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

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