Writing Tips: Science and Six Plots


Over the past few years scientists have been working to reduce story plots into data. On February 4, 2015 The Paris Review released an article called “Man In Hole” with the subtitle of “Can a Novel’s Plot Be Reduced to Data Points?” On July 12, 2016 The Atlantic put out an article “The Six Main Stories, As Identified by a Computer” and after having gone through these and similar articles, and diving into research papers I’ve found its time I weigh in on the matter.

The Paris Review article mentions a man named Matthew Jockers, who at the time of the article was an English professor at the University of Nebraska, did a study on tens of thousands of books. Jockers had a different approach to plot than what some of us writer types might think. Instead of identifying plot as the underlying structure based on the progression of the story, Jockers uses the emotional trajectory of the plot without putting scenes in chronological order, or “Syuzhet”. Jockers explains,

Syuzhet is concerned with the linear progression of narrative from beginning(first page) to the end (last page)… When we study the syuzhet, we are not so much concerned with the order of the fictional events but specifically interested in the manner in which the author presents those events to readers.

Part of Jockers’s research involved inputting a database of the emotional positive or negative power of words as pulled by crowd sourced voting. The ultimate finding of Jockers’s research was that there were “about six” story archs but never revealed much about it (presumably leaving the details for another project). More information on Jockers’s process can be found here and here.

Naturally Jockers wasn’t the first to posit novel could be put into a machine and analyzed. It was Kurt Vonnegut who had proposed it first and in fact it was the ever popular video on plot on OpenCulture that inspired Jockers into the specific direction of his research.

Vonnegut figures there are more than six but there is a similar path among the two men and they are unmistakably heading in the right direction.

Then there’s the post from The Atlantic and we finally get (possibly) the full picture. Scientists got together, citing the work of Jockers, and selected 1,737 works of fiction between 10,000 and 200,000 words long and after running the data through a similar form of sentiment analysis as Jockers we got 6 core narratives. (Here’s the link to the research paper)

  1. Rise, or Rags to Riches
  2. Fall, Riches to Rags
  3. Fall then Rise, Man in a Hole
  4. Rise then Fall, Icarus
  5. Rise then fall then rise, Cinderella
  6. Fall then rise then fall, Oedipus

It all seems to be fairly tidy and I’ve been thinking about what this neat sorting might mean. My assumption here (I am not an expert) is that the patterns above not only make logical sense but the structure of them in a very deep way reflect the human mind’s craving of drama, tension, and/or redemption. It is another possibility that since story telling runs so deep in the history of humankind we have a form of social or cultural demand for stories that fit into these arcs. If either of these are true, and I currently am willing to take any of my own hypothesis with a grain of salt, then it is perfectly human of us to have our plots fit in such a neat way data-wise. Of course, part of me wants to question if the researchers could possibly be missing information on fiction or if by analyzing the fiction they have stripped something critical from its nature. Ultimately I think it’s fine but I’d like to hear other opinions.

If condensing fiction into data concerns you in the least bit, I suggest that you reevaluate and realize the sole purpose of human creativity is to embark from such set patterns into something new. Data/statistical analysis of fiction will only let us clearly see the boundaries around us that we’ve been unable to see and in this new vision we’ll be more able to set out in a more creative, and hopefully better, direction.


Writing Tip: 3 Steps to Deeper Creativity

*This was pulled from my post on Millionaire Digest*

When one pictures creativity the stereotype is often an artist or writer. Though these professions have creativity in common, they aren’t the only ones who can take advantage of this skill (pay special note to skill, rather than talent). People in business, lawyers, mathematicians, scientists, doctors and many others can reap the major benefits of creativity. After all, creativity is simply the ability to think outside of the box, and the ability to combine dissimilar thoughts. When expressed this way, the inherent importance of creativity is near-palpable. This article serves as a guide to deepening, or even jump-starting, your creativity.

Step One: Change Your Mindset

Echoing back to calling creativity a skill, it is imperative that you alter your mindset. Creativity is more than an innate talent. It is an all-together achievable skill you can hone. People have come to accept that experts who are adept in a certain field have some unattainable talent. There is a book that addresses just that called The Talent Code. It helps dispel many false ideas about talent.

Hard work is required but it’s only through effort that you can develop skill and proficiency. View creativity as an attainable skill, one that takes work but can be refined through substantial play as well.

Step Two: Consume Creative Ideas

A pretty logical step, but one that’s often breezed by. It’s important that you devour creative thoughts. Creativity demands a frame of reference. You need to know what has been done and what hasn’t. You need a decent understanding of your field as well as other fields to integrate them into a holistically unique product. This is one of the goals of creativity. Creatives are all putting out a product of some sort: Writing, art, music, an eloquent speech, an invention or a business proposal.

A writer should not only read a lot but study other subjects deeply as well. Likewise to the businessman, who should comprehend both the business in which they operate and beyond.

The type of consumption I’m suggesting isn’t a shallow reading. What I’m suggesting within your consumption of creative ideas, is to weave a spider web. Learning something new doesn’t help if it doesn’t tie to something relevant in your own web. So when you learn something, find ways to connect it to what you already know and do it in ways beyond your first thought.

Step Three: Produce and Seek Feedback

Creativity is thought and the purpose of thought is action. It would be wasteful to have gotten to step two without reaching out to this step. Luckily, this step is the easiest to understand. In whatever way you deem fit for yourself, it is now time to create. Write, paint, invent, innovate, whatever it takes to synthesize the creative ideas you’ve been absorbing.

But don’t stop there! Feedback completes the cycle. Learn what works and what’s broken about the creative ideas you presented. Opening yourself to feedback is often terrifying but you’ll soon see how vital it becomes. It will lead to a period of growth you’ve thought unattainable

Finding Your Writing Voice

Many authors are in pursuit of a unique voice when they first start writing. They are in awe of the inexhaustible ways professionals write and desire to mimic that uniqueness. There is also an equal and opposite problem affecting these beginners that is ubiquitous. Everyday we are bombarded with language from our peers, from television, from the radio, and so on, and the impact of the exposure is in our language. What we hear and experience becomes our language, for better and worse. Authors seeking a unique voice must navigate a harsh environment to get there but there is a way to learn your unique way of expression rather quickly.

Don’t Copy the Professionals

Common writing advice is to copy passages of your favorite authors and then attempt to mimic their style. There is merit to the suggestion but it can develop writers who end up being lower fidelity copies of the mold(s) they used. The problem is seen after every major YA book that comes out. The Young Adult genre is great and provides accessible reading to children which ultimately rewards society, but more often than not, books following that major release become lesser copies of the same book.

This Stuff About Unique Voice

We are prone to using our most often used words and phrases as we write. We stick to familiar patterns and don’t often deviate from them. This is why some writers have a tendency to dabble in cliche. According to definition a cliche is, “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” The problem isn’t unoriginal thought, though. Every one has a story worth telling, as the saying goes, but it’s the language and story telling ability that makes the story worth listening to.

Using cliches or already familiar patterns in your writing will lessen the impact of the work because it will seem unoriginal. The language will pale the emotion which you want to convey, giving it less impact.

Connecting the Dots

The author’s goal is to navigate both the language of professional authors and the minefield of cliches. A unique voice is a combination of these elements. One must use familiar, and at times outrageous, patterns and avoid expressing themselves in a generic manner all while conveying a story worth telling. It’s an arduous undertaking which is way many authors end up quitting. There is a way to navigate this critical training with more ease and it can get you to your unique voice faster than copying all those writers you love.

With an Active Mind, Write Slow

That’s it really. Write slow and mind and keep alert of your writing. The act of writing slow will get you the consider your words and phrases. You’ll ponder over what words and imagery to use as you approach places of your work. Some writers frown on this slowness but it is key in an author’s development. When you run into something critical in your work you must pause to consider the following:

  1. Should I express my idea this way?
  2. Should I use these words/phrases?
  3. Do my decisions give my work more coherence?

These three simple questions will jolt you away from any forced patterns you’ve formed a pattern of and into the process that will give your work a feeling of being completely and entirely from you. It doesn’t come easy and the process can feel more like a racket but in the end the value gained from this slower process is much more than what you’d gain through copying the greats.

Roles of a Writer: The Advertiser

Advertisers are the image presenters of the company. They ensure the company’s brand has an overall cohesiveness, and more than that, actively try to draw customers to invest in the product. As such there are lessons for writers to learn from advertisers this article will limit those lessons to submitting work, advertising with social media, and seeking business opportunities.

Submitting Your Work

It shouldn’t be a surprise to more experienced writers but submitting your work to publishers is advertisement. When you send your work to a publisher they are evaluating your product (the submission) and determining whether they should invest in the product. Therefore submitting a work requires a keen self-awareness. Writers should learn how to put their best foot forward in correspondence with those publishers by writing concise and professional emails or being cordial in verbal conversation. Neither “concise” nor “professional” imply impersonal; it is important to keep the elements which make up your personality as a writer. For writers, personality can be a major selling point.

Social Media

Many writers would disagree but you should advertise your work on social media. A published writer doesn’t have to deal with this sort of thing, in fact most of this role is put in another’s hands upon publication, but an independent or unpublished writer needs to heed this carefully. Social media is a tool that can help you present the best image of yourself possible. Be intelligent with your use of social media.

Advertising via social media is a difficult task but it is necessary if you hope to garner any attention. The advertiser knows works will go unnoticed whether or not they’re advertised but they do it anyway knowing that something will catch the audience. The advertiser is persistent in their pursuit in elevating the brand of the independent writer.

 Writing Opportunities

Unfortunately finding an opportunity for writing is quite difficult and requires a bit of persistence. The purpose of the advertiser in finding writing opportunities is to market yourself out to the company(s) you wish to work with. Do you read a publishing company you’d like to work with? Or maybe magazine you enjoy reading has an opening for a writer? You’ve got to show them your interest and the traits you have that the company would need. No two writers have exactly the same skill set, so use that to your advantage.

The advertiser is an underestimated role because it takes place after the fact of writing your story/novel/etc. This doesn’t make it any less important than writing. Without a somewhat developed advertiser role no one will read what you write. Or else you’d be leaving it to the whims of the unpredictable world for something to land on your table.

Coping With Fear and Anxiety in Writing

You’re at your favorite writing spot and equipped with every notebook, pen, and pencil that you desire. Everything is set up just right and even your plan for your writing is ready to pour out of you. But you listen to the clock and you check your phone and you grab a cup of water and for some reason you just really have to clean. For some reason you are anxious and afraid of writing and the only way to avoid it is by distraction. Being afraid of writing is natural. It is hard work and demanding. It is equally important to know that you are not alone in your fear and there are ways to cope with these feelings.

Understand Your Fear

In this situation you are frantic; running from errand to errand or simply distracted in your own idleness but either way you face it, it is vital you become introspective. You have to seek to understand why you’re anxious and scarred. Some may be concerned with that level of introspection, but it is only in confronting the fear and seeking to understand it that you’ll become able to move on from it.

Understanding your fear is as simple as recognizing the fact you don’t want to mess up. It is also realizing all you’ve done to elevate your work in progress that now it looks like an achievable construct. Whatever the issue is, it is largely self-made, but it doesn’t make it any less scary. In realization there is only more doubts.

Make Peace

Fear and anxiety are natural process that are tying to stop you from doing something different, that’s all. Nothing more and nothing less (unless we’re talking about major anxiety problems but that’s a different story). You’re afraid, make peace with that but know that it doesn’t control you. You are beyond any one of your emotions and fear/anxiety are just single emotions. They cannot imprison you. Find peace in that realization.

Go For It

It will still suck at first. Writing will feel like a chore for the first bit, like some great laborious task that someone else wished upon you. As you are plowing through these feelings remember that you want this. You want to write because you relish in telling stories. Little bits of effort will topple into one another creating a larger and larger impact on your work. Stick through it and your work will thank you.