I missed this article from The Atlantic when it came out almost a year ago and only recently came across it. A group of researchers have used artificial intelligence software to determine the main arcs found in storytelling. Kurt Vonnegut famously lectured on this topic, mapping the story chronology on one axis and the experience of the protagonist on the other. This method can be employed to show the essential “shapes” of stories and compare them to one another.
Vonnegut had mapped stories by hand, but in 2016, with sophisticated computing power, natural language processing, and reams of digitized text, it’s possible to map the narrative patterns in a huge corpus of literature. It’s also possible to ask a computer to identify the shapes of stories for you.
That’s what a group of researchers, from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide, set out to do. They collected computer-generated story arcs for nearly 2,000 works of fiction, classifying each into one of six core types of narratives (based on what happens to the protagonist):
1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
Their focus was on the emotional trajectory of a story, not merely its plot. They also analyzed which emotional structure writers used most, and how that contrasted with the ones readers liked best, then published a preprint paper of their findings on the scholarship website arXiv.org. More on that in a minute.
This is a fascinating area of research that may someday lead to computer-generated or at least computer-assisted fiction writing. For example, I can imagine a “shape tool” for writing that would take a story in progress and analyze it by chronology and character. This is necessary for longer works like novels, since for a novel to really be complete even the minor characters should have their own arc or “shape.” That’s one of the keys to deep world-building that feels real and natural.
As far as popularity goes, the team also worked on analyzing which stories were most liked by readers, which is helpful when you’re trying to decide what to write in the first place. And in fact, they may have identified a disconnect between the stories writers like to write and the stories readers like to read – though further research is probably required in order to reach anything like a definative conclusion.
“Rags to Riches” may be popular among writers, but it isn’t necessarily the emotional arc that readers reach for most. The categories that include the greatest total number of books are not the most popular, the researchers found. They examined total downloads for all books from Project Gutenberg, then divvied them up by mode. Measured this way, “Rags to Riches” is eclipsed by “Oedipus”, “Man in a Hole” and, perhaps not surprisingly, “Cinderella,” all of which were more popular.
What this suggests is that in general, while readers generally like happy endings, they also like to see the protagonist of a story overcome problems and obstacles in order to get there. And with tragedies, they like to see the protagonist succeed before he or she is eventually undone. That should be fairly obvious, as a story with a straight trajectory is relatively free of dramatic tension, but it’s still a good rule to keep in mind.
So which of these stories do you write, and why? Does the article make you think about ways you can improve the structures of your stories?