Conspiracy Theories and Story Logic
Making yourself crazy by trying to make sense
A friend of mine sent me this short tweet thread which he found highly amusing:
I’m not a subscriber to Ben Dreyfuss’s Substack, so I don’t actually know what his theory is, but the idea that the shark in Jaws was framed, and someone else was responsible for the deaths, is amusingly absurd. Given the general purpose of his Substack, I assume he uses the kind of evidence-gathering for this conspiracy theory as a template for thinking about the kind of absurdities you can work yourself into believing about the real world, and which seem sometimes to have taken over our politics.
But here’s the funny thing about storytelling: often, good storytelling requires putting in details that, when you think about it, don’t make any logical sense, and that open up the prospect of crazy conspiracy theories. Why? Because when you’re telling a story, you’re focused on the audience’s response. So if you’re choosing between a piece of nonsense that gets the right response and something perfectly logical that the audience won’t process correctly, well, you’re supposed to pick the nonsense, because it works.
Let me give an example that Robert McKee spends a bunch of time on in his famous seminar, from Casablanca. At the beginning of the film, Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre) has these documents that will get you safe passage out of Axis territory, something all the random refugees who have congregated in Rick’s Cafe in Vichy-controlled Casablanca would like. In particular, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), needs them to escape the Nazis who are hot on his tail, and to get them he will ultimately need the help of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who is still in love with Laszlo’s wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)—but you know all that.
The documents, though, are what I want to highlight. When we are first told about them, we learn that they are signed by Charles de Gaulle. And this, as McKee points out in his seminar, makes absolutely no sense in terms of the story. De Gaulle had no authority in Vichy France; possession of documents signed by him would be far more likely to get you arrested than anything else. If you wanted safe passage out, you’d need documents signed by Marshall Pétain or someone like that.
So why does the script say they are signed by de Gaulle? Because the documents are a good thing that the good guys want and that the bad guys want to intercept. And in the fleeting moment when the audience is going to hear about them, the filmmakers wanted to make sure the audience would understand that, that the moment would land correctly on an emotional level. The fact that it made no sense is secondary.
Of course, it doesn’t do to think too much about the details of Casablanca because the whole setup makes no sense when you think about it. Why have all these refugees shown up here in the first place? There’s no good explanation—they’re there for symbolic reasons, not logical ones. Casablanca isn’t aiming for realism. But usually the follow up to that acknowledgement is to say that while stories don’t need to be realistic, they need to follow an internal logic—their worlds have to be consistent. And my point is this isn’t actually true. They have to follow an emotional logic—we need to understand them in that sense—and they do need rules. But they can be internally inconsistent, and even have to be if that’s the efficient way to help the audience understand the story.
When you start to pore over works of art, though, the seams start to show, and that can give rise to very strange readings. I recently reread an essay by Stanley Cavell, one of my favorite writers on Shakespeare, about Hamlet, in which he professes to believe a theory that King Claudius can’t have killed his brother by pouring poison in his ear, the method specified by the Ghost. Why? Because, when Hamlet stages the play-within-a-play, the King doesn’t react violently to the dumbshow, which depicts precisely that form of murder. Instead, he only freaks out later, when, in dialogue, the villain prepares to murder his victim. This makes no logical sense—if the King’s conscience was going to be caught, why not during the dumbshow? Hence, Cavell concludes, the murder must have been committed in some other way, and the Ghost must be lying about being Hamlet’s father.
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy talk. The Ghost might well be lying—might well be a demon tempting Hamlet to damn himself—but demons can speak truth as well as falsehood. It makes no sense for Shakespeare to have planted this obscure clue that the Ghost was lying, among other things because no one would ever figure that out in performance. So why did Shakespeare include the dumbshow? Partly because it was theatrical, but partly, I suspect, because of suspense: The audience will be thinking about the King’s reaction from the moment they see the murder, and the longer he can draw out the audience’s (and Hamlet’s) anticipation of it, the more powerful the moment is when it lands. He had no reason to worry that the audience would be puzzled by the timing of the King’s reaction; I can’t remember ever puzzling over it, and I’ve seen Hamlet more than a dozen times.
So why was the tooth embedded in the wood the wrong side up in the scene Dreyfuss is talking about? I don’t know. It might have been an oversight on Spielberg’s part. Or it might have been deliberate; perhaps the tooth looked more like a tooth that way round, and that was more important than being embedded the logical way. Given what a masterful director Spielberg is, I would be more inclined to bet on the latter than the former.
This is something I struggle with mightily as a creator, and to a lesser extent as a critic. I really do want my stories to make logical sense. I don’t want to play tricks. I want the timeline to be plausible. (Othello’s isn’t.) And yet I know that these are not the paramount values, that my eye must always be on the audience’s reaction, and that if the audience is puzzling over these kinds of things then I’ve already failed because they aren’t in the story, and my job is to keep them in there, first and foremost.
As for conspiracy theories in real life: They are a natural deformation of the narrativization of reality, which is something we do instinctively but which can lead us astray even when it isn’t being deformed. When you get the feeling that you’re being told too much of a story, by the media or whoever, the instinct to be suspicious is a good one. But it doesn’t mean there’s another, truer story underneath, a more fantastical narrative built up of the bits of inconsistency in the official narrative. Far more likely, the reality doesn’t make for a good narrative at all.
So it is useful to remember, when dealing with reality, that it really is enough to conclude with “I don’t buy that story” while declining to endorse any alternative story whatsoever.