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Scientists say stories’ emotional arcs are dominated by 6 basic shapes

Stories move us when their emotional arcs follow a pattern we recognise from our own lives.

So what exactly is the ‘emotional arc’ of a story?

The emotional arc is the pattern in which our feelings rise and fall, from happy to unhappy, as we experience a story.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut describes story arcs by sketching the rise and fall of emotion on two axes: a vertical ‘GI axis’ running from Ill Fortune (sickness and poverty) to Good Fortune (wealth & good health), and a horizontal ‘BE’ axis running from Beginning to End. In the video below, he draws simple but powerful curves that audiences can’t get enough of: the ‘man in hole’ curve, where somebody with just above average fortune at the beginning gets into trouble and gets out of it again; and the similar ‘boy gets girl’ curve. Finally he describes the Cinderella-esque pattern that starts at rock bottom with terribly ill fortune, rises to better fortune with the introduction of the Fairy Godmother, peaks when she dances with the Prince at the ball, drops again as the clock strikes midnight, then rises to off-the-scale happiness at the end when they live happily ever after. Kurt describes this pattern as the most popular story in our civilisation, present in all kinds of great works, from Cinderella, to the origin story of Christianity in the Old Testament.

It’s easy to confuse a story’s emotional arc with its plot or meaning. The important thing to remember is that emotional ups and downs emerge from all sorts of plot and structure combinations. In other words, the emotional arc of a story does not point towards one specific plot or story structure. High and low feelings can be elicited in infinite different ways, giving storytellers the opportunity to unleash their creative imagination. We can dream up all kinds of plots and use our understanding of structure to create original works that move our audiences along a compelling, memorable emotional arc. The stories that succeed and stand the test of time have emotional arcs that correspond to life and our shared human experience. Researchers at the Computational Story Lab analysed the emotional patterns in all kinds of stories, finding just six dominant emotional arcs.

The six emotional arcs

1. Rags to riches (rise)

2. Tragedy, or ‘riches to rags’ (fall)

3. Man in a hole (fall-rise)

4. Icarus (rise-fall)

5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)

6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

As an author, screenwriter or any kind of storyteller, there are many structural principles to consider when you’re concocting a powerful story.

How you can use the emotional arcs

You can use these six emotional arcs to help you analyse an existing story you’re working on, finding ways to make it more impactful by amplifying the rise and fall, making the lows lower and the highs higher to create dramatic contrast. The more contrast, the more drama, just as in paintings or lighting effects. You can use the arc shapes to learn about storytelling, by searching for patterns as you read a book or watch a movie. You can also use them to create new stories that weave plot and structure in a way that makes a familiar arc emerge.

Speech writers can use a similar approach, using contrasting highs and lows to paint a picture of what is (past, present) and what could be (future), back and forth, creating drama by bringing the audience on an emotional, memorable journey of ups and downs. Nancy Duarte explains how the world’s greatest communicators use this technique in her TED talk:

Storytelling principles

Given that the same emotional arc can emerge from all kinds of plot twists and structural combinations, it’s important to understand the structural principles of storytelling too, particularly genre, or plot type.

Blake Snyder identifies ten different genres with specific structural requirements:

  1. Monster in the house
  2. Out of the bottle
  3. Whydunit
  4. Golden fleece
  5. Rites of passage
  6. Institutionalised
  7. Buddy love
  8. Super hero
  9. Dude with a problem
  10. The fool triumphant

Shawn Coyne, on the other hand, gives a broader definition of genre, encapsulating the requirements of each in his Genre Five Leaf Clover.

Syd Field describes dramatic structure in terms of the key plot turning points in a three act structure. These plot points are incidents, episodes or events that hook into the action and spin the story in another direction. Here Syd describes the Paradigm, a model of what a screenplay is if you look at it like a painting hanging on a wall.

Then we have the the hero’s journey structure and Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, describing twelve stages:

  1. The ordinary world
  2. The call to adventure
  3. Refusal of the call
  4. Meeting with the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold
  6. Tests, allies and enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The ordeal
  9. The reward
  10. The road back
  11. The resurrection
  12. Return with the elixir

You can find more detail on these stages here and see Chris describe them here:

All of these frameworks break down the hidden patterns that lie beneath powerful stories, giving us the kickass toolset we need to unleash that power. Understanding emotional arcs, genre and story structure provides welcome constraints that improve our creativity, rather than hamper it. It’s natural for creative people to feel the need for complete freedom when they’re making something new, but in storytelling, as in life and in nature, there are conventions – key principles – that supercharge the impact of our work.

If you’re playing tennis, you can hit the ball right on the line and dramatically get away with it. If you hit the ball clean out the court with no regard for any lines, people just laugh and think you’re nuts. The originality of great creative works comes from how we produce the same, but different. The same because we need our work to resonate with people who already have a lens of human experience to view it through, but different because we can use our creativity to mirror and amplify these experiences in unexpected ways.

You can read the full paper ‘The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes’ here.

You can play with this cool tool that shows you the emotional arcs of various books here.

Are you a visual storyteller who loves storyboarding? We’re plotting the launch of the world’s most spanking gorgeous storyboarding notebook, THE STORYBOARD, on Kickstarter soon. If you’re interested in becoming an Insider on the project, you can get involved and help shape the design, give feedback and get sneak peaks by filling in the contact form on our home page.

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