“Invisible Words Reveal a Blueprint for Stories”

From an article on futurity.com headlined “Invisible words reveal a blueprint for all stories”:

When telling a story, these common words—a, the, it—are used in certain ways and at certain moments. In a new study in Science Advances, researchers recorded the use of these kinds of words across thousands of fictional and nonfictional stories, mapping a universal blueprint for storytelling. . . .

In a computer analysis of nearly 40,000 fictional narratives, including novels and movie dialogues, the researchers tracked authors’ use of pronouns (she, they), articles (a, the), and other short words, unveiling a consistent “narrative curve:”

  • Staging: Stories begin with a lot of prepositions and articles like “a” and “the.” For example, “The house was next to the lake, below a cliff.” These words help authors set the scene and convey the most basic information the audience needs to understand concepts and relationships throughout the story.
  • Plot progression: Once the stage is set, authors incorporate more and more interactional language, including auxiliary verbs, adverbs, and pronouns. For example, “the house” becomes “her home” or “it.”
  • Cognitive tension: As a story progresses toward its climax, cognitive-processing words rise—action-type words, such as “think,” “believe,” “understand,” and “cause,” that reflect a person’s thought process while working through a conflict.

“If we want to connect with an audience, we have to appreciate what information they need, but don’t yet have,” says lead author Ryan Boyd, an assistant professor of behavioral analytics at Lancaster University.“ At the most fundamental level, humans need a flood of ‘logic language’ at the beginning of a story to make sense of it, followed by a rising stream of ‘action’ information to convey the actual plot of the story.”

The research team compared the established fictional story structure to more than 30,000 factual texts, including 28,664 New York Times articles, 2,226 TED Talks, and 1,580 Supreme Court opinions. Though many shared striking similarities, each genre had unique structures that reflected the different relationships between the authors and their audiences.

“Take TED Talks, for example. They mostly show the same pattern, except at the end where the cognitive tension aspect of stories continues to climb with words like ‘think’ or ‘because,’” says coauthor Kate Blackburn, a postdoctoral research fellow. . . .

More details on the team’s analysis are available at The Arc of Narrative website.

Speak Your Mind