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:


"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)!


(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.