Spellbinding Stories: More Psychology Than Art

Rewriting George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel movies reveals the psychology behind why you binge watch and can’t put down a book.

When George Lucas’s Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, it was met with a wildfire of adoration that nobody could have predicted. There was something extraordinary about Luke Skywalker’s epic saga that sparked the public’s imagination–like Breaking Bad does, but in the era of disco and Jimmy Carter. Two equally successful sequels cemented the series’ legacy, and Star Wars has endured in pop culture ever since.

“all of your mental systems are focused on imagining and emotionally responding to the narrative world”

Lucas took a 16-year sci-fi hiatus, but in 1999 he was back with more–a prequel trilogy for his popular franchise. Like the originals, his new films were visually ambitious, and replete with all the classics: lightsabers, starships, and the mysterious ‘Force.’ But something was missing. Though commercially successful, the films were critical flops, and left even a devout fan-base largely unimpressed. What happened?  What about storytelling did Lucas miss the second time around?

Star Wars fans aren’t alone in pondering this. The question of what makes some stories better than others has also caught the attention of psychologists, including Melanie Green, a researcher at the University of North Carolina. And while trying to find an objective, scientific basis behind “good” or “bad” art might be an exercise in futility (“If I had the magic formula, I’d already be much wealthier,” she jokes), Green and her colleagues have started to uncover the next best thing: how and why we become so engrossed in TV, movies and book plots. And wouldn’t you know it, it just might be what critics have been saying all along.

“The original Star Wars was really emotionally and character driven,” says Michael Barryte, an online film reviewer, “but the prequels became more about the spectacle. Most of the attention was put on the CGI and visuals.” Earlier this month, Barryte released the second part of his ongoing YouTube series, “What if Star Wars was good?” which probes exactly what changes could have fixed the disappointing prequels. In his videos, he walks us scene-by-scene through a proposed revision of the movies – one that is, in no uncertain terms, good.

“There’s actually a lot of overlap between the mental systems we used to empathize with others in our actual world”

And with almost a million views in two weeks, Barryte is definitely onto something. As he wraps up his wordy alteration, you find yourself caring more about Obi-Wan, Anakin, and the fate of the Jedi than in any of Lucas’s multi-million dollar attempts. But Green isn’t surprised; as she explains it, Barryte’s tweaks help along a vital process in storytelling. They foment our mental dive into Star Wars’s fictional universe – and even shed a little light on why we enjoy stories so much in the first place.

Touchdown on Tatooine

Any plot junkie knows the feeling of being totally immersed in a story. “It’s like we’ve left our world behind and traveled off to Hogwarts, or wherever the narrative may be,” says Green. This imaginative fixation is referred to by psychologists as narrative transport, and while much about the process still isn’t fully understood, “the idea is that all of your mental systems are focused on imagining and emotionally responding to the narrative world,” Green says.

As a general rule, gripping stories share similar features that increase the immersion of a reader or audience. “Characters are probably the most important aspect,” Green says. Narrative transport, be it in Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, seems to feed off of “characters that people can connect to and relate to, and characters that act in the way we feel people would actually act.” And it’s no coincidence that the portrayal of the characters is exactly what Barryte’s Star Wars revision changes the most.

“My version focuses heavily on the relationships at hand, and tries to strain out some of the overly complicated plot points,” says Barryte. His newest installment reworks Lucas’s second prequel movie, Star Wars Episode II–Attack of the Clones, which was largely criticized for a sprawling plot that never fleshed out its flimsy characters. As Mark Caro, a film critic at the Chicago Tribune, put it in his 2003 review: The film was “big on plot, small on story. A whole lot is going on, yet the central narrative–what there is of it–never grabs our hearts.” But Barryte, in reworking the bond between the film’s two protagonists, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, develops a relationship that (even for a 10 minute YouTube video) is evocative and powerful. It works.

It’s “just part of the human condition”

In Alien Minds

But what exactly is it about characters that pull us into a story’s world so effectively? In a word: empathy. “Getting into a story through someone’s experiences is a big way we approach the narrative world,” Green says. We dedicate all our mental faculties to trying to feel what a character is feeling and empathizing with their hopes and goals. It’s one reason we’re almost always rooting for the main character in a book or on a screen–even if for all intent and purpose they’re the bad guys. “There’s actually a lot of overlap between the mental systems we used to empathize with others in our actual world, and the ways we take the perspective of characters in narratives,” Green says.

In fact, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada who studies our responses to fiction, found in a 2010 study that preschoolers who spent more time with storybooks and films also tended to be more empathetically minded in social tasks. He also notes that empathy forms a feedback loop between the reader or audience and the story. “It helps us understand what the characters in a fiction are thinking and feeling,” he says “And so the more engaged we are in a story world, the more successful we are in understanding those characters and their goals.”

“The settings are alien, but the conflicts aren’t”

Strangely enough, our empathy for characters can be wildly divorced from how we might feel about them in the real world. Modern antiheros, like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, or The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano fall somewhere between devilish and sociopathic. Yet we root for, and in some cases, adore them nonetheless. Green says empathy for an antihero is usually indicative of a skilled storyteller, “Those types of characters tend to be really well developed and interesting, and often, even if they’re not conventionally good, there’s still something about them that we can resonate with.”

It’s curious too, that if so much about how we get sucked into pages and screens has to do with relating with characters, that we find science fiction like Star Wars (a genre defined by its stark differences from the real world), so engrossing. “But for stories like Star Wars,” says Mar, “though they might take place in worlds far from our own, as long as the human psychology and relationships are identifiable, people won’t have any problem becoming transported into that narrative world.”`

Barryte himself admits that one of strongest aspects about the first trilogy of Star Wars films is how universal and relatable the themes are, “The settings are alien, but the conflicts aren’t,” he says. “While everything might be on a very grand scale, the idea of conflict with authority, wanting to be something more than you are, or wanting to explore the world around you, these are all just part of the human condition.” And it’s this spirit that Barryte tries to resuscitate in his rewrite: the strange but comfortable, the alien but relatable. The very combination that keeps us fascinated a story almost four decades later.