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Noon Edition

The Science Of Narrative Structure

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D:      Hey Yaël, is that the new mystery novel everyone’s been talking about?

Y:      I just finished it—it wasn’t that great. Any recommendations for what I should read next, Don?

D:      You should probably ask someone else. I don’t think the kinds of books we like have anything in common. 

Y:      Don’t be so sure. At the very least, the pattern of their function words is probably the same.

D:      The short connector words such as pronouns and prepositions?

Y:      And articles, conjunctions, negations, and auxiliary verbs—the little words we usually don’t notice in a story. A team of researchers analyzed these words and other language in about 40,000 works of fiction, and found that the way they’re used in a storyline falls into a pattern. The researchers looked at narratives in three stages: the staging, when the author sets up the story; plot progression, when the story gets going; and cognitive tension, when the story is progressing toward a climax. During staging, we read a lot of prepositions and articles such as “a” and “the.” The author’s conveying basic information to the reader about settings, concepts, and relationships: “Once there was a mermaid who lived in the sea,” for example. In the plot progression stage, we see a lot more auxiliary verbs, adverbs, and pronouns. Now “the sea” and other nouns might be called “it” more often. In the cognitive tension stage, the author tends to start using more cognitive processing words such as “think” and “believe” as the protagonist is working through the story’s conflict.

D:      It’s fascinating that there’s an underlying structure behind it all—but it doesn’t convince me you’ll like the books I recommend.
Books on a table.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Even very different kinds of books share some common characteristics, like the pattern of their function words. These are the short connector words such as pronouns and prepositions, as well as articles, conjunctions, negations and auxiliary verbs. In other words, the little words we usually don't notic in a story.

A team of researchers analyzed these words and other language in about 40,000 works of fiction, and found that the way they’re used in a storyline falls into a pattern. The researchers looked at narratives in three stages: the staging, when the author sets up the story; plot progression, when the story gets going; and cognitive tension, when the story is progressing toward a climax. During staging, we read a lot of prepositions and articles such as “a” and “the.”

The author’s conveying basic information to the reader about settings, concepts, and relationships: “Once there was a mermaid who lived in the sea,” for example. In the plot progression stage, we see a lot more auxiliary verbs, adverbs, and pronouns.

Now “the sea” and other nouns might be called “it” more often. In the cognitive tension stage, the author tends to start using more cognitive processing words such as “think” and “believe” as the protagonist is working through the story’s conflict.

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