Emotional arcs make stories popular, according to researchers

Years ago Kurt Vonnegut presented graphs of common story ideas, analyzing their popularity. Now, researchers from the University of Vermont and University of Adelaide have computerized those graphs, using a variety of classics from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Apparently, alternating high and low emotional arcs in a plot makes for a very successful story. And, in romance fiction, we’ve always known this to be true.

Part of Vonnegut’s original idea was that people are drawn to certain story arcs more than others, and that these proclivities vary from culture, just as pottery or musical styles would.

The researchers say there is much more work to be done to compare the popularity of story arcs across cultures and time. But to investigate whether certain story types are more popular than others, they analyze how often stories with certain emotional arcs are downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and find that stories with the Icarus, Oedipus and Man-in-a-hole arcs are downloaded most.

While the researchers admit this is a rough proxy for success, they say the emotional rise and fall of these stories might help them forge a particular connection with readers. “We tend to prefer narratives that fit into certain molds,” Reagan says.

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