Story structure and the just-world phenomenon.

I think most of us have, at one time or another, finished a book or left a movie wishing that the story had ended just a little bit sooner. We felt for the characters in the work [from this point on I will be using the word ‘work’ interchangeably for movies, books and plays.] We understood their motivations. We wished for some of them to succeed and for others to fail. We rooted for changes to take place or we cheered those who were fighting to turn back the tides of time.
Then the work ends and we feel cheated, unhappy or let down.
There are many reasons for this feeling of disappointment to occur. The reader [again this is a generic term for readers, listeners and watchers] may have fundamentally misunderstood the work. They may have thought it was a comedy because they were unaware of the cues the author used to signal that it was a tragedy to hir audience. Or the author hirself may have been unaware of the way the audience would interpret the cues given. Misunderstanding of cues occurs, not uncommonly, when an author from outside a particular genre attempts to work within that genre. If the author is not conversant with genre expectations then they may not be aware that choices they have made as to cues or foreshadowing will at best fail and at worst confuse members of the audience.
I think, however, there is a sometimes a quite different reason for the reader’s feeling that there is something wrong with the ending of the work. Everything should have been wrapped up 10 minutes earlier or a there should have been a 10 minute coda. The author should have left off the last chapter or added an additional one. Our last look at that protagonist should have been different.
Before I go on I want to introduce into this discussion of reader dissatisfaction the concept of the just-world phenomenon [sometimes known as the just-world fallacy or the just-world hypothesis.] As Synder and Lopez remind us:
[t]heory and research support the idea that human beings are inclined to feel that suffering and punishment, like joys and rewards, should be deserved. . . .Belief in a just world can be maintained by ‘blaming the victim.’ . . .Because of the need to bring ‘ought’ and ‘reality’ into balance, the poor tend to be blamed for their poverty, and the person who is raped is blamed for the rape.”[1]
Authors are frequently told that there are a limited number of ‘mythic story structures’ and a limited number of character archetypes. The names and the exact number of these vary from one theorist to another ranging over time and space from Aristotle[2] to Tierno.[3] There are a number of things that most of these theorists agreed on. That stories need beginnings, middles and ends; things must change over the course of the story; and that characters, in particular the protagonist, must themselves have arcs.
While one might argue as to how closely modern plays and books cleeve to those ‘rules’ it is difficult to argue that modern movies do not. Even movies that unfold through a series of flashbacks and/or flashforwards still have beginnings and ends. [4]
The reader who as been trained by movies and television to understand a story as having a clear beginning and a clear end and who further is trained to see a hero as someone who makes something happen and who sees the world through the understandings of the just world hypothesis will have extraordinary difficulties with dramas and stories that have what they percieve to be depressing endings. In modern stories heroes win. The empire crumbles. Skynet will not trigger a thermonuclear apocalypse. Oh, the hero hirself may not survive—but their cause will triumph. Yes, the evil may still linger in the dark corners of the universe but just as this incarnation was overthrown so will our descendents be able to crush it again when it attempts to return.
But how do we understand it if the protagonist does not triumph? How do we deal with a story that takes away from the protagonist even hir internal journey? In a just world those who do not triumph cannot have been the just. We feel uncomfortable that the author has made us inhabit the mind, not of the hero, but of the unworthy victim.
Looking back more than half a century after 1984 was published I realize that one of the most transgressive things that Orwell did was to make the reader who wants to side with the triumphant and feel that their side won realize that they, like Winston, must come to love Big Brother.
[1] Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2009). Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg. 79.
[2] Aristotle, . (1998). Aristotle\’s poetics. New York: Hill and Wang.
[3] Tierno, M. (2002). Aristotle\’s poetics for screenwriters: Storytelling secrets from the greatest mind in Western civilization. New York: Hyperion.
[4] Although it is true that in the case of movies such as Momento there can be more than one way to order the scenes and thus what was from one point-of-view  the beginning was, from another, the end.

4 thoughts on “Story structure and the just-world phenomenon.

  1. The Just World Phenomenon explains well why the James Bond books and movies out-sell the John LeCarre books and movies by a huge margin. The Bond stories are about blind obedience to a conservative system by a blunt instrument (i.e. the charming Mr. Bond). Film-goers would avoid the Bond films if Bond never triumphed in the end, so I suspect there's a political component here. It is in the interests of the architects of the hegemony to define 'happy ending' or 'hero' in such a way as to perpetuate the status quo. The Superman stories, according to its creators, are about defending \”truth and justice and the American Way\” (after the Infinite Crisis that has become \”truth, justice and hope\” – and it's hope rather than the despair of the poor and the disenfranchised that allows the powers that be to retain their power. Despair leads to rebellion and regime change. Hope doesn't do that). In the film 'Batman Begins' Batman, a rich man, makes Gotham a better place by fighting crime and, in the grand finale, by returning Gotham to its original state while film-goers cheer. Batman's father felt sorry for the poor so he built a cheap rapid transit system. It never occurred to either one of them to redesign Gotham's political system so that there were no more poor, and so that the social causes of criminal behaviour were eliminated. What makes '1984' different is that it says in part that we'd better make some big changes in our basic political system now or, as you point out, we'll all have to love Big Brother later. That's why it's transgressive.The Kidd

  2. Then there are the endings which are neither absolute triumph nor absolute defeat; the protagonists end up making their compromises and adjustments just to \”keep on keeping on,\” as we used to sing. And the world won't change much, but maybe some good can still be done. Most of us, after all, are not heroes.Have you read– well, I bet you have, you seem to read everything— Rebecca* Mead's article on Middlemarch in a recent New Yorker? Discussing the conclusion, with Dorothea marrying Will and going off to be a \”supportive wife and mother\” rather than holding out for some grand, heroic achievement, she quotes the novel's ending:\”The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to to number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.\”I believe you've done some research in the Harry Potter fandom: what did you think of the brouhaha over the Book 7 Epilogue and Rowling's post-publication interviews? There seemed to be a large contingent who absolutely hated it, who seemed to think it trivialized the preceding triumph, and reduced its heroes to ordinary bureaucrats and middle-class parents. *Totally off-topic: why do you suppose my Spellchecker is complaining about \”Rebecca\”? Isn't that the most commonly found form of the name in English-speaking countries? It's offering me Rebeka, Rebeca, Rebbecca, and Rebecka– have they never heard of Sunnybrook Farm?

  3. * There seemed to be a large contingent who absolutely hated it, who seemed to think it trivialized the preceding triumph, and reduced its heroes to ordinary bureaucrats and middle-class parents. *I always thought the whole point of Harry Potter's war was that it made the world safe again to *be* an ordinary person. Objecting to the characters living ordinary lives having won is kind of like objecting to them living in the same country after they've thrown the invaders out. And yeah, the idea that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't a complete story utterly baffles me. It's one of the most straightforward and neatly finished structures I can think of. Maybe he should have called it The Last Man In Europe after all and hoped people would take the hint.

  4. \”The Bond stories are about blind obedience to a conservative system by a blunt instrument (i.e. the charming Mr. Bond). Film-goers would avoid the Bond films if Bond never triumphed in the end, so I suspect there's a political component here.\”If 'blind obedience to a conservative system' herein means 'the world doesn't get blown up', I suppose so. I suspect the truth here is much simpler: the Bond stories get sold because they are more epic and dynamic. Gritty and realistic spy stories are a bit of niche market, action thrillers (the books) or popcorn action (most of the movies) are much more popular.and it's hope rather than the despair of the poor and the disenfranchised that allows the powers that be to retain their power. Despair leads to rebellion and regime change. Hope doesn't do that.What? Despair leads to submission and acquiescence – in fact, that the definition despair. A person in despair doesn't rebel – that would never work, after all – they just cringe away from their betters. This was the ultimate objective of the 1984 coalition – to create absolute despair, where total oppression is accepted as inevitable.People generally only rebel if they think it will do something, and that takes hope. (Desperation is an acceptable substitute, but even that is a form of hope – that the most extreme course might still succeed, or at least allow you to die trying). Ultimately, though, what leads to rebellion is not hope or despair, but rage.\”Batman's father felt sorry for the poor so he built a cheap rapid transit system. It never occurred to either one of them to redesign Gotham's political system so that there were no more poor, and so that the social causes of criminal behaviour were eliminated.\”Because, you know, that's easy for one person to do. It's not like ordinary people, billionaires, huge organizations, and even governments have been trying that for centuries (sometimes even earnestly)…Nope, clearly all it takes is Thomas Wayne waving his magic wand and the entire structure of society is perfect…

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