How many different types of stories do you think there are?

We aren’t talking about genres of stories but rather the emotional arc of a story that forms its backbone.

A quick and dirty example of this is Cinderella which employs the rise-fall-rise arc. Author Kurt Vonnegut explains the idea of emotional arcs in the video below.

Determining exactly how many of these different arcs there are however, has eluded authors and scientists for centuries. But not any more.

At the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, Andrew Reagan and his team have analysed more than 1 700 stories and their emotional progression to put the question Aristotle asked, to bed.

“We find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives,” the team said.

Before this study, it was widely believed that story-telling was based on seven basic plots. These were outlined by Christopher Booker in the book, The Seven Basic Plots.

Booker’s seven plots include: Overcoming the Monster (The Hunger Games), Rags to Riches (Aladdin), The Quest (Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (The Time Machine), Comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tragedy (Romeo and Juliet), and Rebirth (A Christmas Carol)

By analysing how the emotional arc changes, and then using multiple data mining and analysis methods, Reagan’s team started to notice six, not seven arcs that were used in every one of the stories they looked at.

How they did it

The team used “word windows”, which they moved through the text to measure how the emotional tone of a story changed. This was done to 1 700 stories which had been downloaded more than 150 times from Project Gutenberg.

After mining through the data, the team found that there were six different emotional arcs that stories followed:

  • Steady rise
  • Steady fall
  • Fall then rise
  • Rise then fall
  • Rise fall rise
  • Fall rise fall

What this tells us

After discovering these six arcs, the team went back to stories to find which were the most popular. By studying the amount of times stories had been downloaded the team discovered that humans quite enjoy a sad story.

The most popular stories use the “rise then fall” and “fall, rise, fall” arcs.

This study does have its short comings though. For one, it doesn’t address the emotional arcs within paragraphs. It also doesn’t account for complex stories which may follow multiple instances of the six Reagan’s team found, or even more complex ones.

With that having been said, it’s an interesting study that uses modern day data mining to answer a question that writers have been plagued with for centuries.

So, who’s telling Aristotle?

[Via – Technology Review] [Image – CC BY 2.0 Tim Green]