MIT Technology Review: Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory have analyzed novels to identify the building blocks of all stories.
Sentiment analysis was used to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories. Then data-mining techniques revealed the most common arcs.
“We find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”
Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.
The six basic emotional arcs are these:
A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.
Back in 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. In the process, he plotted several examples on a blackboard. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he said. “They are beautiful shapes.”
On Scriptnotes episode 259, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin had a harsh critique of this research:
Mazin: “Of all of these, this one truly is the dumbest. It’s bad science that provides clickbaiters something to say, but it teaches you nothing. It is the emptiest of noise.”