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The Narrative Arc: What Big Data Tells Us About Storytelling

Text analysis of 60,000 "narrative curves" reveals a blueprint for storytelling.

Source: conrado/Shutterstock

A massive, first-of-its-kind text analysis study using big data reveals universal narrative structures that have gone under the radar until now. These commonly used narrative arcs create a seemingly "invisible" blueprint for storytelling structure across generations and cultures.

The findings (Boyd, Blackburn, & Pennebaker, 2020) on "The Narrative Arc: Revealing Core Narrative Structures Through Text Analysis," were published on August 7 in the journal Science Advances.

"We all have an intuitive sense of what defines a story. Until now, no one has been able to objectively see or measure a story's components," UT Austin professor of psychology and co-author James Pennebaker, who is the founder and director of the Pennebaker Language Lab, said in a news release.

For this big data "narrative arc" study, Pennebaker and co-authors Kate Blackburn of The University of Texas at Austin along with UT Austin alum, Ryan Boyd, used computer-based language analysis methods to examine about 40,000 traditional narratives (e.g., novels and movie scripts) and roughly 20,000 nontraditional narratives (e.g., science reporting, TED talks, and Supreme Court opinions).

The computer algorithms used for text analysis were designed to track pronouns, articles, short "function words," and several other "structural and psychological categories of language." Their analytic strategy also "involved quantifying the rates of function and cognitive words across each text."

According to the authors, their extensive text analysis revealed a consistent "narrative curve" underlying storytelling structure in most traditional narratives that consisted of a three-step process: (1) staging, (2) plot progression, and (3) cognitive tension.

Function words used in the staging process were calculated separately from the "pronouns, auxiliary verbs, negations, conjunctions, and non-referential adverbs" used during plot progression. Cognitive tension words were identified using the cognitive process dictionary from a text analysis program called "The Development and Psychometric Properties of LIWC2015." (Pennebaker et al., 2015)

"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," lead author Ryan Boyd, who is currently an assistant professor of behavioral analytics and a computational scientist at Lancaster University in the UK, said in the news release.

Below are three core tenets of typical "arc of the narrative" structures as laid out by Boyd, Blackburn, and Pennebaker:

  1. Staging: Stories tend to begin with an abundance of prepositions and articles such as "a" and "the" (e.g., "The house was next to the lake, below a cliff"). Articles and prepositions help writers set the scene and convey fundamental information that the audience will need to understand key concepts and relationships as the story unfolds.
  2. Plot Progression: Once the stage is set, writers tend to incorporate more and more interactional language; this includes auxiliary verbs, adverbs, and pronouns (e.g., "the house" is now referred to as "her home" or "it").
  3. Cognitive Tension: As the narrative progresses towards a climax, cognitive-processing words tend to increase along with the use of more action-type words (e.g., "think," "believe," "understand," and "cause"). These words reflect a protagonist's thought process as he or she resolves a dilemma or conflict within the narrative arc.

This six-minute YouTube video thoroughly explains how these "arc of narrative" blueprints were discovered by deconstructing the narrative structure of some well-known stories using computer-driven text analysis.

"While a generalized narrative structure was found to exist across tens of thousands of stories, great variability between narratives did exist, suggesting that a strong creative element influences a narrative's deviation from the norm," the authors explain.

Although this text analysis study reveals generalized core narrative structures, more research is needed to identify subtle nuances within the overarching structure of these narrative blueprints. "We are only now beginning to understand the structure and function of stories from an empirical, scientific perspective. Several questions remain for future research," the authors concluded.

"Future work should more deeply explore the psychological function of such structures, much in the way that recent research has explored psychologically central topics of self-narratives," the authors noted. "In addition, the degree to which these methods and [narrative] structures may apply to other forms of language, such as social interactions or instructional discourse, remains unknown."


Ryan L. Boyd, Kate G. Blackburn, James W. Pennebaker. "The Narrative Arc: Revealing Core Narrative Structures Through Text Analysis." Science Advances (First published: August 07, 2020) DOI: 10.1126/:sciadv.aba2196

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