Instead of focusing on plot, he analyzed the emotional trajectory of each story, based on what happens to the protagonist. His master’s thesis in anthropology was rejected by the University of Chicago (“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut explained.) But he continued to carry the idea with him for many years and his idea has resonated with researchers.
In 2016, mathematicians and data scientists examined 1,737 works of fiction and found six common emotional arcs:
- Rags to Riches (rise)
- Riches to Rags (fall)
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
- Icarus (rise then fall)
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
What’s more, they also found that some story arcs were considerably more successful than others by comparing total downloads of all books from Project Gutenberg. “Rags to Riches” may be popular among writers, but it may not be the emotional arc that readers reach for most. “Icarus,” “Oedipus,” and “Man in a Hole” were the three most successful emotional arcs.
What’s your favorite emotional arc to read? Why?
- Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories (If you like dry humor as much as I do, you will love his talk!)
- The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes