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 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.

Individuation and the meaning of stories

From The Portable Jung by Carl Jung, pages 122-123:

Self-alienation in favour of the collective corresponds to a social-ideal; it even passes for social duty and virtue, although it can be misused for egotistical purposes.  Egoists are called “selfish,” but this, naturally, has nothing to do with the concept of “self” as I am using it here.  On the other hand, self-realization seems to stand in opposition to self-alienation.  This misunderstanding is quite general, because we do not sufficiently distinguish between individualism and individuation.  Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity rather than to collective considerations and obligations.  But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to a better social performance than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed.  The idiosyncrasy of an individual is not to be understood as any strangeness in his unique combination, or gradual differentiation, of functions and faculties which in themselves are universal.  Every human face has a nose, two eyes, etc., but these universal factors are variable, and it is this variability which makes individual peculiarities possible.  Individuation, therefore, can only mean a process of psychological development that fulfils the individual qualities given; in other words, it is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is.  In so doing he does not become “selfish” in the ordinary sense of the word, but is merely fulfilling the peculiarity of his nature, and this, as we have said, is vastly different from egotism or individualism.

Now in so far as the human individual, as a living unit, is composed of purely universal factors, he is wholly collective and therefore in no sense opposed to collectivity.  Hence the individualistic emphasis on one’s own peculiarity is a contradiction of this basic fact of the living being.  Individuation, on the other hand, aims at a living co-operation of all factors.  But since the universal factors always appear only in individual form, a full consideration of them will also produce an individual effect, and one which cannot be surpassed by anything else, least of all by individualism.

The aim of individuation is nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and of the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.

From Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor by Joseph Campbell, page 91:

That mythological motif of the atonement with the father, which has come down through the Christian tradition and has been read chiefly in historical terms, is given the sense of an actual experience that anyone of us may have and must have if we are to break past ourselves.  It comes, however, in and through a personal relationship, for only in relationship to another can this experience, with its human costs, occur.

It is in human relationships that the operation takes place—the relationship of me to you, of you to another, of you to your job, of you to Earth—relationship is the field where the individual is in process.  In marriage, for example, when one sacrifices, one is not sacrificing to the other, one sacrifices rather to the relationship.  In the relationship both participate, so you are sacrificing an aspect of yourself in relation to another, and there is no psychological development outside the relationship.  That is what we have in the center.  It is the form of a cross.  Relationship and yielding.  Dark and light together.

Now from a book on screenwriting, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter, page 44:

Your hero starts the film as an Orphan.  A crisis arises, throwing your hero’s world out of whack, and he or she leaves or is forced out of Orphan status and begins to wander in order to learn what is needed to answer the central question [of the story].  Around the midpoint of the story, your hero becomes a Warrior and fights with all of his or her might and cunning in order to answer the central question, even to the point of his or her near-death or the near-death of someone close.  And still it isn’t enough.  The central question remains unanswered.  What action is missing for your hero to take?  What more could he or she possibly do?

Sacrifice his or her own life, that’s what!

Your hero must be willing to die and not be reborn in order to answer the central question.  He or she must be willing to be a Martyr, to give up everything for a greater good.  Only by willingness to lose it all can your hero win it all.  Only by giving up what your hero thought he or she wanted can your hero be rewarded with what he or she needs.  Remember in Chapter 3 where we discussed what your hero is wrong about at the start of the story?  It is at this point where your hero must confront and overcome that wrongheadedness.

From another book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! Strikes Back by Blake Snyder, pages 62-63:

And that Dig-Deep-Down point, that “Use the Force, Luke!” beat, is what we’re all looking for whether we are writers of the story or the audience for it.  Yes, this way of looking at the ending of any story also works when the hero or heroes are “Defending the Castle” as seen in the finales of Saving Private Ryan, Shaun of the Dead, and Blazing Saddles—or in “Escaping the Castle” as seen in Alien, Free Willy, and Defiance.  Whether your team is on the offense or defense, the lessons of friendship, teamwork, selflessness, and nobility are the same, and the Dig-Deep-Down moment is key.  No matter what the permutation of your tale, it’s the dynamic we seek, for the need of any story boils down to being touched by powers unseen.

Special effects are fine, great set pieces are wonderful, funny jokes and unique characters are vital.  But if you take me to the divine in your story, I will tell all my friends about it.

That’s what storytelling is really about.

Finally, maybe even a Bible verse, eh?  Jesus speaking, from Matthew 10:39 (New American Bible):

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Go forth and meditate on all this!

“Let It Go” is a song of evil

By which I mean, the popular song from Disney’s Frozen is not an anthem for an attitude that would be at all healthy to have in the real world.  Embracing indifference is not exactly something to celebrate.

After all, let’s not forget what the song is about: a sad, scared, angry queen embracing indifference toward the world.  The philosophy she is deciding on is evil.

Let’s look at some lyrics that reflect the evil Elsa’s embracing:

  • Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know – Hints out how she was dealing with her problem wrongly from the beginning.
  • Let it go, let it go, Turn away and slam the door – She’d rather evade her problems than face them.
  • Let the storm rage on – She has no consideration for who that storm may be hurting.
  • The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all – She’s replacing them with all new fears, particularly the fear of facing others with her uncontrollable powers, or letting others, like her sister, try to help her at all.
  • No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free – Oh dear!  The most obviously evil lyrics here.  No right or wrong?!  Yikes.
  • You’ll never see me cry – She’s embracing indifference.  Not good.
  • I’m never going back, the past is in the past – It’s one thing to forgive yourself and move on, it’s another thing to stop caring completely, which is clearly what she’s doing.
  • The cold never bothered me anyway – Again, she’s embracing indifference.  And she’s lying.  Her powers have always bothered her and they’re still bothering her.

So, it’s a song about embracing indifference toward the world and her self-image.  Though cathartic, it’s clearly not the right solution to her problem.

And the storytellers know this, of course.  The song isn’t her climactic solution to her problems after which she lives happily ever after.  The song portrays her creation of even bigger problems, both in her own heart and the outside world that she’s cutting herself off from and plunging into eternal winter.  Her living alone in an ice castle out in the mountain boonies is never portrayed as a good thing.  In “letting go” of her concern for control of her powers and her self-image (an effort which initially came from a genuinely good place, even if she was dealing with it wrong from the very beginning, after being traumatized by injuring her little sister), she still holds on to the fear that keeps her away from her kingdom.  If she was truly “letting go” of what she needed to let go of (her self-image fear, her over-self-consciousness), she wouldn’t feel any need to stay away from her kingdom and those she loves, particularly her sister.

Story-wise, the song serves the same purpose as Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” (though Todd’s pledge is much more sinister – to murder innocent victims until he can get revenge) and as Elphaba’s “Defying Gravity.”  In Sweeney Todd and Wicked, such goal-changing decisions eventually lead to tragedy in one form or another.  Fortunately in Frozen, Elsa realizes her mistake and changes by the story’s end, thanks to her sister.  Still, her song is about a character who’s been struggling with something and is deciding to embrace a clearly wrong answer.

But of course that’s also what gives the song it’s power, in the dramatic sense; we can relate to Elsa’s emotions completely, even if we know she’s choosing the wrong thing.

But that’s also why it’s a bit funny to see videos of young children belting out the song proudly.  They’re singing about becoming evil.  Yes, I know it may be over some of their heads, but I still find it funny.  The music is great, but its beauty and power are misleading, as is Elsa being all smiley and happy about it; the philosophy she’s embracing is ugly and tragic.  After all, I don’t think we want children to actually let go of things like worrying about right and wrong.

The right answer to Elsa’s problem: love (as Elsa learns by the film’s end).  The wrong answer: cold indifference (as Elsa embraces with “Let It Go”).

So when you sing “Let It Go” while taking your evil shower (Sims joke), let’s hope you’re not singing the lyrics with actual conviction.  Because that would be, you know, evil.

Females saving males in stories

I was thinking about this as I emptied the dishwasher.

Say you have a story like Star Wars, in which a male warrior main character fights the bad guys and saves the female. And gender-swap it. A female warrior main character fights the bad guys and saves the male. The second feels awkward to me. What guy wants a warrior woman to save them?

I’m not talking about the “female action hero” trope in general, I’m talking about female action heroines whose roles in their stories involve saving a male by physically defeating enemies that the male character is too physically weak to fight.

I think it feels awkward because, in the real world, males are generally naturally physically stronger than females. This is simply reflected in stories.

I think the problem with this silly talk and others who analyze gender roles in stories is that they look too much at the method of saving.

Can a female character save a male character?

Of course. And it happens all the time.

Only they usually don’t do it through superior physical strength. Because that’s awkward and unrealistic.

For example, look at Mary Poppins in the classic Disney film, and notice how she saves Mr. Banks. Look at the problem Mr. Banks has relating to his own family, what Mary Poppins teaches him, and what sort of man he becomes by the end of the film. And notice that Mary Poppins didn’t have to use any superior physical strength to do it. (Meanwhile, look at the sort of woman Mrs. Banks is, and notice why she can’t save her husband.)

Other examples are some of the films from Studio Ghibli, such as Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, or the more recent The Secret World of Arrietty. Notice how, at times, the male characters physically save the female main characters at certain parts of the story, but in the course of the overall story, the female saves the male without using superior physical strength, but with empathy and wisdom.

I think the mistake comes from looking at a male action hero, and guessing it’s his physical strength that makes him a strong character. But it’s the other way around. When a male action hero raises his sword on the morning of battle, we are not celebrating his physical strength, we are celebrating his moral principles through his physical strength. His physical strength becomes a symbol of his virtue. This makes sense for male characters, because males are naturally physically stronger. So it’s often pretty awkward to celebrate a female character’s virtues through her physical strength. Rather we do it through her physical beauty and nurturing empathy.

Neither physical strength nor beauty and nurturing empathy are “better” than one another. So even though they are “unequal” in that they are not exactly the same thing, they are not “unequal” in the sense that one is worth more than the other. So having these differences naturally reflected in our stories and art makes perfect sense; it is not some strange ignorant sexism to fight against or compensate for.  (Nor is it some arbitrary cultural phenomenon.)

How movies teach manhood… ?

I have a tough time understanding what this speaker’s main point is; he seems to vaguely dance around some issue, but doesn’t say what exactly it is. From what I can tell, it has something to do with him wanting boys to have more fictional female role models, because this will somehow be vaguely good.

He mentions the Bechdel test. According to Wikipedia, the Bechdel test is used to [vaguely] measure gender bias in stories by evaluating how female characters are represented. But the Bechdel test is, in and of itself, stupid. This is because characters are not meant to represent the class of beings to which they belong (whether it be females, aliens, priests, etc.); characters are meant to represent sides of the story’s goal (how they either help or hinder the main character) and/or sides of the story’s theme (how they encourage or discourage it).

This doesn’t mean criticisms of class representations in stories or films are invalid, but these criticisms assume that a story-creator was biased in his story-creating decisions, and that this bias is bad. (All story-creators are biased, culturally and naturally; the criticism must include why the bias is bad for it to be a criticism and not just a recognition of a trope.) The Bechdel test seems to assume that all females are represented by female characters, and if there aren’t enough female characters not talking about male characters, this is a bad misrepresentation of females. But female characters are meant to serve a story purpose, not a cultural representation purpose. (The same goes for male characters in female-oriented romantic comedies.) So the test is invalid, at least when applied to stories in general.

(A criticism would be: “Hey, all the females in this guy’s films are evil and manipulative. Why?” Or: “Hey, all the father figures in these American sitcoms are dimwits. Why?”)

So to say, as he does, “I think our job in the Netflix queue is to look out for those movies that pass the Bechdel test” seems rather naive. That is, whether or not a movie passes the test implies nothing about what gender views or values they will encourage. Nor does it make any sense to “nudge our sons to identify with those heroines” rather than heroes as if that will somehow naturally promote something vaguely good.

Not that you’d want to nudge them away either.

My point is simply that girls and boys being biased toward role models of their own sex (and the social roles that go along with it) is not, in and of itself, unhealthy. It seems rather obviously natural to me. So you don’t have to do anything about it. (Abusing women is not a characteristic of recognizing differentiated gender roles; it is a characteristic of depraved morals in general. One does not imply the other.)

If you have something specific to criticize about gender representations in fiction (besides story-purpose roles, such as the “damsel in distress” trope), go for it, and prepare to argue it. But this talk is too vague.

Balen and the Factory

Here’s a little story I wrote today called “Balen and the Factory”:


by Sean Patrick Hannifin

Balen stood before the door, just one among a crowd. He was only fourteen, but it was never too soon to try, was it? Balen knocked and waited patiently. He didn’t know exactly what was inside, but he knew it was wondrous; it was where people made music and books and movies and candy. It was where anyone with an imagination as amazing as his should be. It was a paradise inside.

The doors slowly opened. A man in a blue coat stood in the doorway, peering out into the small crowd. Balen was surrounded by men and women, old and young, even children. The man in the blue coat pointed at someone, some kid who lept for joy and disappeared into the darkness beyond the doorway. The man in the blue coat pointed at someone else, an older woman. She smiled and walked in proudly. The man in the blue coat pointed at several others and they went in. But he ignored Balen. Then he closed the door.

Oh well. It was a long shot. Like winning the lottery. Except the prize was better. Maybe next year.

So the next year Balen returned to the door and knocked. Again he was surrounded by a small crowd of people. Again the man in the blue coat did not choose him.

The next year Balen returned again. And the next year, and the next. Many years passed, decades even, and Balen became old. He hated the surrounding crowds. They were noisy and annoying. He just wanted to get inside. It was unfair that he should have to wait so long. So many others were getting picked, children even. Who else had returned as many times as he had? He deserved to be inside by now.

The man in the blue coat opened the door. He was now very old and slow. He shook his head and spoke, his voice as cool as the wind:

“I’m sorry. This is the end. There will be no more. We’re shutting this place down.”

The crowd grumbled and left, but Balen stayed. As the man turned back to the door, Balen pulled on his coat.

“What?” the man asked calmly.

“Can I come in?” Balen asked.

“No,” the man said.

“Please!” Balen begged, falling to his knees. “Please! Let me in!”

“Sorry,” the man said. “It’s too late.”

“I’ve been knocking and waiting for fifty years! Surely you must have noticed me! Why would you never let me in?”

“You never smiled.”

Balen felt like punching the old fool. “I would’ve smiled if you had let me in!”

The man shook his head. “We wanted people who were already happy.”

Balen smiled.

The old man frowned. “You can’t fake it. And it’s too late.” And he slammed the door.

Balen went home and lived out the rest of his boring life in boring boredom.