Scientists Find The Six Emotional Arcs of Storytelling

Many a great mind has noticed that all stories have certain elements in common. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, enumerated the handful of arcs that describe most stories, such as “boy meets girl” and “creation story,” in his masters thesis. Author Joseph Campbell wrote of “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” who shows up everywhere from The Bible to Star Wars. But most recently, data scientists have used a technique known as sentiment analysisto determine the most common emotional arcs in all storytelling. The technique uses the idea that words can have either a positive or negative emotional impact to analyze the text of any story and measure its emotional direction at each moment. Andrew Reagan at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington and his team used this technique on more than 1,700 English works of fiction, and found six common emotional arcs. There’s “rags to riches,” a single rise as in “Alice’s Adventures Underground” by Lewis Carroll; “tragedy,” a single fall as depicted in “Romeo and Juliet’; “man in a hole,” a fall followed by a rise like in “Typhoon” by Joseph Conrad; “Icarus,” a rise and a fall as in the arc’s namesake; “Cinderella,” a rise, fall, then rise; and “Oedipus,” a fall, rise, then fall. These arcs are quite broad and don’t show the small ups and downs between chapters of a story, but overall they give us new, evidence-based information about the nature of storytelling. We’ve collected some awesome videos on this topic. Watch them now to learn more.

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