Below is the second half of a lecture given by Kurt Vonnegut on February 4, 2004 as a part of The Case College Scholars Program. Kurt Vonnegut, best known for modern classic Slaughterhouse 5, is a hilarious cynic, who provides here a crass, interesting, and perhaps flawed perspective on the nature of stories. Regardless, however flawed, the perspective of someone with a mastery over intricately interwoven timelines, is worth considering, especially as it pertains to story structure. He is able to bend and jumble the tense of his stories, without losing the inherent feeling of accepted narrative progression, upholding Mark Twain’s lesson: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
But while Vonnegut is comfortable with describing the basic “shapes of stories”, he doesn’t bother with the canon’s descriptions of tragedy or the hero’s journey or the like. He plots out graphs on a blackboard, and draws the shape for timeless scenarios and how they play out on it. The graph runs on two axis; fortune (vertical) and time (horizontal). As time goes on, from the beginning (B) of the story to the end (E), the characters in different stories experience alternate shifts up (toward good fortune, G) and down (toward ill fortune, I) on this graph, plotted by a line. The point where good fortune stretches into bad fortune is marked by a horizontal line, clearly delineating when a character has crossed into happiness or despair.
One of the simplest story shapes, per Vonnegut, is “Man in a Hole”. Someone gets into trouble, and gets back out of it again. Two specifications though, most educated readers and viewers prefer to see or read about characters they can identify with, so the character begins in a relatively happy place, which is altered by the trouble. Vonnegut cheekily recommends you adhere to what they want for financial reasons. The second specification is that the character ends in a happier place, a.k.a. higher up on the graph, then at the start of the story. This activates our desire for closure, and helps the audience identify that they themselves may also overcome, leaving them with a satisfying ending. This sort of closure is the proto-typical script ending.
“Boy Meets Girl” features a massive bump towards good fortune, only for this newfound state of joy to be endangered. And so the character finds themselves at their lowest point, and must fight to preserve their new love, eventually regaining something resembling the prior ecstasy.
The next story starts to take shape in his descriptions, and before long the audience has recognized that he is describing Cinderella, which begins with a character in the ill fortune section, who experiences good fortune when meeting the prince, a dip when the clock strikes twelve and she has to run home (but not a return to her lowest point, since she has her memory to comfort her), and “off the charts” happiness when her prince returns, hence the much beloved ‘happily ever after’.
Vonnegut goes on to describe (in not so charitable words), why western audiences can find the stories of pre-colonial nations impenetrable. Though he obviously is joking around here, this section betrays some of the wartime American sentiment the student of Anthropology carried with him into his old age.
Vonnegut still has time to demonstrate the shape of a Kafka story, and examples of stories which defy having a curve at all, but remain engaging through intrigue. Interestingly, he identifies a steady inability to classify whether plot points in Hamlet are good news or bad news for the main character, much like the “boring” pre-colonial stories he dismissed earlier. Yet, he argues that Shakespeare’s work is masterful because it reflects truth. Decide for yourself if this is a deal breaker.
He explains the purpose of noting the shape of your story, because these shapes are the instinctual pretense we apply to life experiences. We believe (in Vonnegut’s mind, inaccurately) that life is made up of these sorts of rises and falls, with a measurable beginning and end, on smaller and grand scales. So, what’s the shape of your story?