Another Way to Tell a Story: Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

On the occasion of the largest pandemic in a century, you might’ve watched or re-watched Contagion, a star-studded 2011 movie directed by Steven Soderbergh about a deadly virus originating from China that sweeps the globe. The film is currently having a renaissance on Netflix due to its striking similarities to real-world events, though its more cerebral and realistic take on a world-wide pandemic resigned it to an underwhelming box office haul upon its originally release in theaters.

The thing you might notice when watching this movie is that it doesn’t track with most of my writing advice (…assuming you’ve read my writing advice…if you’re reading this then you’ve probably read at least some of my work, so thanks!). There’s no main character, nobody learns an important life lesson, and the narrative arc doesn’t match anyone’s internal character arc. Rather than a character web—where the other characters are allies, enemies, or foils of the main character—the characters in Contagion are defined by their position in the system within which the pathogen spreads. Gwyneth Paltrow is patient zero who dies pretty much immediately, Matt Damon is her husband who’s somehow immune but still helpless, Kate Winslet is a doctor chasing the virus, Jude Law is a slimy blogger selling fake cures, etc. Many of the characters never even interact with each other, and when they die there’s no fanfare or catharsis.

And yet this movie still works really well as a story.

How does it accomplish this feat? Well, you know how I keep saying the “rules” of writing aren’t really rules so much as a recipe for success that can be altered if you know what you’re doing? This movie is a perfect example of successful deviation from the recipe, and I’ll explain why.

Most of the advice I’ve written in this blog is relevant for psychological storytelling. Contagion is an example of sociological storytelling.

Psychological storytelling is the story of a person’s internal and external journey to get something they want. They are the center of the story’s universe, and without them the story wouldn’t exist. You could say these stories look inward.

The vast majority of modern stories are psychological in nature. Hollywood in particular tells almost exclusively psychological stories, mainly because by focusing on one person the story is easier to tell, easier for audiences to get invested in, and has a clear narrative path to follow with a beginning, middle, and end.

Sociological storytelling, by contrast, is the story of a system; specifically, how the system affects the people within it. Systems can be formal or informal. For instance, a family is a system; capitalism is a system; your workplace is a system; the law is a system, etc. Characters existing within the system still have internal motivations, as they do in a psychological story, but external factors are just as important as internal ones, if not more so. You could say these stories look outward.

In real life, we exist within a vast web of systems. Every system has sets of incentives built into it: conform to the system and be rewarded; go against the system and be punished. These incentives don’t always align with an individual’s goals or principles, so we’re often faced with the choice of either relinquishing our individual preference to conform to the system or going against the system and being punished for it. Often the systems themselves will conflict with each other, forcing a character to decide which one to adhere to and which to go against. If choice is what defines a character, then a character in a sociological story will make a choice based not only on their internal moral compass but also on how they anticipate the system will respond to their choice.

For instance, in Contagion, Jude Law’s character sells fake cures online because it makes him a lot of money—the system of capitalism incentivizes him to do so. Chin Han’s character, a Hong Kong bureaucrat, kidnaps a WHO doctor in order to ransom her for vaccines for his village, because he knows they’ll be the last to receive it, if they ever do—the Chinese government’s lack of concern for the poor incentivizes him to do so. These characters don’t need to be good or bad people at heart to make these decisions; people with good intentions can do bad things if the system within which they live highly incentivizes them to do so.

I use the example of Game of Thrones all the time in my writing advice. Even though I talk about the psychological elements of the story, the truth is the story as a whole is actually a sociological story. In a now-viral essay for Scientific American by psychologist Zeynep Tufekci, she explained how GOT worked as a sociological story and why it went off the rails when the writers ran out of book material and shifted the narrative from sociological to psychological—because it was the only story Benioff and Weiss knew how to write, based on their Hollywood backgrounds. I’ll go a step further and talk about how the psychological elements of GOT meshed perfectly with the sociological elements in the beginning of the series, and how they didn’t at the end.

As I’ve detailed in an earlier post, in the first season Ned Stark functioned as the main character with a clear want and need: he wanted control of the Iron Throne in order to ensure peace throughout Westeros, but in order for him to achieve his goal he needed to learn more political cunning, to play the “game.” His critical flaw, based on the system within which he lived, was that he was too noble and rigid in his moral code. In a psychological story of good versus evil, he’d have the clear advantage, and we would expect him to prevail because this is a Hollywood product and that’s what usually happens.

But here’s where GOT was brilliant in subverting our expectations. We find out in the last episode of the first season that GOT isn’t Ned’s story, but the story of the system of governance in Westeros. In the GOT universe, power is held exclusively by the people who can enforce it through violence—aka “might-makes-right.” Everybody else has to find a way to work within this system, either by manipulating those with the power to wield violence (via sex, family ties, blackmail, etc.), or by somehow wielding even more violence themselves (…perhaps with dragons). Ned’s flaw put him in direct opposition to not just Joffrey but the entire governing system of Westeros, and he lost.

Now jumping ahead to the end of the series, when Daenerys burns down King’s Landing and turns full-on evil because her “bad genes” suddenly kick in. As Tufekci also noted, it’s almost certain George R.R. Martin did in fact intend for this to happen, but not for the psychological story reason of a sudden onset of inherited mental illness. Throughout the entire series, Dany keeps saying she wants to be a benevolent leader, not like her crazy dad or those other assholes who sat on the Iron Throne. However, she never expresses any desire to change the basic governance of Westeros (Tyrion even asks her about it at one point—who will rule when she’s gone—and she brushes him off).

The thing is, in this story the might-makes-right system has been shown over and over again to always lead to an unending cycle of bloodshed and eventual self-destruction. There is no way to make this system work to produce a thriving, peaceful, and just society in the way Dany wants it to because the system doesn’t incentivize these behaviors. Ned already tried, and got his head chopped off for his trouble. The entire system itself needs to go. But she only has the tools (dragons, armies) to work within the existing flawed system, so she comes to believe massive bloodshed is her only choice.

The thesis statement of the story is this: there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator, because the system that elevates dictators to power will never nurture benevolence. That was the entire point of the series!

And that’s why Dany burned down King’s Landing…at least, that’s almost certainly what Martin intended. This is how themes are supposed to work. However, there needed to be a lot more foundation to get to that point—Dany trying to get what she wants with peaceful tactics, resorting to violence when it doesn’t work, etc. in a downward spiral—but D&D were eager to move on to other projects so they didn’t bother. The result was a whole lot of bullshit that didn’t make any sense. Even if most viewers couldn’t exactly articulate why it all went wrong, they still knew it was wrong. Oh boy did they know it.

So that’s the difference between psychological storytelling and sociological storytelling. Other examples of sociological stories include The Big Short, Star Trek, Wall-E, The Wire, Ghost in the Shell, The Walking Dead, Dune, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Some stories are a mix of both; for instance, GOT is a sociological story with strong psychological elements, while the movie Parasite is a psychological story with strong sociological elements.

Let’s say you want to write your own sprawling epic with a cast of thousands (figuratively). How does one write a sociological story?

First, you must start with the system. Specifically, what system are you critiquing—and yes, I mean critiquing. You must have a strong opinion of this system, you must understand it very well, and you must have something to say about it. All sociological stories have a thesis statement about the world; without it, there is no story. Psychological stories can also have thesis statements about the world—in fact all the best stories do—but it’s not required. In a sociological story, it’s required.

Here are my examples and their theses and systems being critiqued, in a nutshell:

  • Contagion: The world is not prepared for a pandemic. (system being critiqued: health care/emergency services)
  • Game of Thrones: There’s no such thing as a benevolent dictator. (system being critiqued: government)
  • The Big Short: Capitalism makes people to do bad things. (system being critiqued: capitalism)
  • Star Trek: Humanity can accomplish great things if we work together. (system being critiqued: space exploration)
  • Wall-E: Humanity can overcome the scourge of capitalism if we work together. (system being critiqued: capitalism/consumerism)
  • The Wire (first season): The criminal system and the legal/judicial system are more alike than different. (system being critiqued: criminal justice)
  • Ghost in the Shell (original anime): Humanity will only evolve if we embrace technology. (system being critiqued: human/technology interface)
  • The Walking Dead: Humanity sucks. (system being critiqued: family)
  • Dune: Humanity will only evolve if it moves beyond traditional government structures. (system being critiqued: government/leadership)
  • The Foundation series: Societal forces will always be greater than individual forces at shaping the future of humanity. (system being critiqued: societal evolution)

A bad idea would be to decide to write a sociological story about the fashion world because you think it’s cool or you have experience in it, and then have your characters simply go through the process of designing fashion. It’s bad because: 1) it’s not saying anything about the larger world, which means 2) it’ll be boring to everyone who’s not you, and 3) to alleviate the boredom you’ll probably focus on one character’s struggles to make it big, in which case you’re now telling a psychological story.

Once you decide on the system and what you want to say about it, create characters who will test the system. In a psychological story, the character web around the protagonist functions to either help or hinder the protagonist in their quest; essentially the web is constantly testing the main character’s critical flaw, either tempting them to give into their flaw or to overcome it. The concept is similar for sociological stories, except in a sociological story the characters form a web within the system. They all have their own goals, but how and if they reach those goals depends on their place in the system.

Finally, pick a character who will primarily deliver the thesis statement of your story, at least in the beginning. They’re a focus character rather than a main character, in that we follow this character as they try to navigate the system in order for us, the audience, to understand the system. However, if the focus character leaves (ex. gets his head chopped off), the story continues. The story only ends if the system fundamentally changes or is destroyed, or when the thesis statement has been proven.

(Note that this doesn’t take into account non-diegetic events (i.e. stuff in the real world), such as the death of an author or a TV network’s drive to continue a story for as long as its viewership remains high, ala The Walking Dead. That show should’ve ended several seasons ago, in my opinion. Humanity sucks, we get it. But people keep watching it for some reason, so AMC just keeps churning it out. Stop encouraging them dammit!)

These steps, while seemingly simple, highlight a major component in sociological storytelling that puts off a lot of writers: they are inherently very complex. You can’t just sit down and crank one out based off a cool “what if” idea you had. Sociological stories have many complex characters, deep themes, and extremely detailed worldbuilding, no matter the genre. You need to think A LOT about what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. They’re “hard-mode” storytelling. So if you’re a new author, you probably don’t want to start with a sociological story, even if you think you have a great idea. Nail the basics of psychological storytelling, and then try sociological if you have something to say about the world.

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