(This is a pair of excerpts from my MFA critical thesis.)

The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I’ve written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.

 JD Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction 

No narrative that tells us the facts of a man’s life in a man’s own words can be uninteresting.

 Mark Twain

The king is dead, so is the queen: Story vs. plot

Some years ago, psychologists framed the levels of social cognition as intentionality. Being aware of your own thoughts constitutes a first order of intentionality. Awareness of someone else’s thoughts constitutes a second order, and this is the baseline for theory of mind. An example of a third order might be, Huntsman suspects (1) that the reader feels (2) that he merely wanted (3) to have the essay wrapped up before skipping town for Vegas. What the orders of intentionality do is allow us, by quantifying the degrees of separation in a given instance of theory of mind, to calculate the level of sophistication inherent in that instance. Within literature, this system of orders is an efficient way to look at theory of mind, and see how it’s vital in granting layers of motivation, and meaning, to a story.

In his excellent book The Human Story, behaviorist Robin Dunbar uses Shakespeare’s Othello to explain the orders of theory of mind:

Iago had to intend (1) that Othello would believe (2) that Desdemona wanted (3) to love another before it was worth his while saying anything at all to the Moor… It was Iago’s instinctive ability to see how Othello would interpret the information about Desdemona’s intentions—and the audience’s ability to foresee the awful inevitability of that interpretation and anticipate its consequences—that makes the play work. Had Iago not been able to engage in these mental gymnastics, he would not have been able to feed Othello a bunch of lies. Othello would have remained in sublime ignorance of Desdemona’s presumed behaviour and he would never have killed her; nor, in his anguish at realizing how he had misread the situation, would he have gone on to kill himself. In which case, the story would have lost most of its emotional force. Without third order intentionality, Iago could not have done what he did. Without fourth order intentionality, we the audience would not have been able to figure out the big story line. And without fifth order, Shakespeare could not have put the whole thing together and manipulated our minds the way he so miraculously intended to do.

Translation: without theory of mind—indeed, without higher orders of it—literature would be impossible. And also it probably wouldn’t be worth trying to have a deep conversation with anyone.

So how far can the human mind go—how many orders of intentionality can we keep track of? Six, at most. Five is a not inconsiderable feat—in a Dunbar study, participants were read a sequence of events, and were found capable of reciting back generally four and no more than six layers of intentionality. These same participants, however, could recount nine to eleven layers of linear action, eg, Phil woke (1) up and then fed (2) the dog but the dog ran (3) away and so Phil went (4) to the store and bought (5) food for breakfast, which he then cooked (6) and then ate (7). Humans have a generally astute memory for linear events; meanwhile, we top out at six orders of intentionality, absolutely. And if you can get to five, you’re doing good work. 

The linked sequence of events involving Phil, his dog, and his breakfast is a decent example of what, in his seminal book Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster defines as a story. He writes, “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died; and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” We use story to describe a number of things, so it’s useful to have Forster’s definition offer such tight parameters. The magic of his differentiation, however, comes to two small words: of grief. Those are all that’s needed to grant a psychological insight to the queen, and suddenly our ears have perked: she loved him; she loved him so much it killed her, how tragic. Forster’s definition of plot, then, can be described as a story wherein action is motivated by intention.

For a work of fiction to be truly moving, it must hold a narrative that has complex levels of psychological motivation within it. Theory of mind is what we want to read, and we want to watch it progress. We want to see characters’ theories of mind changing over time.  

Ivan killing his son: Theory of mind cuts both ways

So on the one hand: The king died then the queen died: Okay, sure, that’s a story’s worth of action. But …

The king died; and then the queen died of grief.… Oh, did she? How awful. Tell me everything.

Theory of mind is the connective tissue, and not merely in terms of providing (according to evolutionary theory) the neural framework that allows humans to think abstractly. It also allows us, as readers, to maintain emotional connection with a story or narrative. It doesn’t offer higher meaning on a plate, but it does what must precede that: it makes us care what happens to the characters. And it’s around that insight and empathy that greater meaning can take hold and begin to resonate with a given reader.

Or a given viewer. Because a common point of experience is worth pages and pages of anecdotal analogy from me, here’s an image of Ivan the terrible and his son Ivan, by Ilya Repin, a Russian realist painter. If you can, spare a moment for it before my words come back in and crowd the field.

This work is more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible killing his son, and, indeed, that’s what happened. His son’s bride-to-be became pregnant, and Ivan ordered a brutal abortion. Ivan Jr. came to see him, enraged. Ivan the Terrible lived up to his name, grabbed a curtain rod and struck his son in the head. Game over. 

Everything in the painting flows to those eyes, that partly concealed face. We don’t even see his mouth, and we needn’t: his eyes, brow, dented cheeks, and even his hands offer a traitor’s condolence. We look at it and are able to jump right into a terrible storm of emotion, exquisitely rendered by Repin, and translated by us in a blink, thanks to our minds’ ability to instantly extract a layered impression of a foreign human mind from a brilliant collage of discreet details. It’s been one of my favorite paintings for years and years and I still can’t just glance at it—the sheer terrible emotion still grabs me by the collar and won’t let go.

When you’re with a family member or friend, most often, even if they don’t speak to the particulars of their mood, they may as well have—you know how to read them. But here’s the thing: it needn’t be someone close to you, or someone you know at all. It may be a stranger. It may be that you just catch a glimpse of the face of a murderous king and find yourself transfixed by the emotions you’re watching collapse in on him. (Or, if you happen to be Ilya Repin, you allow viewers to have this experience via the masterpiece you paint almost exactly 300 years after the fact.) 

From a narrative POV—that is to say, what I might call story POV but Forster might call plot POV—theory of mind cuts both ways. Sure, it’s excellent for helping you unpack the layers of a story and the authorial intent behind it. But it’s also downright useful when it comes to constructing a layered story: it’s a framework for thinking about not only how your characters’ minds change with respect to each other, but also the reader’s mind (and what they can discern of the author’s).  

If for some unholy reason you want to, you can read the whole thing here …