January 13th, 2014
We knew it. Trey Parker knew it. Socrates, Kant, and Hegel knew it. An analysis of 800 Project Gutenberg books from computer science folks at SUNY Stony Brook shows the most popular and successful books have two traits: 1) simplicity of writing, 2) contain “more conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’.” Time for Judge Judy to rap her gavel and say, “ABT: CASE CLOSED.” But also the study is a little frightening for writers.
“WELL THAT’S FANTASTIC, you wrote a novel and invested three years of your life and we can just put it into this little program here that says it has a Popularity Score of … 39 percent and it’s done — nobody wants to read your novel, your three year investment of creative energy is commercially dead, thanks to this new program.” (inspired by this classic South Park moment)
COME ON OVER TO THE ABT WAY OF LIFE
If my TEDMED Talk and Science letter weren’t enough, will you believe DAAAAAAAY-TA (as Oscar-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy once said in one of my films, “That’s a mighty big word — does that make a little man feel like a big man?”).
Seriously, friends. What more does it take. I was told that some of the scientists at SICB felt the ABT was “too simple” “too constraining,” “too whatever (meaning they just didn’t like it for reasons they couldn’t quit pinpoint).”
Now there are data to show it works. The ABT is the tool I used to turn the CERF Sea Level Rise plenary panel from “a pile of s****y facts” (to quote famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky) into a structured narrative presentation that held the interest of 1,000 people for an hour. It is indeed that powerful.
And now there is a major breakthrough — a quantitative study that shows a clear correlation between the ABT elements and successful communication. Yes, it’s only a correlation, but come on … use a little instinct at this point. Don’t let your data obsession cloud your common sense.
THE GUTENBERG BOOK STUDY
The study by three members of the Department of Computer Science, SUNY Stony Brook quantitatively analyzed 800 famous books that are part of the Project Gutenberg collection. One of their findings: successful books contained “heavy use of conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’.” Which is two thirds of the ABT.
And why not — we are proposing that the ABT is THE universal narrative template. It is the very core of storytelling. So all this finding says is that the most popular books were the ones that had the most story structure. Which is simply what you would expect from a “storytelling animal” (to use Jonathan Gotschall’s title of his excellent book).
Furthermore, it pointed to “simplicity” as a key element for effective writing. Which is the core message of our book, “Connection.”
I love the findings of the story, except that …
THE BAD NEWS: NOBODY’S GONNA BUY YOUR GREAT NOVEL
On a separate note … yeeks … think what this study means. They claim to have an 84% accuracy in predicting the success of a book based only on the elements they analyze. Does this really mean it is now the case that you can spend three years slaving over your great novel, only to send it to a literary agent who will use this program to instantly give it a “popularity score” then write you back saying, “It is with the deepest regret and with the sincerest desire to not impede your literary efforts that I must inform you …”
Pretty mind bending. Makes me think of a friend who said she spent all afternoon filling out a job application on-line for Bed, Bath and Beyond, finally read it over, clicked the SUBMIT button expecting to get a note saying, “Please wait two weeks for notification,” but instead got an INSTANT rejection, basically saying, “No, thanks.”
What a strange, metric-obsessed world we are continuing to create.