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Teleological Storytelling

Like most people, I enjoy watching movies. But I also get really annoyed at poor screen writing. It’s remarkable how many movies there are that have great acting & cinematography, but are completely ruined by a few words on paper.

There’s one particular kind of bad screen writing I see a lot, which I call “teleological” storytelling.

The term “teleology” refers to the tendency to explain phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than by the cause by which they arise. For example, Aristotle believed that the purpose of an acorn was to become a fully-grown oak tree. Explanations like these are controversial in science, because while it is tempting to “explain” mechanisms such as biological evolution in terms of the usefulness of the end result, such explanations are highly misleading.

A teleological story, therefore, is one in which the events of the story and the behavior of the characters are driven, not by intrinsic human motivations and natural causes, but by the need to follow the plot. In stories like these, characters will act in ways that make no sense, but are necessary in order to move the plot forward in the way that the writer wants. Such stories often hinge on chains of highly unlikely coincidences. Characters will simply show up at the right place and time with no explanation of how or why they got there.

Unlike real life events, the author is not constrained by linear time — they can perceive both the beginning and the end of the story as they are creating it. Often an author will conceive of a story as sequence of important or dramatic moments. The problem is what to do between the beats — how to create the connective tissue that binds one dramatic incident to the next. How to get the characters from point A to point B, from the love scene to the car chase, followed by the grand reveal.

The problem is that the audience does not have this perspective. They experience the story linearly in sequence, with little or no foreknowledge of what is to happen (foreshadowing aside). They expect that each step in the sequence follows logically from what came before; to violate this expectation is deeply unsatisfying to the person experiencing the story.

Teleological storytelling can happen when an author gets too attached to a particular plot — they have a sequence of moments that they really like, but only the flimsiest excuses connecting them together. And the author may not be aware of this weakness in their story because they are so focused on the highlight moments and not what is between them.

There’s a related phenomena which I call the “Frankenplot” — this is a plot that is stitched together out of individual parts or segments, where the segments are coherent and well-written but the connections between them are not. So you’ll see a fight scene which is fairly well done, followed by a chase scene — but the transition between them is clumsy and incoherent. It almost feels like the script is being held together with duct tape and zip ties.

I’m not a mad scientist. I’m a mad natural philosopher.