How many ways can you tell a fictional story? British newspaper columnist Christopher Booker suggested in 2004 that the answer was “7”: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6. Comedy and 7. Tragedy. All but the seventh have happy endings, either the restoration of order or the promise of renewal.
‘nothing magical about 7, of course, and other authors argue for anywhere from three to thirty-six basic plots.
Complementary to that was Kurt Vonnegut, who argued for Universal Shapes of Stories in his rejected Masters thesis. In it, he traces the sentimental arc of stories, the shifting balance of happiness and sadness as the plot unfolded. He identified eight basic types of story arcs, well illustrated here and charmingly presented in video by Vonnegut here.
Enter Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English Professor. He assigned a sentiment weighting to any word that carried some emotional affect: for example, Pout, Powerless, Prejudice are all unhappy; while Gallant, Generous, Gentle are all happy. As computers scan text, they can assign emotive values to each word, calculate cumulative sums and averages, and thus follow the ups and downs of sentiment across a work. So, for example, Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist:
A few things to note: the average sentiment is positive (μ > 0.0), the novel has many ups and downs (black annotated line) but the smoothed trajectory is sort of happy-sad-happy (blue line). It roughly follows Vonnegut’s Man in Hole model (top of page).
Analyzing 41,383 novels with Syzuhet, he concluded that there are six, maybe seven, basic sentiment plots. The two Primary arcs were Man in Hole and Man on Hill, with variations on each.
It’s not a perfect path to analysis. Jockers notes that happiness can be false-notated in sections where the bad guys are having a very good time. It completely misses British subtleties of irony or dark humour (as do I).
Still, I find the whole analysis sort of delightful, I’m looking forward to an atlas being published so that I can see how some of my favorite works are diagrammed (the software is available if you want to do your own analysis as well).