The Emotional Arcs of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut, about a thousand years after Aristotle, famously mapped out the many shapes of stories, but now Andrew Reagan at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington has mapped out the emotional arcs of stories. He used sentiment analysis and over 1,700 stories to produce the most common emotional arcs of stories. He found six core arcs.

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.

...It turns out the most popular are stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs and stories that follow more complex arcs that use the basic building blocks in sequence. In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.

~ Technology Review


Our Stories

The stories we tell ourselves can be stubbornly resistant to change. Case in point: a recent story by Michael Lewis for This American Life.  

 "These stories we tell about ourselves-- they're almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to. But once they're in place, this whole inner landscape grows up around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you've told it, once you've built the highway, it's just very hard to move it. Even if your story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life, even then, not even the angel herself can change it."  ~Michael Lewis