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Common story arcs as identified by AI

According to this article:

researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide determined the core emotional trajectories of stories by taking advantage of advances in computing power and natural language processing to analyze the emotional arcs of 1,737 fictional works in English available in the online library Project Gutenberg.

The paper can be found on arXiv.org. They discovered six emotional arcs (which also just happen to exhaust all possible alternating binary arcs… in other words, they didn’t really “discover” anything, haha)

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

I’m not sure their results are all that helpful; any experienced storyteller understands this stuff naturally. It is somewhat interesting to see it correspond so strongly to a story’s word usage, though.

I was also interested in their little plot of the emotional arcs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, which can also be found in this article from The Atlantic. If you check it out, you’ll notice that the second act conforms pretty perfectly to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat story beats. The first act mirrors this, in terms of there being three main peaks, or three pairs of falls and rises. I’ve started calling these “the three trials”, and most stories tend to conform to this. After the story’s catalyst (or including the story’s catalyst), the story goes through three falls and rises before reaching the “false high” of the midpoint. Many times, a rise will cause a fall in the B story. That is, the plot lines tend to alternate naturally with direction of the emotional arc (though not only at these points, mind you). For example, the hero might, say, punch a bully (rise in plot line A), only to discover his girlfriend wants to break up with him (fall in plot line B).

The “three trials” may be subtle, such as the thematic arguing in the first half of Jurassic Park. (Though if you’re going to make them as subtle as they are in Jurassic Park, the theme better be as interesting as resurrecting dinosaurs. And the characters should actually argue their sides as adamantly as John Hammond and Ian Malcolm; they can’t just stand there and wonder.) I’d identify the three trials of Jurassic Park as:

1. “Life finds a way” – After the thrill (rise) of seeing their first dinosaurs, Ian Malcolm argues the whole thing is bound to end in disaster (fall)
2. “Dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?” – The guests are excited to start their tour (rise) but fail to actually see any dinos (fall)
3. “Nedry’s betrayal” – The guests are happy to gather around a sickly dino (rise) but as a looming storm forces the tour to be cancelled, Nedry begins his plan of betrayal (fall)

The escape of the t-rex then serves as the midpoint of the film.

OK, that was a tangent, but it’s a good plotting exercise to identify the “three trials” of a story’s first act; I have found it helps a lot in plotting. The arcs of stories that are more “episodic” may not be connected so much, whereas in tighter stories, each rise causes the following fall, and each fall leads to or makes possible the following rise.

(On a side note, it would be interesting to see how film music conforms to these emotional arcs.)

The Atlantic article goes on to mention:

Eventually, he says, this research could help scientists train machines to reverse-engineer what they learn about story trajectory to generate their own compelling original works.

OK, good luck with that. I think emotional-arc mapping should be the least of your concerns if you’re striving for computer-generated stories.

The article writer from the No Film School article, on the other hand, goes on to write:

But I sincerely doubt a computer or AI that we train to write stories will ever be able to find joy, no matter how much emotional value we assign to its database of words.

But, uh…. who cares if the computer can “find joy”? Your role as an audience member, as a consumer of a product, does not necessarily need to include making some emotional connection with the author, as that can only ever be imagined in your own head to begin with. This is similar to the morons who experience an uneasiness listening to computer generated music, as though all this time they were imagining the beauty of music came not from something eternal in nature, but was rather infused into the music by the author’s brain, as though the author created the beauty rather than merely discovered it in the realms of infinite possibility. Does that distinction make sense?

I doubt anyone needs to be concerned about AI storytelling anytime soon though, anyway, as we still don’t quite understand our human ability to use language. We’re much closer to programming a Mozart Symphony Generator (we’re only a fraction of an inch away from that, if not already there). Problem with language programming is that a lot AI researchers try to “cheat”; rather than searching for a deeper understanding of how humans use language, they try to turn it into a simple numbers game, like gathering statistics on word associations. That may be useful for autocomplete functions, but won’t help much with the creation of a serious story, or even a serious paragraph. Words have meanings, and you can’t simply take those meanings for granted, as if they’ll just take care of themselves if you map out word associations enough. We may need to figure out a way to represent those meanings without having to create a bunch of “experiences” for a computer to associate them with, if that’s possible. I have no idea. (And if I did, I would keep it a secret so that I could use it in a grand conspiracy to take over the world, which would fail, but would be turned into a great Hollywood film.)


Another interesting website to fool around with is whatismymovie?, an attempt at creating an AI to help you find an interesting movie. It sometimes comes up with some strange results, but it’s fun to play around with.

Categories: Interesting things Stories Websites

S P Hannifin

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