The shape of stories

Published on: Nov 07, 2019

The shape of stories


Kurt Vonnegut rose to fame through the publication of his novels 'Slaughterhouse Five', 'Cat's Cradle' and 'Breakfast of Champions' amongst others. However it was his rejected masters thesis in anthropology that he considered his 'prettiest contribution' to culture. 

The basic idea is that the main character in a story has ups and downs which can be charted on a graph to produce the story's shape. Many stories follow a similar trajectory: a man starts in a positive situation, then dips into misfortune before gradually climbing back up and ending higher than the starting point. Conversely, a Cinderella-type story starts on a low with a slow ascent into fortune, dropping back down and concluding on a high. 

One of the few exceptions is Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' which Vonnegut charts as a simple straight line. This is why Vonnegut views the piece as a masterpiece: “We are so seldom told the truth. In 'Hamlet', Shakespeare tells us that we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news and bad news is and we respond to that. Thank you, Bill!”

See the full extent of Vonnegut's story shapes here as created by graphic designer Maya Eilam.