The Six Core Emotional Arcs That Underlie Our Favorite Fiction

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A big-data analysis suggests even complex tales rest on a few fundamental emotional storylines.

By Tom Jacobs

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Actor Ed Harris and writer Kurt Vonnegut in 2004. (Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

When you go to the movies, do you frequently say to yourself, “I’ve seen this story before”? Well, you probably have, but Hollywood’s creative conservatism isn’t entirely to blame.

A newly published data analysis concludes that, at heart, there are a limited number of fictional storylines.

Six, to be exact.

A research team led by University of Vermont mathematician Andrew Reagan reports it has found “a set of six core emotional arcs which form the essential underlying building blocks of complex emotional trajectories.”

What’s more, they write in the journal EPJ Data Science, some of those arcs appear to be more resonant than others — at least, if you consider the popularity of the stories that use them as a foundation.

Reagan and his colleagues were inspired by the rejected master’s thesis of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, which attempted to codify the emotional arcs of stories.

They examined 1,327 stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection — all English-language texts between 20,000 and 100,000 words — using three language processing filters. In the end, they found “broad support for the following six emotional arcs”:

  • Rags to riches (rise)
  • Tragedy, or riches to rags (fall)
  • Man in a hole (fall-rise)
  • Icarus (rise-fall)
  • Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
  • Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

The researchers then classified the works of fiction to determine which of these underlying arcs fit them best, and noted how many times they had been downloaded from the Project Gutenberg site. “We find ‘Icarus,’ ‘Oedipus,’ and two sequential “Man in a hole’ arcs are the three most successful emotional arcs,” they write.

That’s fascinating, in that the first two of those three are cautionary tales with unhappy endings. While it’s not clear if the popularity of movies would fall along similar lines, the results suggest stories that end with the protagonist’s fall retain a strong appeal.

Of course, patterns can be found at different levels. Joseph Campbell’s famous “hero’s journey,” which formed the basis of the Star Wars movies, certainly touches something deep in us, and it doesn’t easily fit into any of Reagan’s six arcs.

Nevertheless, this research is a good reminder to aspiring writers that attempts to reinvent the wheel can be counterproductive. There are certain emotional arcs we respond to, presumably because we recognize them from our own lives, and the lives of those around us. Pick one, and make it your own.

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