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.


Guest Post: Alan Siebuhr, Having An Opinion Isn’t Enough

Alan Siebuhr talks about objectivity and subjectivity and why your opinion isn’t always right

   Alan Siebuhr is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. When he’s not balding early due to frustration and stress, he usually posts pictures of his cat, tweets the occasional snark at @amsiebuhr, and drinks coffee and milk in abundance.

When discussing contentious issues, there will always be conflicting points and disagreements. In any debate or discussion, these conflicts can lead to solutions that may not have a straightforward resolution. One proposed solution may not be good enough by itself, or there may be aspects missing from it entirely. Therefore, it is worthwhile to have disagreement and contrarian views when everyone’s goal is identical. But the problems that arise are not subject to disagreement; rather, they are often assumed as fact. Being an energy geek, I deal with the contentious issue of human-driven climate change every day. Whether it’s through classes at school or discussions with peers, the issue is frequently on my mind. As such, I find it important to understand the facts and nuances that go into the subject. People may debate on what the possible fixes may be, but the assumption that climate change is happening is not up for debate. As such, solutions require understanding a task at hand with little subjectivity involved, which allows for the aforementioned process of finding solutions. But this process is interrupted when people let their biases and opinions get in the way of finding solutions.

   When confronted with an issue, one must look at the arguments presented, then weigh the evidence of those arguments before they take a position. But people use “objectivity” as a way to justify their opinions, even if they’re wrong. In their attempt to seem unbiased, they doubt the more supported argument because they need to “weigh both sides equally,” but this is a poor attempt at being objective. Rather, it is a way for people to justify that their opinion is the most objective because they took the time to “weigh the evidence.” Yet,  when the evidence does not fit one’s beliefs, they will discount it and assume it is wrong. When one is actually objective, they look at each side of an argument equally, without bias toward one position, and look at the facts presented to them. They see what qualified experts say on the matter and assume that to be fact without letting what they think may be happening to cloud their judgment.

   One example where being objective is important is journalism. When journalists write stories, they are supposed to investigate facts and evidence without omission. This is important because their goal is to get the story out to their readers.The media acts as a channel for information to pass through, and if all the information is stopped, or is tainted, it affects the way people see the issues in front of them. The goal of being objective should be to look at the facts, the evidence behind them, and then form an opinion around those facts. When it comes to some issues that people have a strong opinion on, however, some use the “objectivity” argument as a way of making their current beliefs seem infallible. In this way, objectivity becomes less about seeing the forest for the trees and more about claiming to see an oak when in reality you’re seeing a willow.

   People will use the objectivity argument to justify their wrong and/or outdated opinions and jump to conclusions not based on evidence, but rather the individual’s feelings toward the subject matter. This is no less prevalent than when the media presents the subject of climate change: 97 percent of scientists agree that human-driven climate change is real, but often most pundits will bring two people to the debate: a qualified scientist and a “skeptic.” This gives a false representation of the evidence presented because people will assume the issue is contentious with no clear answer. This inevitably skews the public’s perception of the issue, changing the way they will vote on related measures. This gets to the heart of the problem: Most people assume their feelings tend to be weighted equally toward the facts. How one feels about something does not mean it is a logical stance on a subject, nor does it mean people need to take the individual’s argument seriously. To combat this, we need to be able to weigh evidence over ideology, and we need to see what experts say about it and the sources used to back up their positions. People are entitled to their opinions, but those opinions should be made around experimentation, facts, and evidence.