important to those who may feel that an understanding of story can enhance therapist/patient interactions.
Fifteen years ago, my partner, Chris Huntley, and I began an exploration into these issues which culminated in a book, “Dramatica – a New Theory of Story.” Tonight I want to touch on a few of the essential tenets of the Dramatica theory, which I hope will provide some insight into the mechanism of story.
Traditional theories commonly see stories as narratives in which characters, representing real people, engage in activities comprising a plot that illustrates a moral point pertaining to a particular theme in a setting and style which determine genre. In contrast, Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity. That’s quite a mouthful, so let me say it once again for clarity… Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.
In other words, stories are not really about characters, plot, theme, and genre, but rather, characters, plot, theme, and genre represent different families of consideration that go on in a single human mind when it is trying to come to terms with an inequity. Characters are the different motivations of the Story Mind that influence each other, jockey for position, or come into conflict. Theme represents the value standards of the Story Mind – the measuring sticks by which the Story Mind determines what is better and what is worse. Plot demonstrates the Story Mind’s methodologies or techniques it employs in trying to resolve the inequity at the heart of the story. And genre determines the Story Mind’s personality – what kind of a mind it is that is doing this consideration.
Well, that’s a rather bold statement to make. After all, why would such a complex model of psychology end up being at the center of story structure? Surely writers didn’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll write an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.” Not hardly. So where does the Story Mind come from? According to Dramatica, this model of the mind happens quite naturally, by itself, as a byproduct of the process of communication.
When we seek to communicate we can’t reach our audience directly – mind to mind . Rather, we must transmit our message through a medium. To do this, we fashion a symbolic representation of what we have in mind in the hope it will affect our audience the same way it does us. In effect, we create a model of what we are thinking and feeling for the audience to embrace. Which symbols we use depends upon our personal experiences and the culture in which we are working. But beneath the specific symbols are the essential human qualities that are the same in all of us – all cultures and all times.
In and of themselves, these qualities do not yet constitute a model of the mind. For example, if we wanted to convey fear, then we would choose a symbol that would invoke fear in our audience. That human quality would then be communicated. But it is only a small part of what makes up each of our minds.
As communication evolved, the earliest storytellers progressed beyond simply expressing basic emotions or single concepts and began to tell tales. A tale is a progression of symbols that connects one feeling or consideration to the next in an unbroken chain. In this way, an author could lead an audience along an emotional journey and also illustrate that a particular approach led to a particular outcome.
It didn’t take these authors long to realize, however, that the human heart cannot leap from one emotion to another indiscriminately without passing through the emotions in between. This concept is well documented in The Seven Stages of Grief, and even in Freud’s Stages of human development.
Similarly, a logistic chain must not skip any links or it will be held as invalid. So, when telling a tale, the early storytellers developed a feel for which intermediate symbolic steps were required to get from one point of view to another, both logistically and emotionally. We see the result of these discoveries in concepts such as the hero’s journey, and story as myth.
Still, this is not a complete model of the mind. A tale is simply a statement that a series of concepts led from point A to point B. In other words, the message of a tale is that a particular series of events can happen. It will be accepted or rejected by an audience solely on the basis of taking the right steps logistically and making the right connections emotionally. Yes, this could happen, or no it could not.
Many fine works through the ages and even today in novels, motion pictures and television are really not complete stories, but simply tales. So what constitutes a story? Well, if a tale is a statement, then a story is an argument. A tale says, “this path led to this outcome indicating it is a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem”. A tale states that a particular outcome is possible. A story says, “this path always leads to this outcome indicating it is always a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem”. A story argues that a particular outcome is inevitable.
If an early author made a statement that a particular case was good or bad, he or she would simply have to prove that a particular approach led to a positive or negative outcome. But if that author tried to tell the audience the approach was always good or always bad, more than likely someone in the audience would say, “Well, what about under these conditions,” or “what about in this context?” Being right there, the author could counter that rebuttal by explaining how the approach would still be best or worst even in that additional case. He or she would either make the point, or fail to make it, in which case the argument would be lost, and the tale would remain as a only a statement, true for that case alone.
As the art of communication evolved beyond the spoken word to the written word, however, the author was no longer physically present to argue the point. Instead, if an author wanted to “prove” inevitability, he or she would have to anticipate all reasonable challenges to that statement, and preclude dissension by incorporating all appropriate arguments in the work itself. In this manner, by the time the story is told, not only is a statement made that an approach is good or bad, but all necessary supporting arguments have also been made to “prove” it could not be any other way.
To make these supporting arguments, an author needs to look at the story not only from his or her own point of view, but to anticipate all the other points of view on the issue that audience members might take. By the time the work is finished, it should represent a full exploration of the issue at the heart of the story – both logistically and emotionally, addressing all considerations a human mind might explore within the scope of the argument. In so doing, a complete mind-
Characters, plot, theme, and genre, evolve naturally out of this process to represent the full spectrum of considerations made by the human mind. Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events also evolve naturally as the Story Mind finishes considering the issue from one point of view and shifts it’s attention to another.
Okay, suppose we have a Story Mind. What do we do with it? Or, more importantly, how does the audience receive it? In fact, the audience examines the Story Mind from four distinct perspectives. Imagine for the moment that a story is a battle. We might hold the Story Mind out in front of us, “Alas, poor mind,” and look at it from a distance. For the audience, this perspective is like that of a general on a hill, watching the story’s battle. From here, we are looking from the outside in. We can see all the broad strategies and forces at work, but we are distanced from them. Although we may be concerned for the soldiers on the field, they are too far away to identify as individuals, so we classify them by their functions instead. There might be the soldier leading the charge – a protagonist archetype, or a deserter cowering in the bushes – the skeptic archetype. In an of it self, this view offers the best perspective on the “big picture” but at the expense of any personal involvement. So, in Dramatica, we refer to this as the Objective perspective.
For a more involving point of view, let us zoom our audience into the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field. Suddenly, we are seeing things from the inside, looking out. We are no longer privy to the broad developing movements of the battle as a whole, but we have a much better understanding of what it is like to be in the midst of the bombardment, trying to do our job and get out alive. The soldier from whom the audience experiences the story first hand is the Main Character of the story. It is important to note that the Main Character need not be the Protagonist, any more than any of us has to be the central figure in every group in which we are involved. Authors may choose to position the audience on the sidelines to gain an understanding of the battle from off-
Now, as the Main Character struggles to make his way through the field of battle, a figure blocks his path. Through the smoke of all the dramatic explosions, the Main Character cannot tell if this figure is a friendly soldier trying to divert him from a mine field, or an enemy soldier trying to lure him into an ambush. As the Main Character approaches he yells, “Get out of my way!” The obstacle in his path shouts, “change course”. In the end, either the Main Character will run through the Obstacle Character to succeed or die in the mine field, or he will relent and change course to succeed or fall prey to the ambush. Neither decision guarantees success except as a reflection of the author’s argument This view is called The Obstacle Character perspective.
Finally, the audience will want to examine growth in the relationship between the Main and Obstacle characters as they “have it out” in their personal skirmish in the midst of the overall battle. No longer standing in the Main Character’s shoes, the audience judges on against the other as if they were two fighters circling. Because it deals with the conflict between two subjective points of view, this is called the Subjective perspective.
One way to get a feel for these four perspectives is to think of how the audience relates to the characters in each. The Main Character is first person singular – the “I” perspective. The Obstacle Character is seen through the Main Character’s eyes, and is the “you” perspective. The Subjective view is the “we” perspective, and the Objective view the “they” perspective. “I”, “you”, “we”, and “they”.
Symbolically, the Main Character represents where we are positioned at any given moment in our own minds – our sense of self. The Obstacle Character represents an alternative paradigm we are considering – we haven’t adopted it yet, so we don’t see things from that perspective yet, but merely examine that perspective from where we are. The Subjective view represents the process of trying to weigh the pros and cons of two points of view in a balanced fashion. The Objective view represents our attempt to look at our own mental processes analytically. Taken together, all four perspectives are like different camera angles on the same football game. Each is valid from its own point of view, but also incomplete. If they run in parallel the audience will come to a full understanding of all valid considerations regarding the story’s central issue and a complete argument will have been made.
There isn’t time this evening to even scratch the surface of describing the components of these four parallel arguments, but let us focus on the Main Character and examine some of the key considerations as an example. In this way, the nature of a story’s impact and how to control it to desired audience effect can be, at lest partially, illuminated.
To get meaning from the Main Character’s journey, and audience will need to know some things about the nature of that journey and its outcome. For one thing, by the end of the story the audience will want to know if the Main Character has changed or not. Many students of story erroneously believe a character must change in order to grow. In fact, a character might grow in their resolve while remaining the same. This calls for clarification of terms. In Dramatica, we define a steadfast character as one who keeps the same paradigm or character traits in regard to the story’s central issue of argument. A change character is one accepts the Obstacle Character’s alternative paradigm and adopts a new way of thinking or feeling. Because of the difficulty in overcoming obstacles and avoiding the apparently easier way out, a steadfast character needs to muster emotional reserves in order to remain steadfast, much like Job in the bible story.
Some well known Steadfast characters are James Bond in every movie except “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. Well known change characters are Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”, and Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
As indicated earlier, change or steadfast alone does not guarantee success or failure. So an author must decide which it is to be. By “success” we do not mean a value judgment, but a simple assessment – did the Main Character achieve what he set out to achieve or not? It doesn’t matter if the Main Character realized that achieving his goal would be the wrong thing to do, for example, but simply, in the end, did he do it or not.
Once that determination is made, an author can ask himself or herself, “Now, how does the Main Character feel about the outcome? Did he or she resolve his or her personal angst or not?”
Earlier, I mentioned Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. This story ends in a success because the original goal was to capture “Buffalo Bob” and rescue the senator’s daughter, which she does. But, if you recall the end of the movie, her graduation ceremony is not presented as the celebration we might expect. Rather, the camera moves slowly in long shots, the music is very somber, and Clarice is left pretty much alone – until she is called to the phone. It is Hannibal Lecter who immediately asks her, “Are the lambs still screaming?” She does not answer because they still are.
Hannibal Lecter was her Obstacle Character, even though Buffalo Bob was the Antagonist. With his question and answer, “quid pro quo”, he forced her to tell her story and ultimately to face the reason she is in her career – trying to save every lost lamb to make up for the one she couldn’t save as a child. To find relief from this central angst, she must let go of that experience and move on. But she cannot, and hence her success is tempered with her ongoing angst. In Dramatica, we call this a judgment of “Bad”. If angst is overcome, the judgment is “Good”.
Audiences are strongly affected by the four combinations of Success/Failure and Good/Bad. Look at the different overall viewing experiences of the Failure/Bad story of “Hamlet”, the Failure/Good story of “Rain Main” in which he doesn’t get the inheritance, but overcomes his hatred for his father, the Success/Bad story of “Remains of the Day” in which he successfully maintains the household through all trials and tribulations but fails to obtain a loving relationship, and the Success/Good story of “Star Wars”.
There are many more considerations pertaining to a Main Character, and a multitude of others in the other three perspectives as well. For example, a more Objective issue is whether the story’s scope is such that it is brought to a conclusion by a Timelock or an Optionlock. We all know Timelocks like “48 hours”, but just as many stories are drawn to an end by running out of options, again, as in “Remains of the Day.”
Why a lock at all? Since the choices a Story Mind is pondering have dire consequences, the consideration might go on forever if the scope of the argument were not limited. I know I never go to the doctor until I’ve exhausted all other possibilities that could avoid it. In that case, I have been trying to deal with an inequity limited by options – when there are no alternatives left, I must choose to go or not, but I can learn nothing else (within the scope of my argument to myself) that will help me make the decision. In contrast, a Timelock is as simple as having a friend ask you to join him or her for a movie that starts at 9:00 and you can’t make up your mind because you like the movie and hate the friend, or vice versa. Not surprising that real human considerations should be reflected in story or in the Story Mind.
Unfortunately, my presentation is also under a timelock, so I must soon draw my argument to a conclusion. Before I do, however, I have one final area I’d like to touch upon – the subject of Propaganda, as it . Dramatica theory holds a wealth of information about propaganda, but one particular notion is particularly intriguing.
(Here I will hold up a larger version of the attached picture)
What is the first thing you notice about his picture? I’m almost afraid to ask this question of a room full of psychiatrists! For most people, they would notice the missing eye. In fact, they would, at some level imagine an eye in that vacant spot to, if nothing else, verify their assessment of what is missing. The propaganda in this picture is that is a man’s face, due to the tie at the bottom. While the audience is busy filling in the blank, they don’t notice the ace up the sleeve. It’s the old slight of hand – you watch the magician’s right hand, while his left is palming the ball.
This particular propaganda technique is used to strong effect in “Thelma and Louise”. There is one piece of missing information. It is never explained in the story exactly what happened to Thelma in Texas that is clearly fueling her drive for independence. The subject is brought up but the missing piece is never filled in. So, the primarily female audience fills it in for itself. Subconsciously, if not consciously, most female audience members make an association with something from their own lives or their own fears that would be strong enough to conceivably drive them to the same response. In this manner the plight of Thelma is personalized.
So far, so good. But when Thelma and Louise drive over the cliff rather than spend the rest of their lives in prison, the message is also personalized – if you try to buck the system, you will have a choice of death figuratively or literally, or a more confining prison than the one you are already in. By making one a housewife and the other a waitress, most women will even more strongly identify at some level with these characters than if they were a bank president and a congresswoman. But the key to the impact is the missing Texas piece, which changes the movie from a story about two women seeking independence to a propaganda piece which puts emotional pressure on female audience members to stay in their place – or else!
Was this intentional? Who’s to say. The script was written by a woman, and it is my understanding that the Texas Story is told in the first draft. But as we know from ink blots, author intent need not be present to generate audience effect.
Of course, we have only explored one kind of propaganda. In fact, there are a multitude of others. In “Thelma and Louise” the mechanism of propaganda involves a missing piece of information. Another technique adds an unnecessary piece of information. As an example, let us look as Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Much has been written about the possible negative racial bias created by the Hyenas in the story. Whoopi Goldberg does the voice of the principal Hyena. The Hyenas, which are dark-
But this is not the propaganda of Lion King; it is merely “manipulation”. By way of definition, “manipulation” occurs when a meta message which exists above the structural message of the story at large is discernible to the audience. In other words, if the audience is able to tune in to a bias, it is manipulation. But if the audience is unaware that it is being biased by subliminal symbolic references – THAT is propaganda.
A clever propagandist will use manipulation as a distraction, to better obscure the propaganda going on elsewhere in a story. In “The Lion King”, while attention is drawn to the potential racial issues, it is hardly ever noticed that there is an even stronger anti-
And, being a children’s film, the damage is even worse, since the racial manipulation is beyond the scope of most children, so the built-
Clearly, the visual media have a powerful impact on society as a whole and each of us individually. When one becomes familiar the mechanism of story, one can better identify this impact, and even work to employ it with precision.
I thank you for your time, and hope you found it well spent.