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“Well, there’s no reason why the Simple Shapes of Stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes. This is the G-I axis, good fortune, ill fortune, sickness and poverty down here, wealth and boisterous good health up there. Here is the very middle. Now this is the B-E axis. B stands for beginning, E stands for electricity...” – Kurt Vonnegut, 1995 Lecture on the Shape of Stories

Pulitzer Prize winning American author Kurt Vonnegut once had a failed thesis wherein he posited that all stories told by humankind might be graphed according to the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things which happen to the protagonist. Furthermore, he speculated that – allowing for variations in amplitude and frequency – there is a limit to the number of unique shapes stories take.

That number is small.

A 2016 research team (lead author: Andrew Reagan) from the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab downloaded thousands of stories from Project Gutenberg and applied a “Sentiment Score” to each one (through hundreds of iterations for each story). The Sentiment Score was not defined at a paragraph level, but rather recorded the timing and amplitude of good or bad things happening to the protagonist. Their data yielded six primary archetypes of stories, based on the sentiment score graph they yielded.

Archetype Beginning Ending Shape
Rags to Riches BadGoodSteady Rise
Riches to Rags GoodBadSteady Fall
Man in a Hole Good then WorseGoodFall then Rise
Icarus Good then BetterBadRise then Fall
Cinderella Good then BetterWorse then BestRise then Fall then Rise
OedipusGood then WorseBetter then WorstFall then Rise then Fall


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