The simple shapes of stories

shapes of stories

According to the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut, the shapes of stories can be mapped and graphed. Have you thought about the shape of the story in your book?

Does your book have a good shape and could you draw it?

Kurt Vonnegut developed his theory of the “simple shapes of stories” while a master’s student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He argued these shapes are straightforward enough to feed into computers. His thesis was rejected for being “just fun” and he left school degree-less, but the concept stands. He was given his master’s degree over a decade later using his novel Cat’s Cradle as a thesis paper, and his works such as the book Slaughterhouse-Five, attest to his legendary skills as an author.

Vonnegut sums up his theory in this short video.

Lecturing onstage, he chalks the shapes while describing them to the audience. Vonnegut, the consummate storyteller, is a delight to watch, evidenced by the audience’s laughter and noises of approval.

Vonnegut uses two axis. He calls the horizontal axis the “B-E axis,” or beginning to end. This makes sense, as the time course of the story is shown from left to right.

The vertical axis he names the “G-I Axis,” or the good and ill fortune axis. The most fortunate events occur at the top of the graph while misfortune rules the depths.

In the video, he overlays the shapes of three classic story types. First, he draws “Man in the Hole.” He explains it doesn’t have to be a man or a hole, per se, it’s just a story of somebody getting in trouble and out of it again. “People love that story,” he quips, “they never get sick of it.”

Second he draws “Boy Meets Girl.” The trajectory follows a “normal boy” hitting the heights of meeting the perfect girl, sinking to the depths of losing her, and then reaching the top of the graph when he gets her back again by the ending.

Finally, he draws the classic Cinderella story, what he calls “the most popular story in western civilization.” Starting at the lowest of lows, the underdog prevails and by the end she achieves “off-the-chart happiness with her prince.”

Vonnegut’s message is that classic stories have clear, simple and beautiful shapes. No matter what the events of a story, every story has a shape. This shape reflects the progression from beginning to end and the shifting fortunes of the main character.

What is the shape of your story?

Is it too simplistic to boil down a short story – much less a book – into this kind of visualization? Not at all. In fact, it’s useful. All good stories boil down to basics. Knowing yours is essential.

  • Where is your protagonist at the start of the story? In the middle? By the end?
  • Does the arc of your story sweep through space to make something simple, yet beautiful?
  • How does your shape compare to the shapes Vonnegut drew? Do you have a classic on hand?

Looking at the shapes Vonnegut draws, one sees that they share a common feature. They hit highs and lows. They soar and fall. They go up and down. They are in constant flux.

The magic of a good story is its sweeping curves. The shifting fortunes of the protagonist causes the shape of the story to use the maximum space allocated. All the curves are a variation of an S-shape and hit highs and lows. This means they don’t cling to particular places in the graph space. They don’t plateau, at least not for long, or slope up or down too gently. They look more like rollercoaster tracks.

Bearing this in mind, is it possible to create shapes that are wrong? Can some shapes fail to engage readers?

Yes. One failed shape would be one that doesn’t run the course. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. And if a shape dillydallies around, remaining in the upper or lower half of the graph, it will likely bore the reader. A story that is all happy or all sad won’t work. A great story requires conflict and resolution.

An eloquent shape also has a long-range-trajectory. If it oscillates too much in the near-term, with repeated tiny ups or downs, the arc doesn’t go anywhere. As a rule, there should be long runs of either ups or downs. A “flat-line” shape, will only produce a flatliner story.

Of course, there can be exceptions. Vonnegut describes these shapes and more in his book, A Man Without a Country. The shape of Hamlet is a flat line. And Kafka’s stories start the protagonist at the bottom of the graph of ill-fortune and then quickly drop him further down.

You, as an author, must understand the shape of your story. It is possible to create an unusual story shape, as Shakespeare and Kafka did, but most stories fit archetypal shapes. As Vonnegut says, you might be the next millionaire if you create a brilliant, fresh version of the Cinderella story.


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