Four shapes of stories, according to Kurt Vonnegut

Have you seen the video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining the shape of stories?  It’s short and funny, and I recommend you watch it.  Here is the gist of what he says.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.The most popular story type starts with a happy person.  Think the three little pigs building their homes.  Then the person gets into trouble.  The wolf huffs and puffs and blows two houses down.  At the end of the story, the person gets out of trouble—the big bad wolf dies—and the person is a bit happier than when the story began.  The three pigs live together in a brick house.  The shape of this story is a U with the right side of the U a bit higher than the left side.  (The example is mine.)

Another popular story type starts on an ordinary day.  Something happens to make the person think, wow, this is my lucky day.  Think boy meets girl.  But then something else happens to take the luck away.  Girl rebuffs boy.  The person is unhappier than at the beginning of the story until—serendipity—the person gets luck back.  Girl realizes her mistake and returns to the boy.  The shape of this story is an N.  (The example is mine.)

Still another story starts out with an unhappy person.  Think Cinderella.  But then something happens to make the person gloriously happy—going to the ball, dancing with the prince—until, abruptly, the cause of happiness is taken away—the clocks strikes midnight—and the person’s spirits plummet.  The person stays sad for a while, but then amazingly, something happens—the glass slipper fits—to make the person off-the-charts happy.  The shape of this story is something like an N but with an extended horizontal line leading up to the beginning of the N and another extended horizontal line connecting the downward slope to the final upward slope of the N.  (The example is Vonnegut’s.)

Notice that all three of these popular shapes for stories end with a line moving upward toward happiness.

An unpopular shape for a story is a straight horizontal line.  Think Hamlet, suggests Vonnegut.  A person starts out sad.  Events happen.  The person remains sad.  The person dies.  Not many stories show this pattern, says Vonnegut, because most readers want happy endings and most writers give them what they want—or because writers, like everyone else, don’t recognize true happiness. 

We pretend to know good news, but we cannot be sure, says Vonnegut.  Maybe this is because true happiness is mundane, like sitting under an apple tree with a friend on a sunny day.

It’s a thought-provoking video in the guise of a humorous monolog.  Key words like “Vonnegut” and  “shapes of stories video”, will show you numerous versions of the video, some with translations.

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