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.


3 Reasons Journals Make Better Writers

Writers have been keeping journal for centuries. John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf are among great writers who kept prolific journals. You can find an assortment of quotes from professional writers, like this one, about writers who used journals. Not all good writers journal, but good journaling can make a bad writer decent, and a decent writer good.

Get In The Groove

There’s no secret here. It’s been repeatedly proven that free-writing, the essential cousin of journaling, makes one more creative. Free-writing and journaling are not always the same however. Keeping a journal, if boiled down to the path of least resistance, would simply be taking a tally of the day. The sort of journaling worth empowering comes from  free-writing. When you explore ideas through journaling, you are opening yourself up to creativity. There’s no right answer. It is simply an exploration of a topic taking you as far as you feel comfortable.

This will then open up your creativity but also the writing mind. With this awakened writing mind, language will flow smoother than it would going in fresh. It will feel more seamless. Journaling before the “real” writing gets you in the groove for the writing that is about to come.

Idea Storage

Over enough time, a writer’s journal will be filled with half explored ideas. Some might be suitable for fiction/nonfiction and some will be outrageous and neglected. Nonetheless, there will be record of those ideas. It’ll be up to the writer to scan their journals to salvage these. This is the discovery phase of writing. Writers who feel they have ran out of ideas will rejoice knowing keeping a journal is a simple key in mending that problem. An idea you dismissed after writing it in the journal may become of value six months later when you are desperate for ideas.

Expression, Expression, Expression

Journaling is expression. It should be this way first and foremost. While you explore whatever idea/dream/circumstance you desire, focus on expression. Expression is, as the Latin suggests, the act of pushing things out. You are manifesting on paper, or through voice, those feeling that are inside. It will take work.

One day, when you look back to that journal entry, you will experience your own expression. Some will become haunted by how plain their language is. The language wont reflect your feelings and will feel more like a news broadcast of those emotions. It will be a caricature of the experience. This is why those who journal have an easier time expressing themselves. The repeated practice in their bound notebooks has prepared them for it. It won’t always be the best language but it will be unique language. Unique will carry writers great lengths.

Looking for Opinions on Blog Posts

Update 2/13/17: I’ve been getting great recommendations but I still haven’t found exactly the right type of post I’m looking for. I’m still scouring other blogs in search of an idea and I hope you guys will be able to help me still.

Writings By Ender has been growing since my effort to produce more content. I’m now producing 4-5 posts a week. You guys, my audience, seem to enjoy and appreciate most of my posts but what isn’t as appreciated are my Monday inspiration posts. This is fine, they’re a sort of odd thing, and in hindsight its a bit self-centric to write about your what inspires you and expect your audience to vibe with it. I want to move to posts that inspire community.

So in the interest of growth, for the pursuit of generating more engaging content, I come to my audience at large for advice. If you’ve never been to my site before, Writings By Ender is a place for articles on writing, book reviews, and fiction. I’m looking for a type of post that’s related to creativity and/or writing.

Leave a comment with an idea that you would like to see posted here every Monday. Give me as many suggestions as you want. I want to do a public recognition for the person who suggest the best theme. I’ll do some sort of plug on my Monday posts thanking the person who did the suggestions. Please come help me out. Every comment is appreciated.

Fiction Analysis: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Utterly beautiful and devastating. I don’t read much poetry anymore but Rupi Kaur gets my respect and admiration with the force behind Milk and Honey. I found moments from tears, I found myself rejoicing, I found myself at fault and I found myself the victim all within Milk and Honey. Reading Milk and Honey does take an awareness of a trend in poetry: The lack of capital letters for anything at all. It irked me for all of two seconds to shed my contempt at a lack capitalization, it charmed me entirely through dark and light.

Milk and Honey is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It is concise, it strikes deep and unrelenting. It is feminine. Rupi Kaur is bound to get endless praise for this work. There are also bound to be many who owe their lives, the existence of their own femininity, to Rupi Kaur. I, too, am thankful for having read this book.

how is it so easy for you
to be kind to people
he asked

milk and honey dripped
from my lips as i answered

cause people have not
been kind to me

Milk and honey dripping from the teeth. Embodiments of sustenance and nourishment. They seethe from her very human lips but their existence within her are not because of a mutual kindness but due to wickedness brought upon here. This is the namesake of the book, though it is used again later, and captures much of what to expect from the rest of the book.

every time you
tell your daughter
you yell at her
out of love
you teach her to confuse
anger with kindness
which seems like a good idea
till she grows up to
trust men who hurt her
cause they look so much
like you

to fathers with daughters

One day I will be a father. There is nothing as frightening to me as teaching my child that violence projected on them is normal. There was not violence of the sort in my life but I know of its existence in others’. This poem made me cry, not a lot, but I teared up certainly. I saw a daughter I didn’t even have yet. I raised her the best I could but I yelled, because when I get frustrated, I yell. I saw her on the path to a man who would hurt her and I saw it being my fault. It hurt so much, this unexpected vision.

your art
is not about how many people
like your work
your art
is about
if you your heart likes your work
if your soul likes your work
it’s about about how honest
you are with yourself
and you
must never
trade honesty
for relatablility

to all you young poets

Let these be parting words of this review. Be honest to your art (even if it’s not poetry). Be honest to yourself. This may mostly be a message to myself, but my soul is happy with the work I’ve done so far. There is no money involved and no grand fame. Just my content soul and this keyboard.

Fiction Analysis: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

The last time I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was a little over a year ago. My opinion of the book at the time respect and reverence. Perhaps because I was at a transitory stage in my life, or maybe because my life is more stable now, but the spiritual journey depicted in Siddhartha did not impress when I read it this week as it had a year ago. Herman Hesse’s use of simile, at first, delighted me but I quickly became inundated with them. Hesse also deals a bit in cliche which is a personal peeve.

Despite how it seems, I still enjoyed the book, this time around I simply was awakened to its inherent flaws (no work is, in its entirety, perfect). The journey although having less impact a second time around, carries with it essential themes for navigating through life. I will continue to recommend this novel.

“Siddhartha had begun to feel the seeds of discontent within him. He had begun to feel that the love of his father and mother, and also the love of his friend Govinda, would not always make him happy, give him peace, satisfy and suffice him.”

Not an entirely literary quote but of significance. We glorify love, and though it can make an individual happy (it has certainly made me happy), it can’t be the sole source of satisfaction. Love is powerful but don’t crave the love of others.

“The Brahmin was silent so long that the stars passed across the small window and changed their design before the silence in the room was finally broken.”

This is my favorite grab from this book. The image here is exceedingly vivid in my mind. I picture constellations in the starts morphing and shape-shifting into other shapes with which someone could pick out shapes like one would do with clouds. “Design” also might imply intention possibly hinting at God, and though I am not religious myself I have to at least consider the meaning and intention if God was implied, the intention of course would be grand.

“… and yet his life had been much more wretched and poorer than theirs, for their aims were not his, nor their sorrows his.”

I’ll leave you with the quote above. My path and whatever path you might be on will not be the same, and our aims will be entirely different. We cannot judge the path of others based on our own own ambitions. All our final destinations are different, as too will be the path there.

I enjoyed reading Siddhartha and I hope you enjoyed my review of it as well. If you have any suggestions for a book to read next please leave it below and I’ll put it on my Goodreads list to read.