Storytelling is an artform as old as the earth we walk on today. Stories have inspired, cautioned, and entertained us for generations. One question that we don’t necessarily ask ourselves often, is “What do stories look like graphically?” Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture “The Shape of Stories” answers this question and gives us some fascinating tools to analyze some of the most common storytelling.
Shapes of Stories
This nifty infographic demonstrates some of Vonnegut’s story shapes. Essentially he is plotting emotion on the y axis and time on the x axis. The higher you are on the y axis the happier you are, and the further down you go the worse life gets. Also the further right you go on the longer the story has been taking place for.
Man in Hole
Man in Hole starts with good fortune, but with the introduction of a problematic scenario or life event, turns quickly to drastic ill fortune. Thus, the hero must battle their way out of this unfortunate scenario often through great adventure or courageous acts.
Boy Meets Girl
Boy Meets Girl is the classic romance storyline. A boy falls madly in love with a girl and goes through fire and flames to woo her. These tales often demonstrate the ideals of chivalry, and valiant romantic gestures.
The Cinderella storyline is one that requires a more complicated shape. This one starts from a neutral fortune, and through the introduction of a higher power’s help, the protagonist climb the stairs on their way to happiness, only to have it taken from them. After a brief stint in the depths of ill fortune they are rocketed back to their previous perch in the realm of happiness and joy.
Shapes & Graphs, So What?
A great example of a speaker guiding the audience through these highs and lows is Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk about “Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating.” She takes the audience along with her as she shows the shape of her personal story after writing her national bestseller Eat, Pray, Love (the high), and her disillusionment for writing her next book (the slope down to a low). Hearing her story allows us to walk the same steps as Elizabeth, and we remember her story because we feel as though we have experienced the difficulties with her.
Just like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, our lives don’t exist on a flat trajectory. They constantly fluctuate between highs and lows. Without this variation, life would be incredibly boring. The successes, the failure, the fears, the complications—these changes (the story’s shape) are what make us human. Whether writing a blog post, giving a presentation, or evangelizing a product, it’s the stories that will stick with people long after you are finished speaking with them.
What’s your favorite shape for a story? Are you a sucker for Boy Meets Girl, or do you love the misery of From Bad to Worse?