Major Storytelling Arcs According to…an A.I?

In our technological age, nothing is sacred, not even storytelling. Once the sacred purview of visionaries and seers, storytelling now finds itself being analyzed by poets, writers, geniuses, fools, and of course artificial intelligences of the mechanical kind. Here’s the latest update on what the A.I.s are finding. To paraphrase an ancient story title from the earliest days of Mad Magazine, “Believe it or Don’t!”

Sorry, it's the best we could do. A good arc is hard to find, you know?

Sorry, it’s the best we could do. A good arc is hard to find, you know?

[Recently,] a group of researchers, from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide, set out to do verify Kurt Vonnegut’s thoughts about story forms and storytelling. 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 More on that in a minute.

First, the researchers had to find a workable dataset. Using a collection of fiction from the digital library Project Gutenberg, they selected 1,737 English-language works of fiction between 10,000 and 200,000 words long.

Then, they ran their dataset through a sentiment analysis to generate an emotional arc for each work. “We’re not imposing a set of shapes,” said Andy Reagan, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Vermont and the lead author of the paper. “Rather: the math and machine learning have identified them.”

They did this by training the machine to take all the words of the book, section by section, and measure the average happiness of a given bag of words based on how an individual word scored. The researchers assigned individual happiness scores to more than 10,000 frequently-used words by crowdsourcing the effort on the website Mechanical Turk. This portion of the research is fascinating in and of itself: The 10 words that people ranked as happiest were laughter, happiness, love, happy, laughed, laugh, laughing, excellent, laughs, and joy. The 10 words that people ranked as least happy were terrorist, suicide, rape, terrorism, murder, death, cancer, killed, kill, and die. (You can see how all the words ranked by visiting this site.)

There are several theories that say every story known to man can be reduced to one of just a handful of archetypes—a quest, overcoming the monster, rebirth, to name a few—but there’s no consensus on what those stories are. In this case, researchers picked six from a mix of popular lists based on what shapes the computer identified most. And though the researchers were focused on a book’s emotional arc—not the structure of its plot, per se—they found overlap in how plot points reflected emotional highs and lows as measured by the sentiment analysis….

Read it all at The Atlantic

Read our post about Vonnegut’s Theory