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.


Monday Inspiration: How to Conquer Hardships

Creatives, like everyone else, undergo hardships. Life can’t bend to our artistic whims and we’re forced to abide by the laws of reality. There will be hardships. In family, or friends, at work, or in our leisure the inevitable hardship will strike. The dedicated creative, the passionate worker is left at an impasse when squaring up with hardship. Do they back down on creative pursuits until the hardship passes, or do they otherwise endure fighting against the whirlwind. The artistically noble thought is the latter, of course, but the answer is often much more nuanced.

Those who brave the tempest come to realize a peculiarity of hardship: it has a way of distilling. We often spread ourselves thin to translucence on various projects and hobbies. While battling the tempest, there is no time for those extraneous things. In hardship forces you to sift through the life-crud and to focus on only what’s important. Hobbies go take the back burner for taking care of family and kids, but passions linger too. These passions which drove the creative to work, don’t get snuffed out by hardship. It does however, require sacrifices of lesser interests to maintain.

You may even realize after making various sacrifices for your passion that you still don’t have enough time in your day. This is where hardship begets inspiration. There is a new requirement with the realization of a still-existing lack of time: a change of perspective. You must now look at every facet of your passion and perceive it through a new lens of time-cost. You might find a simple and effective practice that you do but not often enough. You may also stumble on a time-sink within your hobbies that can save your productivity. Whatever inspiration and revelation it might lead, the requirement is deep introspection.

Don’t shirk your passion in the face of hardship. You’ll feel much better having braved the odds with your passion intact than with it in shambles. Write, paint, draw, whatever it is you do, in the face of disaster. Laugh in its face and create. Make sure the world, and anything in it, can’t stop you. That’s what it means to have passion.

Mixed Media Inspiration: (YouTuber) John Hill

John Hill is a vlogger and skateboarder on YouTube with over 365,000 subscribers. With John Hill being a skateboarder and myself a writer, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “How am I drawing inspiration from him?” Inspiration can be drawn from any walk of life. Inspiration doesn’t cling to a preference of craft, it reaches beyond all disciplines. Inspiration encourages the melding of thoughts from dissimilar practices to achieve an entirely different product. To me, it makes nothing but sense to draw my creative energy inspiration from John Hill.

I first encountered John Hill as a YouTuber on another channel, Braille Skateboarding (see the trend here? Skateboarding videos are delightful.) When I saw John skateboard there was something inherently different about him. Firstly, his tricks were more crisp than others I’ve seen — a clear example of a Juggernaut of discipline. On that basis I started watching his videos and growing to endear his positive outlook. It was obvious from his drive and his discipline that he was going to grow to do other things. It didn’t take long for me to hear about the brand he launched called Progress Daily.

Progress Daily is still in an infantile stage in terms of products. Despite that, it’s clear this brand is about much more than skateboarding. John has had an almost obsessive commitment to bettering himself as a person and skateboarder. Progress Daily is about bettering yourself and the world the best ways you can. This is why John Hill is an inspiration. He is a proponent and exemplar of hard work and its dividends.

Despite being in entirely different primary disciplines, John and I both have an obsessive commitment to better our crafts. For that, I thank John for his videos and I hope my audience can see what I see in him.

What inspires you that’s outside your discipline? What keeps you going even though you don’t deal with it everyday? Like this post and leave a comment with your response!

Write Up Wednesday: Reminder To Self: You Are A Writer

Reminder To Self: You Are A Writer.

I’m intimately aware of your doubts countering this but doubts don’t add up to truth. You make art; not all of it is good, not all is garbage, all of them are lectures reminding yourself of identity. Art seeped into your blood and melded with your DNA the second you cried to let the world you were alive. Creativity craves your invocation; it knows it’s your shepherd.

You are a writer not thanks to your talents but to your dedication. Your aimless stubbornness found a home in honing this single craft. Navigate the pitfalls with it. Rejoice with it. Brood with it. Be steadfast in your dedication because it will pay off. The compensation mightn’t be with money or in being renown. The only payment worth the time is the body of work left behind each of which represent the multitudinous man you’ve become. Grow. Write. Rejoice.

Write Up Wednesday: Struggle with Fatigue

I wanted to be able to say that I’ve resumed writing. That was too hopeful. Aside from these blog post I’ve done no writing. I’ve been largely unproductive. My day job leaves me drained. When I get home I lack the energy to bring words to the page. I’m completely at a loss for what to do with this problem (other than to save writing for weekends, which would be an unfortunate reality I’ll need to confront.)

I’ve been reading at least. “The Elements of Expression” has been good a generating inspiration for writing but I’vent the energy to actually do anything. Simple paragraphs are even laborious. It’s rough. It’s life. I’ll figure it out, though. I just need a clear mind to figure out. I don’t have much else to talk about though.