In last week’s post Review: Acting, Archetypes, and Neuroscience I mentioned the very Jungian view that there are only a limited number of stories that we keep repeating. Here’s my favorite quote on the subject:
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling . . . stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
– Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that stories are independent entities, but it’s not such a stretch to say that the stories we grow up with create a set of expectations about how a story will work, which leads us to repeat the pattern in our own lives and with our own children, who then repeat it with theirs.
Scientific American has taken this a step further by mathematically analyzing over 1300 books. In the resulting article, Great Literature is Surprisingly Arithmetic, they say that 85% of the books analyzed followed one of six emotional arcs. They also discovered nested repeating patterns in sentence length, which were more repetitive in stream of consciousness writing.
Take from this what you will, but if nothing else it’s an interesting look at unconscious patterns.