V=Vonnegut (Feb 23)

… or The Shapes of Stories

Six stories to rule them all // Youtube

John Gardner stated only two kinds of stories exist: (1) a person goes on a journey, or (2) a stranger comes to town.  For number 1, think of The New Testament and Jesus; for 2, consider the gunslinger in High Noon.  The real question: as a writer, what do these stories have to do with you?

Joseph Campbell narrowed the two down to one universal tale.  His “Hero’s Journey” archetype exists in stories across cultures and time . . . with a difference.  While some writers {like Robert McKee} emphasized that a writer escalate conflict by using plot devices to raise tension, Campbell looked at why this tale moves our emotions – after all, that is a writer’s goal.  Campbell even gave his tale a shape, a circle. 

The circle looks like this (with Campbell’s own words to explain the X, Y, & Z).

The story circle (of life)

This story can be seen from the Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Star Wars. 

. . .  which brings us to Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut, like Campbell, said that stories have universal shapes.   Vonnegut, though, took this further.  He put forth not one but six shapes that resonate most with audiences. 

The first shape is Man in a Hole.  Your audience meets a main character (step 1) who gets into trouble (step 2), gets out of it (step 3), and gains or learns from the experience.   Under the jokes, the comedy movies Blazing Saddles and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle both fit this shape.  The main character(s) get into trouble, then work their way out of trouble – and end up wiser for the experience. 

Boy Meets Girl is the second shape.  The main character (step 1) comes across something wonderful (step 2), gets it (step 3), loses it (step 4), and gets it back forever (aaaand roll credits).  Spiderman is a traditional example, but the boy can be any character and the girl represents anything the character wants.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a twisted version of this same shape. 

The next shape is From Bad to Worse.  The main character (step 1) starts off poorly (step 2) and things get worse and worse (steps 3 . . . to end).   Seeing a character we care about in misery is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing.  The Joker breaks your heart because of the pathos involved (note this only works if you sympathize with the Joker in the first place). 

Which Way Is Up? has no set steps; rather, it aims to produce ambiguity.  This story shape hinges on the audience following the characters through events to figure out if they (both events and characters) are good or bad.   The situations are realistic and the possibilities keep the audience guessing.  Hamlet does this.  Inception does this.  Many Tom Robbins novels do this as well.

The Creation Story involves an unseen force giving humans gifts first large (Earth, the heavens), then small (as Vonnegut jokes – sparrows and cellphones).  Vonnegut claims this shape is less common in the West.  The first part of the Bible is a creation story.  In a twisted way, so is the comic book adapted for film The Watchmen

Finally, the last shape encompasses both Old & New Testament – in short, the fall or the fall & rise.  The former has an unseen force (a Creator) giving gifts (step 1), then the humans fall from grace (step 2) and are ousted of good standing (step 3).  The fall is large; the results are tragic.  Yet in the New Testament version, there is a final step: the disgraced humans receive off-the-charts bliss – in a word, redemption. Step back a bit and you can see that Black Panther is this kind of story.   So is Cinderella. Keep in mind this story shape works only if redemption is truly in doubt. 

We stress that in each of these shapes the introduction of the character is important.  We have to get a sense of how he / she thinks and her / his daily life.  We have to know and understand . . .  and care.

** Research (and pop science) has picked up on Vonnegut’s six shapes  – for more: http://www.uvm.edu/~cdanfort/research/2016-reagan-epj.pdf

** For a more detailed “Hero’s Journey,” see Dan Harmon (producer of Community and Rick & Morty) illustrate it here: https://channel101.fandom.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit

** Digital storyteller Jim Roam lines up the three most famous film series via “The Hero’s Journey” here: https://www.slideshare.net/danroam/heros-danroam?utm_campaign=meetedgar&utm_medium=social&utm_source=meetedgar.com

LEARN: For each of the six shapes, find three examples in story or screen or stage.  If you can, also find one that subverts the shape (for example, most Seinfeld episodes are Man in a Hole with a twist – the characters gain or learn nothing, a change that resonates with modern audiences)

USE: Take the events of your day and turn them into one of the six shapes.  Write them out in detail!


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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