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 Up, The 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…