Ends With A Fall

typewriterHere’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:

  1. him or herself
  2. nature
  3. another person
  4. the environment
  5. technology
  6. the supernatural (ghosts!)
  7. 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:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

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:

  1. A steady, ongoing rise (e.g. rags-to-riches)
  2. A steady ongoing fall (e.g. Romeo and Juliet)
  3. A fall then a rise (e.g. Rocky)
  4. A rise then a fall (e.g. Greek myth of Icarus)
  5. Rise-fall-rise (e.g. Cinderella)
  6. 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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

26 responses to “Ends With A Fall

  • Steve Morris

    I find this hard to swallow. Name some big blockbuster stories and they all seem to end on a high (the Ring is destroyed; Voldemort is defeated; the Death Star is destroyed; Muad’Dib vanquishes his enemies), but perhaps people enjoy a bitter-sweet epilogue to give their emotional high that final tweak (Frodo and the Elves leave Middle Earth, etc.)?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      As the study authors point out, most stories are more complex and consist of multiple arcs. As you suggest, those stories don’t actually end with the destruction of the ring (recall Frodo’s return home, let alone the departure!), the end of Voldemort or the Death Star, and, as you know, Maud’Dib’s story has a lot of rise and fall. Does it end with him being stabbed to death?

      And as you say in your second comment…

  • Steve Morris

    Actually, I wonder if this tendency towards a fall is due to the inclusion of ancient texts such as Icarus and Oedipus. It always seems to me that Ancient writings did not include the concept of good/evil as we know it. They had a more stoical and open outlook on life and its challenges.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      …it’s possible the use of older public domain texts skews the results. I’d been wondering about that, myself. Many of the texts they used, I’ve never heard of. And they actually set up a fairly specific selection window — only stories of a certain length and popularity (based on # of downloads). And, of course, public domain, which has got to skew the sample towards older texts.

      I think evil and good might be a separate vector here from emotional arcs. The latter are based strictly on assigned positive and negative weights to words — essentially (as I gather) whether the characters or situation is a bummer or happy.

      Probably best not to take it too seriously… I think these might be basic trends or currents or what have you, but individual stories might be hard to sort into one thing or another. Lots of stories combine basic plots; no doubt they also combine — superimpose — emotional arcs.

      (I’d need to read the study in greater detail, but I’m a bit curious about how strong the signal they found is compared to the background noise. They did analyze “word salad” texts and found them without a strong signal, and my general sense is that the signal they found is pretty strong.)

  • Lisa

    How does this compare to the Hero with a Thousand Faces? It’s been a long time since I read that but I’d be interested to hear how that book would integrate with the above theories.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t know the book, you tell me! (And see my reply to Steve about how lots of stories are complex and may not fit this simple analysis. In fact, the graphic of the Harry Potter novel, Deathly Hollows, shows lots of arcs!)

      It does make an interesting idea to try to apply to stories you’ve read!

  • rung2diotimasladder

    On the individual against nature vs. the environment, I read the latter as any sort of cultural environment. For example, in my novel there’s an environment of political correctness taken to a truth-abolishing extreme on a small college campus.

    On the quest vs. voyage and return, I read that as quest = internal journey (which may or may not involve leaving home…maybe the story is about internet dating) and the latter as, well, you know.

    I love the emotional arcs! I’ve done “tension” arcs for my writing group, which seems to be easier to think about than whether or not the plot is following the usual rises and falls.

    I wonder if ending with a fall plays into our preference for realism? And maybe the fall is really more of a bittersweet ending? A lesson?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      That’s kind of what I thought about ‘environment’ — political or social environment, for example. I’m still not sure those aren’t both ‘against faceless forces’ of whatever kind. Likewise, thematically, a voyage is a voyage, whether internal or external. To the extent a journey is different, it seems to fall under ‘against nature’ or other large forces…

      (I suppose that’s why it’s so hard to get anyone to tell you what the “seven basic plots” are — no one really agrees!)

      Cynically, ending with a fall might come from that same source that likes seeing famous public figures fall. A sense of leveling? Or maybe we do just like the bittersweet. Seems like those stories have the most sticking power.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        The seven basic plots idea seems a bit too architectonic to be taken seriously. I say there’s only one basic plot: Something bad happens and then it gets resolved in some fashion. 😉

        Really, I was looking at those and thinking they could be collapsed into “basic-er” plots myself, maybe with subcategories.

        I like bittersweet endings, generally speaking. Fairy-tale endings are ubiquitous in romantic comedies, and they almost always leave me feeling incredulous and mad at myself for having wasted my time. On the other hand, I don’t like gratuitously dark stories either. I think reality is mixed, and so it’s nice when the story reflects that in a meaningful way. (And being fiction, realism means something a little different from reality-realism. Otherwise known as really real realism, which would involve a lot of tooth-brushing and discussions about grocery lists.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! Or maybe two plots: tragedy and comedy. Something happens; hilarity ensues. Something happens; everyone dies.

        There is a distinction between plot and theme. (And emotional arc.) These reductive “plots” are more themes, to me. Either way, they also overlap. A Christmas Carol, for one example, is ‘individual against himself’ plus ‘the supernatural’ per the first list. On the second, it would be ‘rebirth’ with a dash of ‘overcoming the monster’ (himself), several ‘voyage and return’s and a slight ‘comedy’ slant.

        Or something bad happens and then it gets resolved in some fashion. 🙂

        “I think reality is mixed, and so it’s nice when the story reflects that in a meaningful way.”

        Yeah, agreed! The best stories are a mix of drama and comedy. And the blend can be biased either way: comedies with dramatic moments, or dramas with funny bits. (For my money, the best comedy is situational. I’m not big on gag-oriented comedy. Or slapstick. Conversely, also not into lurid or melodrama on the dramatic side.)

        It strikes me that our love of reality shows seems to speak to our attraction to a fall. And I think there’s a discussion to be had about whether ‘winning with great cost’ represents a rise or fall (I’m kinda leaning fall).

        Or ‘winning in a way that changes everything’ (e.g. end of Matrix). In a sense you can cast that as the First Fall, the fall from innocent paradise. (Which kind of makes Morpheus the snake to Neo’s Eve.)

        I think there may be a difference between a tragic ending and a fall. That may change how some books appear at first glace.

        Scrooge, on the other hand, clearly a rebirth and rise, but preceded with a 1-2-3 punch fall. And the story implies a fall throughout his life that brought him to the Scrooge state.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        “There is a distinction between plot and theme. (And emotional arc.) These reductive “plots” are more themes, to me.”

        I agree. And there is some overlap, sure, but if you’re gonna make a reductive list of basic plots, you’d better be talking about plot!

        Totally with you on slapstick and such. Speaking of, have you seen America’s Funniest Home Videos? It’s horrible. Basically the crudest form of slapstick, except people look like they’re actually getting hurt.

        On winning with great cost, I see that as realism, a mix. Bittersweet. But of course you can color the ending either way.

        I never could finish The Matrix. Keanu Reeves gets on my nerves. I didn’t get what the big deal was about or what was so philosophical about the movie. But then again, I never finished it!

        The wonderful thing about the Scrooge state is the implication that something happened to him throughout life that made him the way he is. Nothing needs to be played out or shown, but we know. In my own writing, I love playing with off-page implications.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah. “Romance” is a theme; “boy-meets-girl” is a plot.

        Thing is, it seems harder to be reductive with plots, there are so many ways to move characters around the board. Boiling down themes seems easier. With plots, as you originally suggested, you seem to end up with: something happened; people react.

        “Speaking of, have you seen America’s Funniest Home Videos?”

        I’m familiar with it, seen it channel surfing, but I don’t watch it. I agree that it’s horrible. And voyeuristic, which I really abhor. A lot of “Reality TV” — which that is a form of — is pure voyeurism.

        And to the point of the post, seems oriented in seeing the falls of others. The ever popular ‘shot in the nuts’ type videos, for instance. Or the oh-so-well-named “Jackass” videos.

        “I never could finish The Matrix. Keanu Reeves gets on my nerves.”

        Heh! He’s kind of an oddball, but that oddness seems to fit certain roles (he’s been, to my mind, pretty awful in others). I liked him in Speed, for instance. And The Matrix.

        He was also well-cast in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, although I didn’t care for the movie as a remake of one of the great classic SF films. As an SF movie, it was okay, but in comparison it suffers much. (And there’s something about Jennifer Connelly I don’t care for. No idea what it is.)

        The first film did create a minor philosophical buzz, but I’d agree it was more smoke than fire (there was even a Philosophy of The Matrix website). It’s just the brain-in-a-jar discussion reified as a pretty decent movie.

        The second and third films suffered from too much money. They were more spectacle and action. A lot of folks loved (or at least really liked) the first one but not so much the sequels.

        “Nothing needs to be played out or shown [about Scrooge’s back story]”

        I’m not sure I’d agree in that particular case. The journey the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him on shows us his fall down to Scrooge. There are also some clues in the overheard dialog during the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

        But to the larger point, totally. SF writer Roger Zelazny once said that he writes scenes with no intention of using them directly. But his characters may refer in passing to events from those scenes.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Brain in a jar…yep, that’s it for the Matrix as far as I could tell. I’m not much of a brain in the jar fan, but some people love that stuff.

        So true about Scrooge and the past! I don’t know what I was thinking. There he gets to see himself as he once was, and so do we.

        On leaving things off page, I do the same thing as Zelazny. I often write long scenes just to get a sense of the character. I used this journal called “The Imaginary World of…” to work on a particular character. None of that will go into the novel directly, but little details worm their way in.

        In my writing group, I submitted a chapter from a character’s POV whom I’d never intended to use in my novel, just to see if they thought her character cohered. They unanimously thought it should go in the novel. So there’s the danger in doing that. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I’m not much of a brain in the jar fan, but some people love that stuff.”

        Don’t love it because?

        For some people it must be a new idea and kinda cool. Randall Monroe, who draws the most excellent xkcd comic, has a great comic for this: Ten Thousand.

        I’ve been trying to keep that principle in mind with regard to movies and, especially, TV shows. Extra especially science fiction. So much of what I’m seeing these days seems so derivative to me. I frequently have a strong sense of “seen it!” And it almost bums me out the way I can see plot points coming.

        But it all surely must be new to younger folks who haven’t spent a lifetime watching TV and reading science fiction. (There is perhaps something special about having been there to read so many original works. There is still original work being done in literary SF, but so much of the field is now plowed ground.)

        “They unanimously thought it should go in the novel. So there’s the danger in doing that.”

        Only if you let other people tell you what to do! XD

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I guess the brain the the jar stuff is just boring to me at this point, although I suppose it could be interesting if the story is well done. But if the big point is the brain in the jar (rather than the premise) I might find myself rolling my eyes.

        But you’re right. I know a lot of people haven’t thought about it much, and for them it’s pretty revealing. I submitted something to my writer’s group recently which dealt with philosophy more directly than they’re used to. I thought it was as breezy and Philo 101 as could be, but they didn’t. (Which is why I love having them read my work!) I found their critiques really helpful. I’ve gotten so used to my blogging friends that I sometimes forget that you all are especially philosophical for people who haven’t studied philosophy officially.

        As far as letting them tell me what to do…I don’t. But they’re pretty damned good at picking up on things that ring true to me. That character’s POV is going in now mostly because I think it adds a lot to the plot (but I’m keeping those chapters short…her voice is pretty irritating.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s funny how many people I know who are into both Science Fiction and Philosophy. There is definitely a connection. Good SF often has a philosophical element. And I don’t mean that the way many people mean “philosophical” — i.e. “point of view” (e.g. “my philosophy in life is to avoid white sugar” — very nice idea; not a philosophy).

        Science fiction can use alternate realities to explore philosophical points. (Or, in the case of The Matrix, at least reference them.)

        I’ve been reading a bit of Greg Egan lately, and much of his work is post-human. A key assumption of his is that the human mind is just software, and in his books, entire societies live inside computers. (In one of them, it’s only the weirdos, called “fleshers”, who insist on running around is flesh bodies. Ew, gross!) His work takes brain in a jar issues much deeper. It examines, through plot, the lack of real difference between the “real” world (are we even sure it is?) and a virtual one.

  • ~ Sadie ~

    Very interesting & informative read, WS – enjoyed it 🙂 When fiction writing, I have to admit, I don’t think about those “defined” basics, rules, processes – I just write the story in my head, attempting to get it all out on paper (digital format, whatever). If I was trying to do all that analysis as I wrote, not sure I’d get anything written – I’m struggling with the creative and motivated sides lately as it is 😉 I did love the analysis part when I was in college, though!!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Glad you liked it. Analysis is a funny thing, and there’s a parallel with baseball…

      Analytic stats are outstanding at describing what went on, both in baseball and in writing. Analysis of existing things often reveals all sorts of riches.

      But in baseball, much emphasis is placed on predictive stats, which seek to guess the future based on past performance. They’re often right, but also often very wrong. Prediction is hard! (Which is why life is so interesting.)

      Likewise, using the results of analysis to predict or create art often fails (but sometimes works out okay). Art is always as much a matter of heart and raw talent as it is learned skill and technique. Not that the latter aren’t important, skilled artists are usually better than unskilled ones, but without the former there often isn’t much there at all.

      I suspect one learns more from reading lots and lots of books than from any number of writing classes. The best way, of course, is to write. A lot. Really a lot. The only AI that’s really worth a crap so far is “deep learning” which trains an AI on massive amounts of experience… just like a human.

      You know the old joke about the way to Carnegie Hall, right? XD

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