Study Shows There are Only 6 Emotional Arcs for All Novels & Plays

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A great novel or play touches or enrages or saddens us. It makes us look at ourselves or other people differently. Despite the many emotions we feel while reading books or watching plays, they follow one of only six emotional arcs, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Vermont graphed the happiness and sadness of words that occurred across the pages of 1,327 works of fiction (novels and plays) in the digitized Project Gutenberg collection to identify the emotional arcs.

About 85 percent of those works of fiction follow one of only six emotional arcs. All books were in English and less than 100,000 words. An emotional arc refers to a pattern of highs and lows in the story, from beginning to end. The emphasis is on the emotional trajectory, not plot structure. The patterns were identified through the words depicting happiness or sadness.

These are the six emotional arcs:

#1 Rags to riches (rise).  The story moves from low to high. The study gave “Winter’s Tale” as an example. My favorite example is Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The Bennet sisters have no marriage prospects at the start of the story, but they eventually find true love and marry rich and handsome husbands.

#2 Tragic (fall).  The story starts at a high point and ends in tragedy. “Romeo and Juliet” is a classic example of this arc.

#3 Man in a Hole (fall to rise).  The story moves from high to low and ends high. Most John Grisham novels follow this arc, including “The Firm.” A likable hero (Mitch McDeere) has no idea of the kind of trouble he will get into when he joins a law firm. The whole book is about Mitch getting out of the hole.

#4 Icarus (rise to fall): “Gone with the Wind” is my favorite example of this arc. Scarlett O’Hara starts as a spoiled Southern belle but ends up a survivor. “Shadowings” was the example from the study.

#5 Cinderella (rise, fall, rise): In “Fahrenheit 451,” Guy Montag starts happy and contented with his job—burning books—but he grows disenchanted as he discovers the importance of reading. He goes against the authorities. The arc rises again when he escapes his captors. The study gave “The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow” as an example.

#6 Oedipus (fall, rise, fall): One of my favorite books of all time, “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, follows this arc. The hero, Inman, experiences terrible violence in the Civil War. He leaves the hospital where he was recuperating and walks 300 miles back to his love, Ada Monroe. They are briefly reunited, until tragedy strikes. The example from the study is “The Evil Guest.”

Read more about the study in the Scientific American.

Read about other studies focusing on books:

Want to Live Longer? Reading a Book Will Help

New Study: Books Empower Readers to Do Positive Things