Scientific Storytelling?


I recently came across an article last week discussing the recent paper The Emotional Arcs of Stories are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes.  Using over 1700 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg, a group of data scientists determined that the narrative arcs of novels can be grouped into a few basic forms.  For example…

  • “Rags to Riches” — go from unhappy to hapy
  • “Tragedy” — go from happy to unhappy
  • “Man in the Hole” — go from happy to unhappy and back to happy again
  • “Icarus” — go from unhappy to happy and back to unhappy
  • “Cinderella” — unhappy to happy to unhappy to happy
  • “Oedipus” — happy to unhappy to happy to unhappy

“Happy” vs “Unhappy” was determined by cutting out a fragment of the book (a window containing some number of words) and running it through the hilariously-named “Hedometer” to analyze those words for, I suppose, how happy they are.  The team ended up finding decent correlation between the above-mentioned arcs and the books they downloaded (which included classics such as Romeo and Juliet and  Alice’s Adventures Underground.  They then compared these narrative arcs against number of downloads, suggesting that the “Cinderella,” “Oedipus,” “Man in the Hole,” and “Icarus” arcs were most popular.

The article I read and the research paper mentioned a YouTube video of Kurt Vonnegut where he discussed qualitatively and humorously the same thing.  Amazingly, in 1995, based on his own reading and study, Vonnegut also determined that the “Cinderella” story arc was the most popular.

I’ve even seen this in real life.  Some of the biggest reactions I’ve seen at the handful of Moth storyslams I’ve gone to come from Cinderella arcs, if I remember correctly.

I think this is really cool, and not just for the esoteric understanding of narrative arcs.  As readers of this blog may note, I’ve been down-in-the-dumps with my storytelling abilities.  I wonder, then, what narrative arc shapes do my stories take?  Do my stories fall in line with the Cinderella or Oedipus arc shapes?  Or do my stories take some different form, one that’s not popular.  Or even worse, are they formless; do they dwell at one emotional level for the entire six or eight minutes?

I have a few recordings on my new website of stories I’ve told for Speak UpThe MoUth, and Vally Voices.  It’s be cool to try to run these stories through the Hedometer and see what kind of narrative arc(s) they have.

Now, part of me wants to run the analysis myself, but I wonder if I could get the paper authors to do it for me???  Stay tuned…


Keep Listening

Earlier this evening, I checked out Julia Pistell’s “Syllable: The Reading Series” for the first time.  It’s a monthly get-together for writers to read their work.  My thing is not on the written page, but I really enjoyed going.

For one thing, the chairs are far more comfortable than at storytelling shows, and there was some sort of free drink involved (which will not be mentioned further, but appreciated nonetheless).  And it was great to listen to other people share their work.  I’m finding myself listening more and more again, which makes me happy.  I read somewhere recently that when storytellers hit their wall, they stop listening to other people’s stories (no, not that Other People’s Stories in particular!).  Frequent readers of this infrequent blog will note that my crabby self was hitting my own wall earlier this year, and I can relate.  Who wants to be reminded of how much better than you everyone else is, amiright?  Well, I’m coming out of that funk, and enjoying listening to other people that I can aspire to be as good as.

Speaking of which, I’ve recently expanded my podcast listening.  Have you heard of Radio Diaries or RISK?  Well, now you have.  Go check them out!



The Lesson I Keep On Learning

IMG_2024Shown on the left is my third place trophy from tonight’s Toastmasters District 53, Division E humorous speech contest.

Third. Place.

I so wanted to win this one.  I daydreamed about it.  I Googled the names of my competitors (one of them is a motivational speaker).  I went out and bought clothes for it.  I psyched myself up for it.

What I didn’t do was actually practice for it.

I got so nervous the day off that I rushed through my story, shaving a full minute off my time.  I didn’t give the audience the time to react.  I wasn’t polished like the guy who got first place.  I spent more time figuring out my outfit than figuring out my story.

I learned this lesson many times already.  I learned it at The Moth three times in the last year.  I learned it at Valley Voices.  Matt Dicks writes every morning.  Elna Baker writes every day.  If you want to be good, you’ve got to put in the hours.  All the good storytellers do.  And I want to be good.

So, I’m challenging myself here and now, if front of the two or three people who read these posts.  I’m going to write every day.  It’s going to be hard to do this, but I’m going to do this.  It’ll be a better use of my time than watching episodes of Victory at Sea.  Stay tuned, dear reader(s).  Stay tuned.

Victory at Sea is the bomb, though…

Bring it On with an Ah Counter

I’m taking a vacation day today, trying to burn down the nine days I have left.  Ugh, this is the crime of the modern American workplace.  Three weeks becomes too much to take in a year.

At least I’m trying to spend it writing — actually trying to prepare for this evening’s speech contest with my Toastmasters club.  I figure I’m at an advantage with my storytelling experience, but looking at my list of stories, I only have one story with two funny checkmarks on my patent-pending “Funny Scale.”

Photo on 10-1-15 at 11.43 AM

Shown:  Not much funny

I’ll go with “The Letter” story, which I think is the strongest one anyway.  I just have to actually sit down now and add 20% more funny.  Stay tuned…

Lunar Eclipse, Schmunar Scheclipse

As I type this, I am purposely not going out side to see the OMGWTFSUPERBLOODMOONLUNARECLIPSEANDSTUFF.  I’m not gathering with friends.  I’m not making hot cocoa for the frigid 70 degree weather.  I am not taking a picture of it with my cell phone (pro tip:  the moon is a sunlit object.  Photograph accordingly).

When I was a boy, the family would go to MacLaren Field (or Loring Road, as we called it then) for Little League games all summer long.  One warm night, I saw my first red-moon eclipse.  The moon was full and low in the sky, so it had that illusion of appearing to be much bigger than it is.  To my, I don’t know, ten? year old self, I couldn’t figure out why the moon turned red-orange.  It was so not normal, and I knew that, considering all the hours I spent looking at the moon (including one very bad idea of looking at the full moon through a telescope — never do that!!!).

I asked my parents, pointed it out to other kids.  No one cared.  No one knew, other than guessing that the air was dusty.  These were the days before social media, when computers were only good for storing dinner recipes.  We were all ignorant back then, and I was left to wonder alone what the heck was going on.

I know about lunar eclipses nowadays, and seeing one now just wouldn’t be the same.

By all means, take your selfies with the moon.  Try to adjust your ISO accordingly though, eh?

The Ira Glass Rule

20150917_192833The picture to the left is not as voyeuristic as it might appear — I was standing in the back of the standing room only launch party for Matt Dick’s new book The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.  Matt elected to forgo reading from his book in favor of telling us stories about becoming a writer.

In one story from his past, Matt lamented writing fiction that was worse than that of Dean Koontz.  For those not familiar with the poor man’s Stephen King, let me tell you that that is a bad place to be.  Matt was so discouraged that he stopped writing, until a group of AD&D playing friends begged him to author up some adventures for them.  Having a small but hungry audience for his work got Matt back his confidence in writing.  He started his first novel sometime soon after, if I remember right.

That story really struck me, because I had pretty much given up on storytelling this year.  A combination of running out of new material and not doing as well as I had hoped for at The Moth storyslams was like a one-two punch to my self confidence.  Matt’s story gave me hope in that 1) Matt also had a time when he stepped away from writing, and 2) even a writer like Matt starts out writing like a bad Dean Koontz.  Maybe all I have to do is to write and perform stories again to get through this.

This reminds me of what I call The Ira Glass Rule.  My friend Jen reminded me of this on our Yellowstone trip last week.  Apparently whenever Ira talks to aspiring radio producers he describes how he absolutely sucked as a writer/reporter/producer during his first years at NPR, and how only after working at his craft for years was he able to be successful.  In the beginning, he says, our ability in the craft falls far short of our taste and aspirations.  Most people see this huge gap and quit.  However, if you keep at it, you’ll eventually (over years) close that gap.  You can see it here.

And so, as Ira Glass says, I’ll keep working.  Tonight, I wrote up a proposal to host a one-off open mic event at Sarah’s Coffee House in Hartford.  On Tuesday, I’ll get in touch with The Hartford Public Library to set up a number of open mic nights for the next few months.  Later on tonight, I’m going to send a pitch to This American Life.  Hopefully if I can get up early-enough tomorrow, I’ll start rehearsing a story for a Toastmasters speech contest in a week and a half.  Let’s hope I keep this up!

These Ideas are so Cash : Movie Edition

(Photo credit: Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team)

I recently arrived home after a barbecue with some coworkers, and I must write down some really awesome movie ideas.

Now, sometimes, when I get together with friends, I’ll get a bit animated over some weird idea.  By “animated,” I mean people start thinking I’m drunk, and by “idea,” I mean of the hair-brained kind.  Nevertheless, I think my new head writer Christiana and I have come up with lightning in a bottle.  The least I can do is write them all out before I forget about them all.  Strike whilst the iron’s hot, and all that…

11145061_10207314003228825_3789970680277732977_nCute-cano or Cutecano (mashup of cute and volcano) A baby animal hospital, located on top of a mountain, is threatened by a volcanic eruption.  A shy veterinarian and an outsider mountaineer fight certain death to save the infirmed baby animals, falling in unlikely love in the process.  Tag Line:  Get away from that lava right meow!

The Collapsing Corn Terrorists open up a slowly growing, massive sinkhole in the middle of Iowa during the presidential campaign season.  One of the sinkhole’s first victims is a lovable old farmer.  The farmer’s daughter teams up with a dashing FBI agent to solve the mystery of the sinkhole and save America.  Tag Line:  The election cycle is about to go off the deep end

Raptor Jam Scientists cloning dinosaurs in a top-secret facility lose control of their massive beasts, and a pack of velociraptors escape towards a freeway during rush hour.  A sassy taxi driver and mild-mannered scientist team up to race through traffic to disintegrate the ferocious dinosaurs, all the while being hunted by a secretive government agency intent on saving the raptors for using in the War on Terror.  Tag Line: This traffic snarl carries a huge bite!

Dino Death Match A rookie policewoman and a jaded police detective are detailed to investigate what appears to be a dog-fighting ring, only to discover that the “dogs” are actually cloned dinosaurs!  The pair must find a way past their personal differences to break up this terrifying enterprise and bring a cabal of insane scientists to justice, all while avoiding getting eaten by the dangerous giant lizards.  Tag Line: All bets are off on who will survive this bout!

In the Pits Exploring the world of forbidden love in the world of sprint car racing, a rookie sprint car racer on a losing streak gets lessons in racing and passion from a grizzled, washed-up racer-turned-mechanic.  All is on the line when their world gets shattered during the season finals when the other drivers find out what they’ve been up to.  Tag Line: The thrill of the sprint, the blood on asphalt.

There was also talk on “Dinocane,” where a hurricane picks up cloned dinosaurs as it moves through Florida, but that’s too much like Sharknado, I think….