Story Arcs

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I’ve written before about plots and how there aren’t as many of them as you’d think – somewhere between 1 and 36 depending upon how you want to break them down. Often writers utilise some of the well-known plot structures, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat or The Plot Hole.

Some 70 years after Kurt Vonnegut proposed the idea of mapping story shapes for a rejected Masters thesis, some researchers decided it was time to crunch some data. They analysed 1,737 fiction novels to figure out how the story arcs are constructed. Let’s pretend there is a big difference between a plot and a story arc

The study used Project Gutenberg – i.e. public domain works – and the results suggest that there are only really six story arcs:

Fall-rise-fall: ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘The Wonder Book of Bible Stories’, ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘The Serpent River’.

Rise-fall: ‘Stories from Hans Andersen’, ‘The Rome Express’, ‘How to Read Human Nature’ and ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.

Fall-rise: ‘The Magic of Oz’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘The Autobiography of St. Ignatius’ and ‘Typhoon’.

Steady fall: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The House of the Vampire’, ‘Savrola’ and ‘The Dance’.

Steady rise: ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, ‘Dream’, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Human Comedy’.

Rise-fall-rise: ‘Cinderella’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.

The most popular stories have been found to follow the ‘fall-rise-fall’ and ‘rise-fall’ arcs.

Or for those that prefer to read graphs because it makes them feel intellectual:

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For those that just saw a bunch of squiggles in those graphs, what you are looking at is the story arc plotted over time for each story analysed. They’ve broken these into similar groups then added an average (the orange line). You can see how some of the story arcs follow the average more, whilst some types vary more. To see an individual story arc, they picked out Harry Potter as an example in the paper, but have the rest archived here (Project Gutenberg books) and here (a selection of classic and popular novels). As they note:

The entire seven book series can be classified as a “Rags to riches” and “Kill the monster” story, while the many sub plots and connections between them complicate the emotional arc of each individual book. The emotional arc shown here, captures the major highs and lows of the story, and should be familiar to any reader well acquainted with Harry Potter. Our method does not pick up emotional moments discussed briefly, perhaps in one paragraph or sentence (e.g., the first kiss of Harry and Ginny).

Harry Potter plot

It is interesting to see how close Vonnegut’s proposed shapes aligns with the research.

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Source.

The above is from graphic designer Maya Eilam and can be viewed at her website.

Here is Vonnegut explaining the story shapes:

This is all nice and good, but why is this interesting? Well, aside from the study using my favourite statistical technique – principal components analysis – it shows that authors create, and the audience expects, structures that are familiar. The fact that two of the story arcs (rise-fall and fall-rise-fall) are the most common emphasises this point. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful and familiar to us. There is scope to play within the formula, but ultimately we desire stories that fit conventions.

So yes, there is no original art being made.

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I Before E, Except…

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That’s right. Never trust anything the grammarians say, with their “rules” and mnemonics.

Apparently the 923 words figure comes from a QI fan who crunched the numbers from Scrabble. Most of the words are more obscure, so the rule is probably okay for the average person, and invaluable to football commentators.

Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing

 

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  1. In mystery writing, plot is everything. Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don’t get bogged down in back story or go off on tangents.
  2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on. As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.
  3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel. The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.
  4. The crime should be sufficiently violent — preferably a murder. For many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective’s powers. However, also note that some types of violence are still taboo including rape, child molestation, and cruelty to animals.
  5. The crime should be believable. While the details of the murder — how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered — are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.
  6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods. Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
  7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime. Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
  8. In mystery writing, don’t try to fool your reader. Again, it takes the fun out. Don’t use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. The detective should not commit the crime. All clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
  9. Do your research. “Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about,” says author Margaret Murphy. She has a good relationship with the police in her area, and has spent time with the police forensic team. Get all essential details right. Mystery readers will have read a lot of books like yours; regard them as a pretty savvy bunch.
  10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit. They’re reading to find out, or figure out, whodunit. If you answer this too early in the book, the reader will have no reason to continue reading.

by Ginny Wiehardt

Source for Image

From Writers Write Blog.