What Can Science Tell Us About Story Structure?

12:11 minutes

an illustration with a book, a globe, with a line leading from the book to the magnifying glass
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If you hear the words “once upon a time,” you might guess that you’re hearing the beginning of a child’s fairy tale. And if you hear the words “and they all lived happily ever after,” you know you’ve probably come to the end of the story. But what happens in between? Writing in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that by using computerized text analysis methods, they’ve been able to identify words that help indicate the structure of a narrative.  

The team analyzed thousands of stories—from fiction found on Project Gutenberg to the transcripts of TED Talks—and found some common rules that seem to apply to most narratives. During a story’s introduction and scene-setting parts, for instance, articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” feature heavily. Conversely, during moments of crisis and conflict, words like “think,” believe,” and “cause” appear. The researchers wanted to find out if these patterns might function as a sort of signal, helping an audience follow plot lines. However, these patterns don’t necessarily make a story any better—the study did not find that stories using these rules were necessarily more popular.

Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, joins Ira to talk about the structure of stories and the rules we use when navigating a narrative. 

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Segment Guests

Ryan Boyd

Ryan Boyd is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University in Lancaster, UK.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about the role of education and accessibility in unintended pregnancies, and why we still don’t trust robots to do the jobs they excel at.

But first, if you hear words “once upon a time,” you might guess that you’re hearing the beginning of a child’s fairy tale, right? And if you hear the words, “and they all lived happily ever after,” you know you’ve come to the end of the story.

That’s a common structure we are used to hearing. But is there a common story structure in the middle too? researchers. Are using computerized text analysis to key in on words that indicate the structure of a narrative. Are there words that indicate an author is doing some scene setting? Or special words when some moment of conflict or crisis is at hand?

And how do these structural words affect the story as a whole? Ryan Boyd is one of those researchers, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University in the UK, and one of the authors of a report on the research published this week in the journal Science Advances. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Boyd.

RYAN BOYD: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Now, I understand that you analyzed thousands of stories looking for keywords. Give us an idea, what were some of the words that you clued in on?

RYAN BOYD: That’s right. So we looked at what we call function words, primarily. These are these small, throwaway words that most of us don’t pay any attention to. Words like the, and in, and of. And what we know is that these words actually, even though they seem unimportant, tell us a lot about what a person is doing psychologically.

And so, these are the types of words that we were scanning texts for. We were looking for articles and prepositions to measure how much staging or setting the scene authors were doing. And we also looked at pronouns to see how authors are referring to their characters and what their characters were doing, and so on.

IRA FLATOW: So you could draw sort of a graph of how many of each type of words there are at a given point, and kind of map out the structure of the narrative.

RYAN BOYD: That’s exactly right. We can take these words. And we can look at how frequent they are or how dense they are in different parts of the story, and get a rough sense of how much an author is doing different types of storytelling behaviors.

IRA FLATOW: Give us an idea of what stories you looked at for this.

RYAN BOYD: We looked at a really wide array of stories. So we started off by looking at very classic novels, a lot of things like Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, just a big collection of what we think of as traditional literature these days. But we also looked at things like movie scripts. We looked at short stories by professional authors and amateur authors. So, it was really all over the place. We looked at a lot of different types of stories.

IRA FLATOW: So, do you find that there is a common structure, that they have the same logic, and layout, and linguistics going on there?

RYAN BOYD: We do. We find that regardless of what type of story it is, whether it’s a short story or long story, they all go through the same process in the same order. And the shape looks pretty much the same. And this is true whether it’s movies or books, if it’s stories from the United States, from England, from China, from India. They all share in general a very similar structure.

IRA FLATOW: Can you say why that is? Is it’s something that’s taught perhaps in school? Or something that naturally happens when writers write?

RYAN BOYD: That’s a great question. We don’t know exactly why it’s there. We think that it’s a little bit of both. We think that this is probably indicative of how people naturally process information. It’s really hard to understand the story, and what’s going on, and why characters are doing what they’re doing, if we don’t first have the background information.

And I assume that over the years, people have learned that this is a really good way to tell a story, which is why we often teach this method for storytelling– exposition, and then plot progression, and so on.

IRA FLATOW: So then we, as readers, because we read so many of these stories, I guess we get clued in after a while to look for these keywords, that say, oh, look, a plot change is coming, be ready for something coming up.

RYAN BOYD: I think that what a reader generally does is follows it in a more zoomed-out sense. So, we don’t think that readers are looking at the really low-level details, like pronouns, and articles, and thinking, oh, no, something bad is about to happen. But we do think that readers are non-consciously picking up on these cues to get a sense of what it is the author is trying to do.

IRA FLATOW: Kurt Vonnegut once said that you could do a similar kind of analysis for the emotional arc of a story, that maybe even a machine could do it. Is there any emotional component to your work?

RYAN BOYD: In our work, we looked a little bit at emotions. And we do see that there are some structures that emerge, but it’s a lot more variable.

IRA FLATOW: What about the great stories that don’t necessarily follow a linear structure, like my favorite movie, the flashbacks in Casablanca, for instance, or if you want to take it to an extreme, Memento, which runs backwards, does your analysis hold up for these?

RYAN BOYD: It does. And these are great examples in that when we look at how these words show us the structure of these stories, it maps onto how we intuitively understand them. So, in both of these cases, Casablanca, Memento, they don’t follow this very normal setting of the stage, plot progression, conflict arts. Casablanca has a very famous flashback scene in the middle, where they’re back in Paris, and the Germans are invading.

And we see the staging process really jump up in this part of the movie because the storytellers are giving us a lot of new background information that we didn’t have before. The same is true also for Memento, where when the film starts we have no idea what’s going on, because we haven’t been given that important background information yet. And we can see this in the structure of the film as revealed through these text analysis.

IRA FLATOW: Does following these rules then make something a better story? Can we use this to improve our storytelling?

RYAN BOYD: I think that we can use this to improve our storytelling to a degree. If a book or if a movie follows this normative structure, that doesn’t inherently make it a good story, though. So, in some cases, we see that people really want a by the numbers type of plot structure. In other cases, maybe it’s these variations from what you would expect that make for a really good movie or story, in the same way that something like jazz music, for example. Often, a really good jazz solo is something that really defies your expectations.

IRA FLATOW: We already have plug-ins in our word processors that correct our spelling, and our grammar, and tell us how to make a better sentence. Do you envision that there will come a time where my word processor is going to tell me, hey, put this– your plot twist needs some sort of a little milepost here, or you want to put in a little alert here to make it work better?

RYAN BOYD: I think that we’re not very far away from that. What I would love to do in the near future with this is to develop something like that, that is more of a feedback system. So, we can show you when you are trying to compose a story what it is you seem to be doing. Maybe you think you’re setting the stage, but the numbers tell you you’re not doing it quite as strongly as you think you are, something like that.

IRA FLATOW: Do these rules still apply for works written in different languages that might have different rules of grammar or conventions?

RYAN BOYD: They do. And one thing that we looked at with this was how these structures hold up across different cultures, across different times, and so on. And we find that these same structures appear over and over again, regardless of these types of factors. When we look at languages that don’t have, for example, articles and prepositions, the things that we use in the English language, we just adopt different language analysis methods, but we still find roughly the same patterns regardless of how we approach it.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Speaking of rules, every rule is made to be broken. There are always exceptions to the rule. Are there texts you looked at that really stood out as just very different from the others?

RYAN BOYD: So, we also looked at a lot of types of texts that don’t follow what you might call a traditional story, so things like newspaper stories, and Supreme Court justice decisions, and so on. And we find that the patterns for these types of texts are very different. They seem to have their own unique structures that tell us something about the relationship between who the authors are and their audiences.

IRA FLATOW: Did you also find it true in works that you did not consider to be storytelling? Were they still using the structural methods that you talk about, even when they think they’re not telling a story?

RYAN BOYD: Even when they think they’re not telling a story, they’re still engaging in a lot of the same underlying processes that a storyteller would use. So, even as Supreme Court justice decision still needs to give you some degree of background information and some degree of unfolding their logic. So, even in cases where people aren’t engaging explicitly in storytelling, they’re still using some of the same techniques to convey information that a good storyteller would use.

IRA FLATOW: Are these linguistic clues something that our brains actually use to help decode the structure, or are they just an artifact? In other words, there are only so many ways to practically convey information.

RYAN BOYD: Probably a little bit of both. We think that especially when we talk about very specific parts of language, like articles and prepositions, these are more byproducts. They’re something that we can look at to tell us what’s going on behind the scenes.

IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea of your takeaway message from your research. What surprised you? What things, possibly, did you expect?

RYAN BOYD: I think one of the things that really surprised us was just how consistent this structure was in every type of story that we looked at. We thought surely there’s going to be differences between cultures. We thought surely that a story that’s only 200 words long is going to have a different type of structure than a story that’s 20,000 words long. And the fact that we just kept seeing this same structure emerge over and over again was really the most surprising factor for all of us, I think.

IRA FLATOW: I know you have a website where people can put in their own stories and have them analyzed for these narrative structures. Tell us about that.

RYAN BOYD: So the website that we’ve built, it has a couple of components. We have a part of the site where you can browse the films and the books that we analyzed, so that you can go in and look at the structures of a lot of different stories that are out in the public. And then, we also have a part of the website where you can put in your own stories and analyze them. And it’ll show you the structure of the stories, where the staging is occurring the most, were the tension is highest, and so on.

IRA FLATOW: And tell us about what that website is, please.

RYAN BOYD: The website is www.arcofnarrative.com.

IRA FLATOW: And your arc of narrative was just terrific today, Dr. Boyd.

RYAN BOYD: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve run out of time. Ryan Boyd is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University in Lancaster, UK.

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