The 8 Shapes of Stories
Kurt Vonnegut’s failed thesis is a masterpiece in understanding story
Hey — it’s Nathan.
The year’s 2018. I’m sitting in calculus 3 trying to solve integrals. Thinking I’d never look at a graph like this after school.
But then I came across Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories” theory. And it clicked with my analytical brain like no other story theory has. I hope you enjoy it.
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My friend Robbie Crabtree first showed me Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories” video on YouTube. If you’re a founder, Robbie writes a brilliant newsletter on storytelling for founders. Check it out here.
In the early 1950s, Kurt Vonnegut submitted his thesis paper to the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. His idea?
“There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.”
But the university rejected the thesis.
Vonnegut quips it “was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” But the idea persisted. Maybe for those exact reasons. Today, it’s one of the most compelling analytical takes on storytelling.
Before you get into the 8 shapes, let me quickly explain how the graphs work.
Vonnegut plots stories on 2 axes:
X: Beginning to end
Y: Good fortune / ill fortune
With the story line following the protagonist’s arc. You get the idea. Let’s look at the 8 shapes.
The 8 Shapes of Stories
1. Man in Hole
A character’s doing fine, gets herself into a huge problem, and must overcome it. They end up better than they started.
“You see this story again and again,” Vonnegut says. “People love it, and it is not copyrighted.”
Example — Die Hard.
2. Boy Meets Girl
The protagonist finds something wonderful (usually love), loses it, and then goes on a journey to get it back again.
Example — The Proposal.
3. From Bad to Worse (Kafkaesque)
The protagonist starts off bad but things manage to get worse from there. Sometimes, you turn into a bug.
Example — Metamorphosis.
4. Which Way is Up? (The Complicated One)
The character(s) goes through a series of seemingly random ups and downs. Often, the overall line slopes up despite the constant zigzag.
Example — Game of Thrones.
5. Creation Story
This represents the idea of coming out of chaos and moving toward order and happiness. The shape slopes upwards but isn’t common in western culture.
Example — The Lion King.
6. Old Testament
Characterized by cycles of good fortune and bad fortune, but typically ends in a downward direction. Think of it as a series of ups and downs that finally go down.
Example — No Country for Old Men.
7. New Testament
The main character has progressively better fortune until, one day, something horrible happens. Then they have to figure out how to find “off the chart bliss.”
Example — Shawshank Redemption.
8. Cinderella (Rags-to-Riches)
I’ll leave this description to Vonnegut:
“We’re gonna start way down here. Worse than that, who is so low? It’s a little girl… the shoe fits, and she achieves off-scale happiness.”
Example — Harry Potter.
3 quick points from Vonnegut to pull this idea together:
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — so the reader may see what they're made of.”
“It’s not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.” (True for 6 of the 8)
“The shape of the curve is what matters. Not their origins.”
Map enough stories, and you’ll see these shapes over and over.
Have an awesome week,
PS: Here’s the video of Vonnegut explaining the idea. It’s gold.
5 things I found interesting this week:
I learned so much about writing for the internet from my friend David Perrel. His essay "Build a Personal Monopoly" influences everything I do. On Sept 6th, he's running a free workshop with the Cultural Tutor going deep into audience growth through Unique Expression. If you wanna join me in going, here's the link.*
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing short fiction. Number one’s a banger: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.“
If you’re a creator or want to start writing on the internet, I can’t recommend this talk between Danny Miranda and Kieran Drew enough.
Why don’t some books sell? This podcast digs into Dr. Kerry Pray’s research The Minimum Viability Threshold on why some great books don’t sell but some average books become bestsellers.
The University of Adelaide used Vonnegut’s research as the basis for their own. They analyzed 2000+ fiction works and came up with 6 shapes of stories that are a bit more mutually exclusive / collectively exhaustive.
*Affiliate link. I’ll be listening to the workshop and fully endorse David’s Write of Passage as the best place to learn how to write for the internet.
A Sentence (or Two) I Wish I Wrote
We’re going back-to-back with passages from epic fantasy / sci-fi. If you’re the 22nd to reply with the correct answer, I’ll send you Bird By Bird by Anne Lemott.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Want to go deeper on storytelling?
1. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (300+ students).
2. To get ahead of the AI curve, check out 90-Minute Novel. It’s a 90-minute mini-course digging into writing fiction with AI. Prompts, processes, and more. We had 180+ students in the live session and it was awesome.
3. To sponsor the newsletter, check out the details here.
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