July 12, 2016

There are only six kinds of story


This is Romeo and Juliet. Can't you tell? Image via Hedonometer.

This is Romeo and Juliet. Can’t you tell? Image via Hedonometer.

Well, it sounds like we can all just pack up and go home.

Scientists at the University of Vermont recently developed a program to analyze the “emotional arcs” of more than 1,700 stories and they have concluded that there are basically only six different kinds of narratives. For Science Alert, Peter Dockrill describes them as follows:

Rags to riches: “An ongoing emotional rise” (Alice’s Adventures Under the Ground)
Tragedy, or riches to rags: “an ongoing emotional fall” (Romeo and Juliet)
Man in a hole: “A fall followed by a rise”
Icarus: “A rise followed by a fall”
Cinderella: “Rise-fall-rise”
Oedipus: “Fall-rise-fall”

This is all suspect, at best, and the MIT Technology Review offers several important caveats.

First, those 1,700 titles all came from Project Gutenberg, which means they should all be in the public domain, and that means that they were pretty much all published before 1923.

Second, the variable in the study was “the emotional polarity of ‘word windows,’” which then “built up a picture of how the emotional valence changes” over the course of a book.

And finally, most of the books analyzed were originally written in English, which imposes both linguistic and cultural limitations on the study.

Still, the implications of the project are interesting. As the MIT Technology Review notes, it “provides empirical evidence for the existence of basic story arcs for the first time [and] an important insight into the nature of storytelling and its appeal to the human psyche.”



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.