Science project

Marie Laure Ryan Experiment

Difficulty of Project



The cost of Xeroxing

Safety Issues


Material Availability

Easily available!

Approximate Time Required to Complete the Project

About an hour.



  • To identify how readers choose possible worlds from a text.
  • To categorize different types of possible worlds and how they are linked to different kinds of readers. 

Materials and Equipment / Ingredients

  • A short story
  • Questionnaires
  • Approval to experiment on humans
  • Pens


Reading is not merely a process of understanding what occurred in a plot—it is also a process of prediction. As a person reads, a part of his/her brain is always wondering what will happen next.

Marie Laure Ryan, a literary theorist, theorizes that every time a reader encounters an important plot point, he/she uses this information to predict an entire plotline. For example, if you are reading about a woman who gets her purse stolen, you might think, “I bet she tracks down that thug and beats him senseless.” However, if the reader discovers new information in the story that contradicts the plotline they’ve predicted, the reader changes the plotline to match the new information. For example, when reading about the woman whose purse is stolen, you discover that the purse thief is a homicidal maniac. That means that the woman is far less likely to track him down. Now you predict that the thief will track down the woman, and try to finish her off.

Empirical evidence has shown that some readers do use this process while reading. However, it is not clear which readers use this process and how they use it. What kinds of readers create possible storylines while reading? How does one categorize the different worlds that readers come up with? 

Research Questions
  • What characterizes a reader who creates possible worlds while reading?
  • What categories of possible worlds do readers create? 
Terms, Concepts and Questions to Start Background Research
  • What is Narratology?
  • What are Possible Worlds? How do they work?
  • How would you characterize the ways in which different people read?
  • What are important demographic factors that might contribute to the result of this experiment? 

Experimental Procedure

  1. Identify a story that would be appropriate for this experiment, and which is obscure enough that you believe no one taking part in this experiment has read it before.
  2. Apply for approval, from your teacher or a committee, to test on humans.
  3. Create a general demographic survey questionnaire that the readers can answer first, so that you can later analyze how these factors affect their predictions.
  4. Break the story into different subsections based on key actions or information that is presented.
  5. Create questionnaires that readers will answer after they have finished reading a section of the story. These questionnaires will contain questions that lead the readers to write down their theories for what will happen next.
  6. Gather a group of volunteers together and give them the story. Make sure they give the story back to you before you give them the questionnaires. Once you are done, analyze your results.


Ryan, Marie Laure. “From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds: Ontological Pluralism in Physics, Narratology, and Narrative”. Poetics Today 27:4 (Winter 2006). 

Ryan, Marie Laure. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Indiana University Press. Indianapolis: 1991. 

Ronen, Ruth. “Paradigm Shifts in Plot Models: An Outline of the History of Narratology.” Poetics Today 11:4 (Winter 1990).

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