Plato's cave says a lot about the human condition, but how can it inform your writing?
The very idea of philosophy and writing usually drives me a little nuts. I am more of a meat and potatoes writer. I think you get in, write the story, and clock out. I don't like too many fancy things dancing around the main topic.
And yet...I love Plato's Cave.
I think Plato's Cave is one of those things you learn as a college freshman that sticks with you forever. So when this public domain reading of the cave allegory by Orson Welles became available, I knew we had to post it here.
Today, I want to go over the idea of the allegory and dissect how it can help your writing.
So without further ado...Orson Welles...
What is Plato's Cave?
The allegory of the cave, also known as Plato's Cave, is a story in which there are prisoners in a cave. They have been there since they were babies, and know no world outside of being chained inside the cave. They cannot turn their heads, they can only stare at a wall where shadows dance. A fire burns behind them, providing the light for the shadows. Between the fire and the prisoners, there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers use puppets that cast the shadows on the wall of the cave.
No prisoner can see a puppet or puppeteer, only the shadows. And they can only hear the echoes cast by objects that they do not see.
Therefore, the prisoners, with no other knowledge, think the shadows they see are actually reality. But it's not reality, only the appearance of reality.
So if a prisoner talks about a bird or a dog, they are really talking about the shadow and not the actual thing. There's an interesting theory about reality here and how it is based on our perception, and not actually the facts of the real world.
It is not until the prisoners are released where they realize the fallacy of their thoughts and the actuality of the world.
What's the point of the allegory of the cave?
As I mentioned, it has to do with perception versus reality. The prisoners only know the world we present them, and nothing else. The things we show them—books, dogs, cats, ships, or anything—isn't defined by its name, but by how they think it works. Plato claimed that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion and that, in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical reasoning.
What does the cave allegory have to do with movies and television?
When you get an audience in the seats of a theater, or on their couch, or even reading your screenplay, they are prisoners in your cave. Your writing, direction, and storytelling casts the shadows and allows you to change their reality. You can tell a story about a man who can fly or a woman who is half fish and uses a fork as a comb.
Give them the shadows. If they accept your reality they'll enjoy your work. But if you reject it, you're in a lot of trouble.
How does Plato's Cave Help Your Screenwriting?
Aside from the motivation to keep an audience captive for a few hours, you also need to accept that every page you write and character you create is a part of worldbuilding. So when you sit down to engage with your writing, the first thing you should think about is making your idea ironclad. Make the world undeniable.
Think about movies like The Matrix or even The Lord of the Rings, oh, and throw in John Wick for good measure.
Now, it may seem like these films don't have a lot in common, but they do. Each is selling us their cave. In LOTR, we need to believe in a world of magic, a place called Middle Earth where ancient forces have brought together, dwarves, elves, man, hobbits, and wizards to lock in battle.
The Matrix sells us the idea that we are the prisoners in the cave, and when Morpheus turns the shadows off we see machines rule our world.
And John Wick also reveals a little more under the surface, not in the cave but in our understanding of how much punishment one man can take and still survive.
The most important thing you can do is sell a world to the audience that they believe in. See, our audiences have been out in the real world. So we need to make them believe in something more. Something that lets them leave the life outside the cave and spend time with us.
That's what great storytellers do.
Up Next: Write Your Own Masterpiece
Today we're releasing our new step-by-step guide to help you write a screenplay... while you're stuck at home. Did we mention it's 100 pages? And it's absolutely free?