Narrative Fallacy Is The Reason Films Work

It forms the basic tenet of one of our favourite pastimes

The narrative fallacy is the ability (or lack of ability) of our mind to create cause and effect links where there are none. It is how we have always made delusional stories such as how the stock market went down when Saddam was captured. It is also the basis of more innocent stories like how your friend’s wife may be pregnant because she put on a few pounds. We do not deal well with randomness and hence we want everything to be explained in neatly folded lines.

To read more about the narrative fallacy, read Shane Parrish’s fantastic article.

We are rarely free of narrative fallacies even if we are consciously aware of them. In fact the idea that we can be free of narrative fallacy is more delusional than falling for it occasionally/often.

We fall for narrative fallacies every day. The basic principles on which our movies operate is narrative fallacy. It’s known by the more artful name Kuleshov Effect.

What is the Kuleshov Effect?

Lev Kuleshov was a Russian film theoretician who didn’t have a thing for actors. (He apparently shares a disdain for human inefficiency with Sergey Brin)

Kuleshov proposed that the what makes films work is not acting, but editing.

According to Kuleshov, the meaning/idea conveyed by a scene is derived from the manner in which two frames are combined together, the order of the frames change and the meaning changes along with it.

Alfred Hitchcock illustrates this with a simple 10 second scene, watch it before you read on

The meaning we derive from the scene changes when the frames put together are different. The cause and effect we experience when the old man looks at a woman and child is completely different from that when the old man is looking at a bikini-clad woman. The average movie has 40–60 scenes and thousands of frames. We are fooled by narrative fallacy probably for every second of a movie.

Some movies use this sense-making tendency of our mind as plot devices. Recent example being Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival (spoilers ahead).

Early on in the movie we are shown the death of the protagonist Louis Bank’s young daughter. When the movie picks up after the prologue, we mistake the solemness and quiet nature of Louis Banks to be sadness and possibly depression caused by the loss of her daughter. Only later on do we realise that we are not being shown the events in the chronological order in which they happened. We realise that Louis Banks has the ability to experience time differently.

In that sense the movie Arrival is almost a study in narrative fallacy, and how changing our perception of time and events from a simple cause-effect relationship can help us view life in a new light.

A more comprehensive take on Kuleshov Effect:

NerdWriter’s video essay on Arrival: