The Quest for Universal Plot Types
For centuries, writers and critics have tried to put stories into basic categories. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut described eight of them: Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, From Bad to Worse, Which Way is Up?, Creation Story, Old Testament, New Testament, and Cinderella. He argued that stories have beautiful shapes which can be drawn on graph paper or fed into computers, rising and falling emotionally over time on a horizontal B-E axis (Beginning/End) and a vertical G-I axis (Good Fortune/Ill Fortune). Vonnegut explained his theory many times and you can watch his explanations online, both the short version and the long version.
Six Basic Story Shapes
Inspired by Vonnegut’s ideas, researchers at the the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Laboratory and others used various tools, including one they call the Hedonometer. Based on what Vonnegut called “emotional arc,” this online tool compares each part of a story by tracking what kind of words dominate it: either words such as “awful punishment poor blame afraid cried hate” or else “happy father garden faith home great laugh.” Graphing the “shapes” of 1,327 books from Project Gutenberg, they found six basic plots.
- Rags to Riches (rise): A poor boy owns nothing but a cat, but it eventually makes him a rich man and Lord Mayor of London (Dick Whittington). SV1 or Mode 1, core emotional arc 1
Examples: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Jungle Book, The Call of the Wild, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
- Tragedy, or Riches to Rags (fall): The king’s advisor hopes to gain power by having his rival executed, but his conspiracy fails and he himself is executed by the king (Haman). -SV1 or Mode 1 negative, core emotional arc 2
Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Beowulf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heart of Darkness, The Time Machine, Pygmalion
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise): Targeted by more powerful gangsters, members of an organized crime family are shot, assassinated, and exiled, but in the end, they make an offer that the other gangsters can’t refuse (The Godfather). SV2, core emotional arc 3
Examples: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Through the Looking-Glass, The Prince and the Pauper, The Secret Garden
Icarus (rise then fall): An inventor makes wings of wax and feathers and learns to fly with them, but his son rises too close to the sun and then falls. -SV2, core emotional arc 4
Examples: A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, Three Men in a Boat, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Pilgrim’s Progress (though some of those have happy endings)
Cinderella (rise then fall then rise): A poor girl meets the prince at a ball, but she loses her slipper when fleeing at the stroke of midnight. Back home, serving her wicked stepmother again, a royal messenger asks her to try on the lost slipper, and when it fits, the prince marries her. SV3, core emotional arc 5
Examples: Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Love and Freindship (Jane Austen), The Merchant of Venice
Oedipus (fall then rise then fall): An infant prince is found by shepherds on a mountainside, becomes a king, but ends his life as a blind wanderer. (I won’t give away the whole story of Oedipus – it’s complex). -SV3, core emotional arc 6
Examples: Frankenstein, A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes), The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie), The War of the Worlds, The Turn of the Screw, The Red Badge of Courage
Lessons from Story Research
- Arcs have curves, not jagged lines.
Events, circumstances, and cardboard people can change quickly, but real people change gradually. If a character changes suddenly and inexplicably, it isn’t believable and it isn’t satisfying. When a character is rescued by outside forces, we want him or her to be ready for it, if not to deserve it. We don’t want it to happen too quickly or too lightly. We all have problems, so we relate to characters with problems like our own. Even ancient Greeks criticized the overuse of the “deus ex machina” effect, where just when we are dying to know how they are going to solve their problems, a god is lowered onto the stage with a crane to solve them all for them.
- The most successful plots may not be the most likable.
Professor Ganna Pogrebna from the University of Birmingham determined that the most profitable films, such as The Godfather, have the “man in a hole” shape. But the most profitable films are not necessarily the most liked (most people don’t like bloody murders), but rather the most discussed (as Michael Corleone’s family rises out a professional hole, he falls into a moral hole).
- More arcs may be more interesting.
The Computational Story Laboratory researchers examined the number of downloads of each book to see which type of story was most popular. The winners included “Icarus,” “Cinderella,” and “Oedipus,” but one of the most downloaded types didn’t even have a name: “two sequential ‘Man in a hole’ arcs (SV 4).” That’s “fall rise fall rise,” a pattern that fits fewer books but more popular ones, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. But successful books can be more complex than that: Jane Austen’s Persuasion has the shape of “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise” (SV7), as does Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. And when I look at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Hedonometer, I see “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise.” In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, I see “rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise fall rise.”
- It never rains all the time.
It’s called an emotional arc for a reason: sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. The emotional tone gets pretty low near the end of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, when Faustus is dragged off to Hell. (I suspect the Hedonometer’s rise at the end is a false positive.) Yet the play includes comic scenes. Critics used to think they couldn’t have been written by Marlowe, but now they think otherwise. Marlowe knew that no audience can stand unabated gloom.