Every story in the world has one of these six basic plots

By Miriam Quick 25 May 2018

“My prettiest contribution to the culture” was how the novelist Kurt Vonnegut described his old master’s thesis in anthropology, “which was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun”. The thesis sank without a trace, but Vonnegut continued throughout his life to promote the big idea behind it, which was: “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.

In a 1995 lecture, Vonnegut chalked out various story arcs on a blackboard, plotting how the protagonist’s fortunes change over the course of the narrative on an axis stretching from ‘good’ to ‘ill’. The arcs include ‘man in hole’, in which the main character gets into trouble then gets out again (“people love that story, they never get sick of it!”) and ‘boy gets girl’, in which the protagonist finds something wonderful, loses it, then gets it back again at the end. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”, he remarked. “They are beautiful shapes.”

"Thanks to new text-mining techniques, this has now been done. Professor Matthew Jockers at Washington State University, and later researchers at the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, analysed data from thousands of novels to reveal six basic story types – you could call them archetypes – that form the building blocks for more complex stories. The Vermont researchers describe the six story shapes behind more than 1700 English novels as:

1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune

2. Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy

3. Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune

4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again

5. Cinderella – rise, fall, rise

6. Man in a hole – fall, rise

The researchers used sentiment analysis to get the data – a statistical technique often used by marketeers to analyse social media posts in which each word is allocated a particular ‘sentiment score’, based on crowdsourced data. Depending on the lexicon chosen, a word can be categorised as positive (happy) or negative (sad), or it can be associated with one or more of eight more subtle emotions, including fear, joy, surprise and anticipation. For example, the word ‘happy’ is positive, and associated with joy, trust and anticipation. The word ‘abolish’ is negative and associated with anger.

Do sentiment analysis on all the words in a novel, poem or play and plot the results against time, and it’s possible to see how the mood changes over the course of the text, revealing a kind of emotional narrative. While not a perfect tool – it looks at words in isolation, ignoring context – it can be surprisingly insightful when applied to larger chunks of text, as this blog post on Jane Austen novels from data scientist Julia Silge shows. The tools to do sentiment analysis are freely available, and much out-of-copyright literature can be downloaded from online repository Project Gutenberg. We looked at some of the best-loved tales from BBC Culture’s 100 stories that shaped the world poll to try and find the six story types.

The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1308-1320)

Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Story type: Rags to riches

Dante’s tightly structured, exquisitely symmetrical epic poem traces his imaginary journey down into hell in the Inferno, accompanied by – who else? – the poet Virgil. Sure enough, things start off badly in the Divine Comedy with a low sentiment score that sinks further as the duo descend through the circles of hell. (There is a trace of ‘man in a hole’ here, which in this case is as literally true as things could be in such an allegorical text.) Having miraculously survived hell, they next climb the Mountain of Purgatory where the souls of the excommunicated, slothful and lustful reside, and Beatrice – Dante’s ideal woman – eventually replaces Virgil as his companion. The pair’s ascent into heaven in the Paradiso is marked by growing joy as the poet comprehends the true nature of virtue and his soul becomes one with “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”.

Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert, 1856)

Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling

Story type: Riches to rags

There’s a moment in Flaubert’s tale of a bored and faithless housewife where our protagonist Emma Bovary muses that, since her life so far has been so bad, the part still to be lived must surely be better.

Not so. Emma embarks on failed, desperate love affairs that offer only brief respite from the grinding tedium of being an imaginative woman married to the world’s dullest man, mounts up catastrophic debts and finally, kills herself by drinking arsenic. Her grieving husband, after discovering her multiple infidelities, then dies too, and their now-orphaned daughter is sent to live with her grandmother, who also dies. The little girl goes to live with a poor aunt, who sends her to work in a cotton mill. It’s a textbook tragedy, driven with relentless focus towards the end goal of total downfall, and an utterly satisfying story.

Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare, 1597)

Story type: Icarus

Romeo and Juliet is naturally considered to be a tragedy in line with Shakespeare’s own description, but when you analyse its sentiment the story appears closer to the Icarus shape: a rise, then a fall. After all, the boy must find the girl and fall in love with her before they both lose each other. The romantic peak happens around a quarter of the way through the play, in the famous balcony scene in which they declare their undying love for one another.

It’s all downhill from there. Romeo kills Tybalt and flees, the Friar’s plan to smuggle Juliet out to join him provides a small bump of false hope to the drama, but once Juliet has drunk the potion nothing can prevent the final, still-searing tragedy.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

Story type: Man in a hole or Cinderella

The first half of Austen’s sparkling novel is a fiesta of balls and high jinks (albeit restrained ones), witticisms and unserious marriage proposals from the likes of comical vicar Mr Collins. Things take a darker turn as Bingley leaves and Elizabeth starts to develop a dislike for Darcy (based on a misunderstanding, naturally). The novel’s sentiment pivots into decisively negative territory after his disastrous proposal, reaching its nadir as Lydia elopes with the untrustworthy Wickham. This, of course, is also Darcy’s opportunity to prove himself, which he does with dignity and aplomb, winning Elizabeth’s heart and ensuring a measured happy ending, in which everyone is slightly wiser than they were before.

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

Story type: Oedipus

Shelley’s seminal novel tells the woeful tale of Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Victor’s own words, as related by Captain Walton in a series of letters to his sister. At one point, the Creature gets to take over the narrative, making the novel a story within a story within a story. This is in fact a moment of respite in what is overall a downward trajectory from the happy description of his early life with which Victor opens his narrative, to the appalling ending. At a pivotal moment two thirds of the way through the novel, the Creature offers Victor a way out – make him a female companion. But Victor refuses. From this point on, his fate is sealed. “Remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night”, threatens the Creature. And so it proves.

The Ugly Duckling (Hans Christian Andersen, 1843)

Translated by HP Paull

Story type: Complex

The shortest story of them all, Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale also has the most complex structure, incorporating two man in a hole (or duck in a hole) sentiment arcs within an overall rags to riches narrative framework. That is, things get generally better for the duckling over the course of the story, but there are flashes of light and dark along the way: he hatches (yay!) but is bullied for being different (boo). He discovers he can swim better than the other ducks and experiences a premonition of affinity as a group of swans fly over (yay!), but then nearly dies in the winter cold (boo). He does become a swan eventually, in a way entirely foretold from the beginning. That’s the point, of course: “To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg.” The story ends on the highest of notes, with the swan-all-along crying that he “never dreamed of such happiness as this”.

BBC Culture’s Stories that Shaped the World series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. The poll of writers and critics, 100 Stories that Shaped the World, will be discussed at the Hay Festival in May and later broadcast on BBC World News.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.