Analyzing fiction, in my experience, can be boiled down to two simple questions:

Why did they do it THIS way?

Why didn’t they do it THAT way?

As viewers/readers, we often take for granted how a scene is presented to us.  We rarely consider the near infinite options that were available to the writer at the time of the story’s inception.  He or she might have chosen any one of those other options, and the iconic scene we know and love might have ended up in a completely different and unrecognizable form.

These two questions are best used by paring down an iconic scene to a simpler, more barebones form.
The example we’ll be dealing with today is one of the most classic scenes from the Matrix:


Simple question:

Why pills?

Morpheus’s exchange with Neo could have just as easily happened without the pills.  Morpheus sits Neo down and tells him, “Now you must choose: wake up or stay in Wonderland and see how far the rabbit hole goes?”  No pills.  Same discussion.  Same choice.

So why the pills?

If you’re thinking about the blue pill’s amnesiatic effects, you’re missing the greater purpose the pills served.  Here’s the principle:

The key to conveying complex emotions is concretization.

Holding a complex idea in our heads securely enough that we can start connecting to it emotionally is just plain difficult.  We spend so much energy keeping the idea straight in our minds that it distracts us from what’s supposed to be evoking emotions.

But if you say to me, “See that broad, multifaceted, abstract concept?  That will be represented by this physical object,” then what you end up with is, for example:

The One Ring.  (A physical object representing complex ideas of human corruption.)


Or the American Flag.  (Representation of the ideals of freedom and justice that the United States was founded upon.)


Or a wedding ring.  (A relationship that has lasted years, a shared emotional bond, promises to one another.)


The more concretely you represent an idea, the stronger we can relate to it emotionally.  If it’s abstract, make it physical:


If it’s a broad, complex concept, make it tiny:


If it’s a life decision that would, in the real world, be made over the course of a long time after careful consideration, concentrate it by condensing it into a single moment:


You could make an entire feature length film about the decision of whether to stay in the matrix or escape.  But by concentrating this concept into the most four-dimensionally condensed form possible, instead of an overwhelmingly enormous, sparse super red giant, we get an ultra-dense, ultra-powerful singularity of emotional content.

Everything we’ve experienced is contained in just these two pills.

This method of concretization is effective in conveying complex concepts in an emotionally powerful way, but the downside is that details and nuance can be lost.  With stories that deal with themes so subtle or complex that condensing would obscure the meaning–East of Eden being a fantastic example–this method should still be employed, but only once the slow journey to convey a full and nuanced understanding is complete.


I thought this would be a good small idea to demonstrate a simple methodology of fiction analysis.  I love asking questions like these about all my favorite scenes and seeing what I can learn.

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  1. JP says:

    I was thinking of other ways The Matrix could present that scene. Maybe there could be two buttons for him to press? How about two pieces of paper, one of which he has to sign. Or perhaps a cliche: two doors for him to choose from. I think the screenwriters chose the pills because it is analogous to someone trying a powerful drug for the first time and carries with that aura of: “Take this and you will never be the same.” That’s my theory about why it has so much emotional appeal. I feel it’s not so much the concretization itself as rather choosing items/themes that already carry a lot of “baggage”.

    With regards to books, I have a possibly irrational objection to the necessity of concretization for complex emotions but I’ll have to think about it more to formalize my thoughts.

    • Schnee says:

      Interesting theory! Definitely holds water, especially due to the counterculture mood of the characters outside the Matrix. I think there’s also something to putting something into your body that makes a decision like that feel really intense and almost scary. Great insight!

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