Matthew Jockers: Six Basic Plots of Fiction

NovelTM member Matthew Jockers has received a lot of attention this week for his data-backed claim that there exist six (sometimes seven) archetypal plot shapes in fiction. On February 3rd, Motherboard featured Jockers’ research, followed by an article in the Paris Review on February 4th, and on February 5th, he was trending at number forty-one on reddit. Jockers’ discovery is based on years of research on the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction that involved a corpus of ~50,000 novels. Using sentiment analysis, Jockers pursues an understanding of plot based around sentiment rather than narrative event. As Matt explains, “When we study the syuzhet [of a novel], we are not so much concerned with the order of the fictional events but specifically interested in the manner in which the author presents those events to readers.”  With an eye on emotion and not just mechanism, Jockers considers the tone or mood (or what psychologists might call “valence”) of words, identifying “a controlled vocabulary of positive and negative sentiment markers, [using] a machine model trained to identify and score passages as positive or negative.” The fascinating findings of this study have caught the eye of many a reader and writer, initiating a lively online debate and the well-deserved recirculation of a Kurt Vonnegut video clip on plot, of which the opening line, “There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be entered into computers,” inspired Jocker’s present study. In addition, Jockers has also released a package in R called “syuzhet,” which allows users to replicate his results on their own datasets.