‘Invisible words’ reveal a blueprint for all stories

(Credit: Matt Heaton/Flickr)

Small, “invisible” words appear in a similar pattern across most stories, no matter the length or format, according to new research.

When telling a story, these common words—a, the, it—are used in certain ways and at certain moments.

In a new study in Science Advances, researchers recorded the use of these kinds of words across thousands of fictional and nonfictional stories, mapping a universal blueprint for storytelling.

“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,” says coauthor Jamie Pennebaker, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a computer analysis of nearly 40,000 fictional narratives, including novels and movie dialogues, the researchers tracked authors’ use of pronouns (she, they), articles (a, the), and other short words, unveiling a consistent “narrative curve:”

  • Staging: Stories begin with a lot of prepositions and articles like “a” and “the.” For example, “The house was next to the lake, below a cliff.” These words help authors set the scene and convey the most basic information the audience needs to understand concepts and relationships throughout the story.
  • Plot progression: Once the stage is set, authors incorporate more and more interactional language, including auxiliary verbs, adverbs, and pronouns. For example, “the house” becomes “her home” or “it.”
  • Cognitive tension: As a story progresses toward its climax, cognitive-processing words rise—action-type words, such as “think,” “believe,” “understand,” and “cause,” that reflect a person’s thought process while working through a conflict.

This combined linguistic pattern in stories may reflect how humans optimally process information, the researchers say. Prior studies have shown that young children can easily assign names to people and things; ascribing action, however, proves more difficult.

“If we want to connect with an audience, we have to appreciate what information they need, but don’t yet have,” says lead author Ryan Boyd, an assistant professor of behavioral analytics at Lancaster University.

“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.”

The research team compared the established fictional story structure to more than 30,000 factual texts, including 28,664 New York Times articles, 2,226 TED Talks, and 1,580 Supreme Court opinions. Though many shared striking similarities, each genre had unique structures that reflected the different relationships between the authors and their audiences.

“Take TED Talks, for example. They mostly show the same pattern, except at the end where the cognitive tension aspect of stories continues to climb with words like ‘think’ or ‘because,'” says coauthor Kate Blackburn, a postdoctoral research fellow.

“This makes perfect sense. The goal of the TED Talk is to inspire, and leave the audience questioning what they have just heard from the speaker. In this sense, we seem to be able to tap into the structure of other forms of storytelling, as if we can identify that story’s fingerprint.”

More details on the team’s analysis are available at The Arc of Narrative website.

Source: UT Austin