The 6 Emotional Arcs of Storytelling, Why You Should Use Them, and Which One is Best

A new study reveals what Kurt Vonnegut's rejected master's thesis already knew: Every story can be lumped into one of six categories. 

Throughout his artistic career, Kurt Vonnegut made a vast number of contributions to the art of storytelling. But did you know that the work he considered his most important was rejected outright?

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his master's thesis for anthropology on the notion that "stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society's stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads."

Essentially, what these graphs reveal is that every story has a certain shape; many stories, in fact, share the same shape. These shapes can be found by tracing the ups and downs of the protagonist's journey—or "the emotional arc" of the story. Vonnegut's rejected masters thesis defines the emotional arc of a story as a line plotted on the ‘Beginning-End’ and ‘Ill Fortune-Great Fortune’ axes. The "GI" axis, mathematically similar to the y-axis, places Ill Fortune, defined by Vonnegut as "sickness and poverty," at the bottom, and Good Fortune, "wealth and boisterous good health," at the top. The "BE" axis, the equivalent of the mathematical x-axis, represents the beginning and end of the story. The line flows somewhere in between.

All stories fall into six emotional arcs—or, rather, three arcs and their inverses.

Back in 1995, Vonnegut gave a simple demonstration as to how his thesis works:

Vonnegut provides us with three examples of emotional arcs: the "Man in Hole" arc, the "Boy Meets Girl" arc, and the "Cinderella" arc. In addition to these arcs, he was also said to define the "From Bad To Worse," "Which Way is Up," "Creation Story," "Old Testament," and "New Testament" arcs.

Below, graphic designer Maya Eilam put together a handy infographic illustrating the emotional arcs which Vonnegut believed could match with every story in written language. 

Courtesy of Maya Eilam

Fast forward to 2016: a group of students in the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington has finally proven, without a doubt, that Vonnegut and his thesis were correct. Andrew J. Reagan, along with colleagues Lewis Mitchell, Dilan Kiley, Christopher M Danforth, and Peter Sheridan Dodds are the minds behind the new scientific article The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

The article begins with an abstract explaining how "our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories and forming patterns that are meaningful to us." These emotional trajectories are equivalent to Vonnegut's "story shapes."

Modern technology has its advantages, however. Whereas Vonnegut hypothesized that these emotional arcs could be analyzed by computers, Reagan and co. went ahead and used computers to find them. Their methodology is difficult to summarize, assuming you aren't familiar with "matrix decomposition by singular value decomposition (SVD), supervised learning by agglomerative (hierarchical) clustering with Ward’s method, or unsupervised learning by a self-organizing map (SOM, a type of neural network). If you do understand this level of mathematics, then, by all means, take a deeper dive into the article in its entirety.

Is there a film or a story that naturally compels you? Try to define the emotional arc of that story and adopt it for your own. 

For those of us who are less mathematically inclined, the researchers used a filtered subset of 1,327 stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection, analyzed 10,000 words based on their general implied sentiment, and rated them on a scale of happiness. They used a Hedonometer, which is a tool that gauges happiness or pleasure for "its ability to generate meaningful word shift graphs," or graphs that measure changes in word frequencies, producing spikes or dips in happiness.

In simplest terms, the University of Vermont team "examined the emotional arc that is invoked through the words used." As the words appear in the books they sampled (all fictional and written in the English language), a story arc is drawn in relation to the frequency of happy or sad words present within each portion of the book. This arc in the frequency of when happy or sad words appear can be related to the ups and downs of the protagonist's journey.

To put this into some sort of context, you can check out a list of films ranked by happiness compiled using the same method by Hedonometer. Below are examples from the article on how this arc is illustrated:

Courtesy of Andrew J. Reagan

When the arcs of the 1,300 books were compared to each other, the researchers found that all stories fell into six emotional arcs—or, rather, three arcs and their inverses. They named them as follows:

  • Rags to riches (rise): SV 1

    • A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story, such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll.
  • Tragedy or Riches to rags (fall): SV 1

    • A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet.
  •  Man in a hole (fall-rise): SV 2

    • A fall, then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut.
  •  Icarus (rise-fall): SV 2

    • A rise, then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. 
  • Cinderella (rise-fall-rise): SV 3

    • Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella.
  •  Oedipus (fall-rise-fall): SV 3

    • Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

Courtesy of Andrew J. Reagan.

What's more, they found that a few of the story arcs were considerably more successful than the rest. By comparing the stories with their new arc categorization to the number of times the book had been downloaded from Project Gutenberg, the research team was able to see which arcs attracted readers. They found that "Icarus," "Oedipus," and "Man-in-a-hole" were the three most successful emotional arcs.

Clearly, a story's emotional arc a story is important to its success. Next time you're thinking of writing a screenplay and don't know where to start, consider beginning your brainstorm with one of these six emotional arcs. Use the emotional arc as a starting point and unravel your plot from there. Is there a film or a story that naturally compels you? Try to define the emotional arc of that story and adopt it for your own. It's not stealing; it's scientifically referred to as "narratology," a component of folkloristics devoted to the study of "a series of events, real or fictional, presented to the reader or the listener."

Without these six arcs, storytelling would be impossible. Or, you know, "experimental."     

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Your Comment


I saw Kurt Vonnegut give this presentation - apparently he ended every talk with it - and what the people who did this study missed (and which the video misses) is that he was joking! The audience was laughing the whole time he gave this speech because he was very clear during the presentation that he thought it was bad writing to use such simplistic models for how stories worked. Also, it would have saved a lot of time if the video included Vonnegut's conclusion, which was that the best stories are ones like Hamlet, which in his view is full of contradictions, so that there is never a "good" or a "bad", just a straight line just towards the bad side of the midpoint. I guess Vonnegut would find it amusing - though probably not surprising - to see that the people who wrote the original article ended up doing the exact opposite of what he intended!

November 29, 2016 at 10:21AM, Edited November 29, 10:24AM

David HC

You're such a tremendous imbecile the ignorance is bleeding out on your keyboard. Vonnegut proposed this thesis back in 1946:“Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales”, which got confirmed just last year.
Stop watching videos and start reading, or just shut up, you'll do humanity a great service.

December 31, 2016 at 12:03AM, Edited December 31, 12:03AM

Martin Brewer
Director, DOP

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May 30, 2017 at 1:35PM, Edited May 30, 1:35PM

Ethan Loomis
Videographer, Loomis Video

A while back I did wonder if it would be an interesting study to see whether stories with happy endings were more popular or not, so this is a really great study that’s been done and I appreciate the work that’s been put into it. It does make me wonder though at the complexity of what it means to be happy and the fact a hedonometer was used implies that it’s only measuring one kind of perceived success or happiness. So I’m intrigued by examples of stories where perhaps the protagonist gets what they’ve been striving for but by the end they still aren’t “happy” on a truer level, or the audience isn’t necessarily happy FOR the protagonist. It’s like a moral or spiritual story arc that perhaps runs alongside the hedonistic/emotional story arc and could even be an inverse of it.... for example in The Founder.... he gradually rises in position and power and material wealth by the end, in perpetuity.... but by the end of the film my personal feeling as regards the morality or spirit of the man, was, ‘what a low life’. So I feel that’s an example of SV1 material rise with a simultaneous inverse SV1 ‘moral’ or spiritual decline, for one way of putting it. The Big Year also has Owen Wilson playing a character going through an experience like that, where he comes out a winner in ’hedonistic’ measurable terms but a loser in moral or ’inner spirit’ terms. So it would be interesting if further studies could potentially include such complexities in character development/emotional arcs and to see which combination of hedonistic success vs. spiritual success arcs seem the most well received. My inclination is to think we do like to see justice done and so watching a morally void character “lose” spiritually even if he’s ”won” materially, scratches our itch to see some kind of justice done in the world.

February 18, 2020 at 2:30AM, Edited February 18, 2:43AM