September 20, 2021

The Shapes Of Stories: Kurt Vonnegut's Story Structure Exposition

"Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it." ~Kurt Vonnegut. 



Kurt Vonnegut, most famously known for his Slaugherhouse-Five anti-war sci-fi novel, wrote a thesis on storytelling, stating that they could all be brought down to the same elements, plotted prettily on a graph: 

Main characters having continuous changes in fortunes (good and bad), and these changes in fortunes can be graphed, from beginning to end.

Shapes of Story by Kurt Vonnegut

Using this principle, researchers have found that our most popular stories tend to follow one of six shapes along this plot line:

  1. Rags to riches, or the Upward Journey - from ill fate to good fate. Examples of this story structure include Oliver Twist, the Karate Kid, Rocky.

  2. Riches to rags, or the Downward Journey - from good fate to ill. Examples include The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull

  3. Man in a Hole, or the Fall then Upward Journey - Easily the most popular story (and the one that brings in the most $$$), as it follows a main character getting into trouble, then figuring out how to overcome its challenges. Examples include any boy meets girl story, like romcoms, where the guy meets the girl, loses her, then they get together again at the end. But also includes stories such as the Godfather.

  4. Icarus, or the Rise then Fall Journey - The heroine moves from an ill fate, rises to great heights...only to fall again. Examples include East of Eden (GREAT book and movie, btw), Breaking Bad.

  5. Cinderella, or the Rise, Fall, Rise Journey - The heroine starts off in a really bad place (ex: orphan), starts to get out of her hell hole (ex: meets prince), falls again (the clock strikes 12 and she's locked up by horrid step-mother), then rises again to get her happily ever after. This is another super famous (and super profitable) plot line. Examples include Cinderella (obvs), the New Testament (humankind gets lots of presents from God, only to get punished/ousted from paradise, but can gain unlimited bliss in the very end), Harry Potter, plenty, if not most, of the Grimm's fairy tales.

  6. Oedipus, or the Fall, Rise, Fall Journey - The ultimate tragedies. You start with someone who seemingly has it all, like a prince, who then loses it all (banished, lost war, etc.), tries to change his fate, and it looks like it's going to happen (defeats bad guys, marries princess,...), only to have a worse calamity befall him. Examples include the original Little Mermaid, and All About my Mother

Illustration of all story types in one "life line": Dayton O’Donnell

As you can see, each of these Story Shapes has a distinct emotional arc for the main character, depending on how their fortunes shift. This is also known as the "dramatic curve." 

To be clear, though, although most stories fall into one of these categories, the devil's always in the details. Meaning that, even if the overarching story arc is the same, each story is different because we each bring our own, individual visions, words and craft to the board. 

But knowing about these dramatic curves can help if one's stuck in terms of what needs to happen next.


Other Resources:

1. The Six Basic Plots and the Dramatic Curve - this goes into a lot more details when explaining each of the points above

2. Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Why Uncertainty is The Crucible of Creativity

3. The formula for box office success: Scientists checked 6,147 movie scripts and discovered the emotional arc in The Godfather is the most financially successful

4. To Tell Your Story, Take a Page from Kurt Vonnegut

September 7, 2021

When Art Could Literally Kill You

The Basilica Di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

I have been reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Dreamer Trilogy, a real fun fantasy series about Dreamers, people who can bring anything they make up in their dreams into the real world, and the Moderators who want to wipe them out to prevent the end of the world. In the trilogy's second installment, Mister Impossible, there is mention of the Stendhal Syndrome, which totally peaked my interest. Hence this post.

It's amazing how many new syndromes I learn about reading fantasy fiction (the last one being the Marie Antoinette Syndrome which I discovered while reading House of Hollow), eh?

Anyway, the Stendhal Syndrome is named after the French author who described his intense reaction to the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817, whose beauty nearly gave him a heart attack:

Stendhal

"I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves'. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling." (1)

Symptoms include dizziness, tachycardia, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, ... visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid persecutory delusion, and depersonalization disorders. Basically, the person finds him/herself so overwhelmed by the beauty of the art, that their brain's completely overwhelmed and short circuits.

Quite intense, huh? 

Three hundred years prior, Florence had hosted three great artists at the same time: Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli, and their fingerprints have been left all over the city. But it is not the only place that has similar effects. Dr. Hiroaki Ota noticed similar reactions to Paris, while Dr. Bar-El coined the term Jerusalem Syndrome for the same symptoms experienced by people in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Freud himself "wrote about severe feelings of alienation and depersonalization upon visiting the Acropolis of Athens, and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced severe paralysis, and absence when faced with Hans Holbein's Le Christ mort au tombeau in Basel, Switzerland." (2)

Arias, MD, draws is even further, stating that "[e]cstatic epilepsy shares symptoms and mechanisms

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

with orgasmic epilepsy (spontaneous orgasms in the course of epileptic seizures), musicogenic epilepsy (epileptic seizures triggered by listening to a certain musical piece), and also with Stendhal syndrome (neuropsychiatric disturbances caused when an individual is exposed to large amounts of art) and some autoscopic phenomena (out-of-body experiences that occasionally take place in imminent death situations). In all these events, there are pleasant and affective symptoms which have a great impact on patients." (3)

Curioser, and curioser. And also a little scary... don't you think?

PS: I am really enjoying Mister Impossible (in fact, the whole trilogy, though only the first 2 books are available as of the date of this post), for those of you who are into YA urban fantasy stories--it's got great characters, lots of actions, and really great descriptions (and for one who's not that much into descriptions of places in general, that's saying a lot)!

Sources:

(1) Wikipedia article on the syndrome

(2) Stendhal Syndrome: a clinical and historical overview 

(3) Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena.

April 16, 2021

Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Let them eat brioche*.

Many of us are familiar with the famous last Queen of France who is said to have pronounced those words when her people were dying of hunger(1)


I bring Marie Antoinette up, because I recently read House of Hollow, an excellent fantasy-horror novel by Krystal Sutherland. The novel is about three sisters who mysteriously disappeared in their childhood, only to reappear a month later, with no memories of what had happened to them. Shortly after the girls' reappearance, their hair turned suddenly white, a medical condition that doctors in the novel call the "Marie Antoinette Syndrome". 

Turns out this syndrome is real** and comes from the embellished witness accounts that state that Marie Antoinette's hair turned suddenly white right before the Revolutionaries had her pretty neck offered to the guillotine (this was in 1793, a month short of her 38th birthday).

As an article on Healthline(2) states, a similar occurrence was reported to have happened a couple centuries prior, with Thomas Moore (also upon his execution), and, more recently, with WWII bombing survivors. 

But, although (chronic) stress could be a catalyst for such a dramatic whitening of hair, science tells us it's not the actual cause, and certainly does not happen that quickly. Instead, other possible reasons listed include: pattern baldness, which would suddenly expose the white hairs we already have but haven't noticed until then; a genetic predisposition to graying hair; hormonal changes, including thyroid issues, menopause or a drop in testosterone levels;  nutritional deficiencies, and the B12 vitamin in particular; and vitiligo, which impacts our body's pigmentation.

Still, I can imagine that the state of Marie Antoinette at her execution must have been quite a contrast to the popular vision people may have had of her as a young, pretty and profligate queen. After all, she had just spent ten weeks in prison, and that was after a couple of years of house arrest and failed attempts to flee the country. This sudden contrast between reality and the popularized image of her may thus explain the idea that her hair turned white overnight.

Marie Antoinette moments before being beheaded


Notes and Sources:

*I know that traditionally, the quote is translated as "cake," but brioche is more of a sweet bread, more like Hawaiian bread, rather than actual cake...

**Well, somewhat... as explained lower in the text.

(1) Interestingly, that happened because some "clever" bourgeois decided to force King Louis XVI's hand in adopting more capitalistic business practices, which included raising the price of bread (when before, it was forbidden to do so).

(2) Marie Antoinette Syndrome: Real or Myth?

(3) Additional info on Marie Antoinette's end of life

March 25, 2021

Money Has No Smell

The expression Money has no smell is attributed to Roman Emperor Vespasian (CE 9-79). The story goes that, in dire need of money for the Empire, he decided to tax just about anything.

Including urine.

This precious liquid, so to speak, was used by tanners and dyers to treat their hides and cloths, and thus the tax on it proved quite lucrative. Still, it didn't stop many from complaining about it. Vespasian's own son, Titus, criticized him for this tax which he deemed absolutely ridiculous (I can only imagine how the tax collectors and auditors must have had their nostrils assaulted by the sharp smells).

But Vespasian was satisfied with his tax, and that is when people say he retorted that, "Money has no smell."

Interestingly, in the 19th century, some French (who wrongfully assumed then that Vespasian was the one who had created the Roman public toilets to help in his tax collections efforts) started calling their toilets Vespasiennes.


Source:

Roughly translated from a short article in the French magazine Les grandes figures de l'histoire No. 20.

March 18, 2021

Comedy Of Gestures - A Writing Tip

Can you guess what each is thinking
just based on their "gestures"?

I'm reading Chuck Palahniuk's Consider This, which is a neat little book with a lot of great writing advice, given in the author's usual direct speech (and peppered with fun little stories to illustrate).

One of the tips Palahniuk gives is to provide texture to your storytelling, and in particular your dialogues, by mixing in gestures. This makes the story come alive more (more "human"), as well as provides a tool to help figure out who's speaking without resorting endlessly to the "he said/she said" tags. Better yet if these movements contradict what's being said!

To help us, his students, Palahniuk suggests coming up with 50 quick wordless gestures we use every day to raise our awareness of them, and starts us off with a few already:

  1. Thumbs-up
  2. Thumb-and-index finger "okay"
  3. Knocking your fist lightly on your forehead to "recall" something
  4. Clutching your heart
  5. Hitchhiker's thumb (which can imply "get lost")
  6. Index finger held vertically against the lips, for "hush up"
  7. The hooked "come here" finger

  8. Here are 43 more I've come up with on the spot...
    Rigid posture, clenched fists, head high...
    Shuffling feet, hands raised in shock


  9. Scratching nose
  10. Looking up to think (perhaps because lying)
  11. Looking down in shame or shyness
  12. Avoiding eye contact (to try to avoid conflict or being noticed or stopped or otherwise hailed)
  13. Sticking out the tongue
  14. Rolling the eyes
  15. Biting the lower lip
  16. Tossing your hair
  17. Holding onto the back of the neck in discomfort
  18. Hiding hands deep inside pockets
  19. Hooking thumbs in pants
  20. Lifting the chin in defiance
  21. Yawning
  22. Closing eyes in pain 
  23. Blinking
  24. Winking
  25. Nodding the head
  26. Shaking the head
  27. Twirling the hair
  28. Holding arms crossed tightly over chest
  29. Head thrown back, arms open wide,
    large grin - you're free!
    Squishing arms a little around boobies to make them stand out (as distraction or mating ritual)
  30. Throwing hands up in frustration
  31. Pinching lips
  32. Nostrils flaring in barely repressed anger
  33. Tapping toe of shoe on the ground bashfully
  34. Hands on hips
  35. Flipping the bird
  36. Blowing a kiss
  37. Snapping teeth (clear warning...or come hither?)
  38. Pinching bridge of nose
  39. Holding pinky and thumb up to face as a "call me" sign
  40. Miming writing with a pen to ask for pen and paper while too busy talking to someone else (ex: phone)
  41. Holding hands up, either as "stop" or as a "I give up"
  42. Rolling shoulders and cracking neck (or knuckles) to get down for business
  43. Pulling on ear in thought
  44. Picking your nose
Anything else you can think of that could be added to this list? I think what would be cool, too, would be to also have a whole list of gestures that could mean something different in another culture, like when Ross was telling Emily "Time out!" and she took offense, stating "Well up yours too!" (yeah, I like FRIENDS) :)  



February 14, 2021

Asking For Her Hand In Marriage

Image by Prawny
Back in 1913, the author Franz Kafka wrote to the father of his long-time love Felice, asking for her hand in marriage, and stated:

I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac and genuinely in poor health. Among my family, the best, most loving of people you could ever encounter, I live as a complete stranger. In recent years I've spoken an average of less than twenty words a day to my mother, and I've barely ever exchanged more than a few words of greeting with my father. I don't speak to my married sisters and their husbands at all, unless I have something bad to say. I have no sense of how to cohabit normally with my family.
And yet your daughter is supposed to live alongside a person like this, a healthy girl like her, whose nature has predestined her for genuine marital bliss? Is she supposed to bear it, leading a cloistered existence alongside the man who, admittedly, loves her as he's never been able to love anyone else, but who, by virtue of his unalterable destiny, spends most of his time either shut away in his room or wandering around alone?

He did not receive an answer.

January 17, 2021

Thrillers - The Genre Of Our Time


As Shawn Coyne states in his book The Story Grid, "what determines the degree of popularity of any one particular Genre [for a Story] are the vagaries of the time period in which it has been written." Westerns are practically nonexistent these days, and space movies are only just recently making a comeback while zombies and vampires have been mostly relegated to the background, so to speak.

However, the one Genre that Coyne posits is representative of our time period (and has done so for a few decades now) is the Thriller (1).

The following text is an excerpt from The Story Grid on this very topic, which I find particularly à propos considering the topic of the blog post I shared on New Year's Day this year. Be warned, it's long, but really, really interesting!

The thriller is the Story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. Thrillers boil down our modern experience to a psychological core that [every] person on the planet can understand, sympathize and empathize with.


Contemporary civilization is a dizzying mix of sensory input designed to elicit individual compliance and subconscious behavioral action. We are inundated with psychically damaging messages--
we're too fat, we're ugly, we're low class, we're not cool, we're lazy, we're never going to make it. On top of those assaults are prescriptive solutions to overcoming our inadequacies--go on a diet, join a health club, go to college, wear hip-hop clothes, take this seminar. They are targeted to us every single day, hour, minute, and even second of our lives.

And these are no longer static images from the Mad Men era. They are loaded in full High Definition motion on billboards, in cabs, on buses, on the Internet and every single cable channel. While the commercial messaging is impossible to ignore or avoid, it is modern life's "control" messaging that really knocks us on our asses. (. . .) 

The granddaddy of all messages we receive is this: WE' RE NOT SAFE.

We are told tat there are boogeymen at every corner. Al Qaeda, and now ISIS and a slew of other terrorist organizations that we know little of, want to destroy us. Pedophiles are stalking our children. Our government is failing us. The world is getting so hot, it will soon melt down. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, are imminent (2). Storm watches, breaking news, lone gunmen, sociopaths, psychopaths, liars, cheaters, swindlers, gangs, feral youth, pirates, unstable veterans, racists, sexists, drones, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Police, MI5, MI6, the Stasi, KGB, DEA, IRS, drunk drivers, texting drivers, homeless people. . . The fear factory is churning out product like no other time in history.(3)

To make matters worse? We all live alone. We belong to no protective tribe. The nuclear family is a couple or just one parent with a kid or two or three. Perhaps all from different partners. Single parents pulled in a million directions. It's just mano a mano.

This is why the thriller is the form that holds the blockbuster baton these days.

I also think we are attracted to the thriller because of the chaotic and yet intricately connected character of our age. Modern man is assaulted with data from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep. While we are all connected now by the World Wide Web, we don't see any real grand humanitarian design coming to bear as a result. There are millions of people starving, being slaughtered, used as slaves, and our economies are in complete flux. Everything that modern man once held dear and believed (technology will solve all of our problems) is now in doubt. There just doesn't seem to be any way to navigate the world without feeling in one way or another victimized by forces beyond our control.

In order to find our way in this chaos, we seek stories that give us hope and faith that we can persevere.

While over the top action fantasy stories are certainly still viable and commercially irresistible, long form stories in novel form that do not sugarcoat reality or simplify success help satisfy our need for order. As we often feel like we have no impact on the world whatsoever and are treated by the powerful as consumption machines to be programmed by the latest algorithms, we deeply identify with thriller protagonists.

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn't this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.


I told you it was a long passage, didn't I? :) But I think it's very interesting to see and understand possible reasons for the prevalence of thrillers in our day and age. Somehow, that genre speaks to us, at some deeper level, helps us make sense of the world around. I wonder if this would have helped people at the start of the 20th century when they suffered from a newly diagnosed disease called neurasthenia?

In any case, let me reassure you should you be wondering while reading this post: I do not currently have any plans to diverge from writing fantasy(4), though I will most definitely play with the type of Story Genre within Fantasy (including, potentially, thrillers and/or horror, who knows?).

Notes:

(1) I believe that technically the Romance genre is still at the very top, and will remain so as the quest for true love will (thankfully, might I add) always been our top priority, but in terms of media noise and wide appeal (I don't know why there's such a bad rep for "chick flicks" or "chick lit" in N. American culture among a sizeable portion of the population), thrillers are "It."

(2) And now we're dealing with COVID-19 and its mutations, without including talks of bioweapons potentially already being developed for use.

(3) In Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, it's stated that the news churns out more horror stories in times when such horrors are sparser than before. As the number of plane accidents went down, for example, when such an accident does occur, the news spills even more stories on the subject matter, until that is all one hears, causing people to develop more fears of flying at a time when flight is actually safer than before. The same phenomena holds true for other terrible happenings: the press will scream louder about such occurrences if they are more rare, giving it a disproportionate (sensationalized) importance in the overall scheme of things. 

(4) Though I do have a story on the backburner that is more dystopian scifi (and no magic per se), but it's a rarity among all my other projects (even other future scifi projects would have strong fantasy elements to them).