Here’s something that caught my eye: Researchers at the University of Vermont, in the Computational Story Lab (!), did an interesting word content analysis on 1,700 stories downloaded from Gutenberg. Each story had been downloaded at least 150 times by readers.
The researchers used “sentiment analysis” that measures the positive or negative emotional impact of words. Using a sliding window they attempted to characterize the “emotional arcs” of each story. Their goal was to see if there were common patterns.
Turns out, there are!
We’ve all heard the one about how there are only seven basic stories, but just go ask anyone what they are. One version goes like this:
The individual against:
- him or herself
- another person
- the environment
- the supernatural (ghosts!)
- a higher power
I wonder a bit about against nature versus the environment, but I suppose you could see those differently. I rather like Christopher Booker’s, from The Seven Basic Plots:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Although, again, what’s the real difference between a quest and a voyage and return? It is fun thinking of books and movies and trying to see which slot(s) they fit into. (An exercise for the reader. Literally.)
The emotional arcs the researchers found are not the same thing (at all) at plots. Yet they still found that stories group into six basic types of emotional arc:
- A steady, ongoing rise (e.g. rags-to-riches)
- A steady ongoing fall (e.g. Romeo and Juliet)
- A fall then a rise (e.g. Rocky)
- A rise then a fall (e.g. Greek myth of Icarus)
- Rise-fall-rise (e.g. Cinderella)
- Fall-rise-fall (e.g. Greek myth of Oedipus)
What really interested me is the two which seem to be the most popular emotional arcs, the ones people seem to favor.
They favor stories like Icarus and Oedipus, stories that end with a fall! The most popular of all is a combination of arcs (such as most complex tales are) involving two Rocky arcs, followed by a Cinderella arc, and finally topped off with a Romeo & Juliet arc to close.
In other words, stories that end with a fall.
It suggests that people like seeing their story heroes fall. Which seems weird to me, but perhaps just one more place my value system is outta wack with the default. Or maybe, as the song goes, people are crazy (but beer is good).
I’ve only glanced at their paper, so far, but their methodology seems fairly solid. I’m looking forward to seeing the text explaining this diagram:
Read the original article, Data Mining Novels Reveals the Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling, in the MIT Technology Review.
Read the actual paper, The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes (arXiv:1606.07772), at arXiv.