Compelling ≠ Accurate

Bryan Caplan:

As a rule, I don’t care for “hard sci-fi.”  In fact, artistically speaking, I normally dislike true stories of any kind.  And I barely care about continuity errors.  When I read novels or watch movies, I crave what I call “emotional truth.” ..  “it’s the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. Being inside another skin. Moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently.” .. When creators spend a lot of mental energy on the accuracy of their physics or the historical sequence of events, they tend to lose sight of their characters’ inner lives.  A well-told story is designed to maximize the audiences’ identification with the characters .. you know a creator has succeeded when you temporarily lose yourself in the story.

Many have said similar things. For example, Jerome Bruner:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. .. Each .. has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude. ..

“Great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination.

Yes, readers (or viewers) value stories where readers lose themselves, feel like they are inside character inner lives, and identify with those characters. To readers, such stories feel “lifelike” — in some important way “like” real and true events. And yes, surely this is because these best stories do in fact match some template in reader minds, a template knitted in part from the many details of the world that readers have witnessed during their lives.

But, such stories are much better described as “compelling” than “true.” As a large literature has shown, the stories that we like differ in many big and systematic ways from real life events. Stories differ not only in external physical and social environments, but also in the personalities and preferences of individuals. Furthermore, even conditional on those things, stories also differ in the feelings that individuals have and the choices that they make.

We understand some but not all things about why people are built to prefer unrealistic stories. But there seems little doubt that the stories we like are in fact unrealistic. Compelling but not “true.”

I’m not denying that some stories are more realistic, I’m doubting that the stories that we get more lost in are in fact mainly those more realistic stories.

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  • Joe

    Related: Katja Grace’s enjoyable and insightful contrast of system vs story thought.

    “If you see a black cat cross your path, story thought says further dark things may cross your metaphoric path, while system thought might say animals in general can probably cross many approximately flat surfaces.”

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  • https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/ entirelyuseless

    Perhaps one way to explain this is to say that the compelling stories are “lifelike” not in being like life, but in being like the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. Just as fiction differs systematically from reality, a person’s own ideas of his life as a somewhat coherent narrative with coherent purposes and so on also differ systematically from reality.

    A simple example: in order to feel “lifelike,” a character cares about justice more than real people do. But the readers also think that they personally care about justice more than they actually do. So the story differs from reality in a manner analagous to how the readers’ self assessments differ from reality.

    • Howard Holmes

      Your comment is right on.. Another example is that we tell the story that we care for others just like the protagonists in the novels we read. In real life there is no caring.