Charting story worlds in our minds

All of our experiences are mapped out by our brains, from fond holiday memories to our worst trips to the dentist. But when it comes to the stories we consume, there are special connections at play.

 Illustration by  Kallum Best

Illustration by Kallum Best

When we watch a movie or read a book, it doesn’t feel like an active process. We’re often sitting or lying down, passively taking in a story that someone else conceived and created. But even though our bodies aren’t moving, our minds are incredibly active as we carefully map out the intricacies of the story we're engrossed in.

In the early 1980s, mental models theory was proposed to explain how our mind organises information. According to the theory, as we learn new things and interact with the world, we construct cognitive representations based on our encounters. These mental models of our experiences are why we don’t have to figure everything out from scratch every time we come across something new and allow us to ascribe inferences and meaning to the world around us.

When we engage with stories, we create mental models specific to the story to help us understand the plot, characters and relationships. It is for this reason, that stories are king when it comes to conveying information. While we may grab bits and pieces of insight from our interactions with others and the world around us, it is only when we engage with a story that we can completely internalise information and make it our own. Research has shown that the more absorbed or transported we are into a story, the more likely we are to believe in the message it communicates.

By creating mental models of a story, we construct it in a way that makes the most sense to us as individuals. As a result, the shape of mental models will vary widely from person to person depending on our intellectual and creative abilities — as well as what we’ve paid attention to and what’s important and valuable to us.

The building blocks

Mental models are built from schemas, which can be thought of as the streets and highways that make up the larger map of the model. Schemas help us categorise and know what to expect from the things we encounter, including the way people will behave in different circumstances, how different relationships will unfold, and how conversations about different subjects should go.

There are two main schemas that help us construct each individual mental model for a story. The first schema is simply our expectations of what a story is. When you try to define a story, you might expect the following: it features a good guy and a bad guy; it should start at the beginning, come to a climax, and then end; and it should present and then resolve a specific problem. Our knowledge of what a story is helps us figure out what we should look for when we watch or read one. This is so second-nature, however, that we largely take our understanding of what a story is for granted.

The second schema that helps us construct our mental models is genre. Through years of exposure to everything from comedy to drama, science fiction to romance, horror to documentary, we have an implicit set of expectations for stories from a given genre. So, if we queue up a fantasy movie like Avatar, we expect to encounter strange places and alien races. On the other hand, if we turn on an action movie like The Bourne Identity, we expect to see complex action sequences and a heroic protagonist taking on bad guys.

 
  Our genre schemas set up our expectations. When we start watching a science fiction film, we anticipate to see things like space ships, hi-tech gadgets and aliens.   asmoth360/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Our genre schemas set up our expectations. When we start watching a science fiction film, we anticipate to see things like space ships, hi-tech gadgets and aliens. asmoth360/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Our genre schemas help us anticipate what we can expect from a particular kind of movie and also help us direct our attention to specific information while we’re watching it. For example, when we watch a romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally, we’ll probably pay special attention to the interaction between the two main characters because we want to see how they become romantically involved.

Character types — like the string of anti-hero characters that have dotted televsion in the past few years —are another type of schema. After seeing this kind of character on shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, we know what to expect from these men behaving badly. They are sympathetic but fatally flawed, they do things we abhor and yet they’re fascinating to watch. Now when we’re presented with a new story that features an anti-hero character, our anti-hero schema is activated, guiding our expectations for the story and the character.

Making the models

Scholars have found that when we take in a story we develop several mental models to help us comprehend it. First, we create a story world model that includes the setting of the story and the rules associated with it. The story world model acts as a framework for our understanding of the rest of the story’s content. We probably don’t think that much about this model as long as nothing happens that makes us reconsider it.

Imagine you’re watching a hospital drama like Grey’s Anatomy and in the middle of surgery one of the doctors drops their scalpel and starts chanting a magic spell to heal the patient, not only would you take notice, you would wonder if you were still watching the same show. This kind of rule violation would make you reconsider everything you know about the story world. But as long as the surgery proceeds as usual, you won’t spend too much time pondering the rules of the story world.

Second, we create character models for each of a story’s important characters. These models are what help us anticipate specific behaviours from each character. Of course, at first our character models will rely on schemas and stereotypes. We’ll use information about a character’s costumes, relationships, reactions, and behaviour to infer that they are “this type” of person. So, when we’re first introduced to a character like Superman, our knowledge that he is a hero who fights for truth and justice helps us predict who he is and what he’ll do.

As we get deeper into the story and spend more time with a character, though, we might learn something new about him. By adding that information to our character model, the model takes on more nuance. If we learn that Superman is conflicted about his calling because he also just wants to have a normal life, we can use that information to contextualise what’s happening if he momentarily hesitates to help in an emergency situation.

 
  As we learn more about a character, our character model is updated and we better understand the reasons behind their actions.   Jlhopgood  /Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

As we learn more about a character, our character model is updated and we better understand the reasons behind their actions. Jlhopgood/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

When we’re reading or watching a story, it’s actually the situation model that we spend the most time constructing in our minds. As you might suspect from the name, the situation model tracks the story situation, including the plot and all actions of the characters that move it along. The situation model constantly grows and changes as the story develops. As we learn new information, the situation model is updated accordingly.

Audiences can easily add new information to their situation models as long as the new information meshes with story information that was previously presented. One of the main things people monitor when they’re reading or watching a story is continuity. Scholars have identified three kinds of continuity that are especially important: temporal (when is the plot taking place), causal (why is the plot taking place), and spatial (where is the plot taking place). As we watch or read, we monitor all three kinds of continuity and if anything messes with them, it takes us out of the story and make us question if the narrative really makes sense.

Recently, stories have become increasingly clever about manipulating these different kinds of continuity. Narrative devices like flashbacks and flashforwards fill in information in the situation model in a nonlinear way and make story comprehension more challenging.

For example, each episode of This is Us includes a story line that takes place in the present and a story line that takes place at a different time in the past. Throughout each episode, viewers must determine when in the timeline each scene takes place, given clues provided in the story.

The work we do to construct these mental models is one of the reasons puzzle-box stories can be so fun. Shows like Westworld and This is Us play with continuity and ask us to constantly update our situation models with each new revelation. Sometimes these updates can be completely revise what we 'know' a character to be. 

While movies like The Avengers can seem frivolous to some, one of their main appeals is that they take our character and situation models devised from our earlier encounters with Marvel movies and combines them - expanding the pre-built maps in our minds.

Scholars have found that our reactions are different depending on whether a story’s outcomes are consistent or inconsistent with the expectations created by our situation model. Over two experiments, researchers showed that when a story’s outcome aligned with the participants’ situation models, their responses to the story were more certain, they judged it more positively, and they were more likely to engage in self-reflection. Meanwhile, if the story’s outcome diverged from the participants’ situation models, their responses were uncertain, they judged the story more negatively, and their reactions were more emotional.

Modelling reality

Mental models help to make stories feel real. Studies have found that, depending on its genre, a story may feel real for a number of different reasons. Sometimes real can mean that a story could plausibly take place in the real world. But when it comes to fictional stories, 'real' often depends more on something feeling true emotionally rather than resembling the facts of our reality. That’s why science fiction and fantasy stories often resonate with us, even if the places and characters they depict don’t physically resemble any place we’ve seen on Earth.

Psychological and communication researchers are especially interested in the way we comprehend stories, and how it affects us. For example, in one recent study participants were asked to recall their memories of a violent TV episode or movie. Those who said they experienced more negative emotions when they watched the violent show or movie were better able to recall the story and provide a detailed account of the story’s situation model.

 
  A violent story evokes strong negative emotions, which produce a comprehensive situation model.   dogberryjr/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A violent story evokes strong negative emotions, which produce a comprehensive situation model. dogberryjr/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Another experiment found that when participants were presented with a documentary or a fictional film, people perceived the documentary as more factual. However, participants had more intense emotional reactions to fictional films and remembered them better. Our emotional involvement in a story works hand-in-hand with our creation of mental models, leading us to become absorbed and receptive to the messages it’s communicating.

When a story is complex, a lot of mental effort goes into the construction of a situation model. But more importantly, if the story resonates with us because it challenges us intellectually or emotionally, our investment in the story will feel especially worthwhile. It’s from stories like this that we learn something about ourselves, gain insight into the world, and consider what’s meaningful to us.

When we read or watch stories that challenge us, we often come away from the experience feeling like we’ve been changed in some way, that the story’s prompted some personal growth or made us look at things differently. This, ultimately, is why stories are valuable to us, and why we’re willing to put in the intellectual work to understand them, and the emotional work to grow from the experience.

Edited by John Back