Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

“What has been my pret­ti­est con­tri­bu­tion to the cul­ture?” asked Kurt Von­negut in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Palm Sun­day. His answer? His master’s the­sis in anthro­pol­o­gy for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, “which was reject­ed because it was so sim­ple and looked like too much fun.” The ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty and play­ful­ness of Vonnegut’s idea is exact­ly its endur­ing appeal. The idea is so sim­ple, in fact, that Von­negut sums the whole thing up in one ele­gant sen­tence: “The fun­da­men­tal idea is that sto­ries have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a giv­en society’s sto­ries is at least as inter­est­ing as the shape of its pots or spear­heads.” In 2011, we fea­tured the video below of Von­negut explain­ing his the­o­ry, “The Shapes of Sto­ries.” We can add to the dry wit of his les­son the pic­to-info­graph­ic by graph­ic design­er Maya Eil­am above, which strik­ing­ly illus­trates, with exam­ples, the var­i­ous sto­ry shapes Von­negut described in his the­sis. (Read a con­densed ver­sion here.)

The pre­sen­ter who intro­duces Von­negut’s short lec­ture tells us that “his sin­gu­lar view of the world applies not just to his sto­ries and char­ac­ters but to some of his the­o­ries as well.” This I would affirm. When it comes to puz­zling out the import of a sto­ry I’ve just read, the last per­son I usu­al­ly turn to is the author. But when it comes to what fic­tion is and does in gen­er­al, I want to hear it from writ­ers of fic­tion. Some of the most endur­ing lit­er­ary fig­ures are expert writ­ers on writ­ing. Von­negut, a mas­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tor, ranks very high­ly among them. Does it do him a dis­ser­vice to con­dense his ideas into what look like high-res, low-read­abil­i­ty work­place safe­ty graph­ics? On the con­trary, I think.

Though the design may be a lit­tle slick for Von­negut’s unapolo­get­i­cal­ly indus­tri­al approach, he’d have appre­ci­at­ed the slight­ly corny, slight­ly macabre boil­er­plate iconog­ra­phy. His work turns a sus­pi­cious eye on over­com­pli­cat­ed pos­tur­ing and cham­pi­ons unsen­ti­men­tal, Mid­west­ern direct­ness. Vonnegut’s short, trade pub­li­ca­tion essay, “How to Write With Style,” is as suc­cinct and prac­ti­cal a state­ment on the sub­ject in exis­tence. One will encounter no more a ruth­less­ly effi­cient list than his “Eight Rules for Writ­ing Fic­tion.” But it’s in his “Shapes of Sto­ries” the­o­ry that I find the most insight into what fic­tion does, in bril­liant­ly sim­ple and fun­ny ways that any­one can appre­ci­ate.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Writ­ing Tips from Kurt Von­negut

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Kurt Von­negut Reads from Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Miramon says:

    If you graph any trend that allows only 1 inflec­tion point, it will either be monot­o­n­ic up or down, or it will change direc­tion in the mid­dle. That’s 4 pos­si­bil­i­ties.

    Add a sec­ond inflec­tion point to allow for an Aris­totelian 3‑act struc­ture, and now you go from 4 to 8 pos­si­bil­i­ties. The math is real­ly pret­ty sim­ple.…

    But the whole notion is oper­a­tional­ly use­less. Sim­i­lar graphs can be applied to any scalar quan­ti­ty over time, and cat­e­go­riz­ing very com­plex things like art or lit­er­a­ture accord­ing to the shapes of the trend line of a sin­gle scalar is not going to be very use­ful to any­one.

  • Jace X Anders says:

    Kurt Von­negut is one of the strangest writ­ers of all time. I’m not sure whether to call Slaugh­ter­house 5 an idi­ot­ic ram­bling of an.ingenious dis­play of nuance. That in and of itself is hard to pull off.

  • Maya Eilam says:

    Thank you for acknowl­edg­ing my info­graph­ic! I think “slight­ly corny, slight­ly macabre” is a won­der­ful way to put it.

  • Rosewater says:

    The poor qual­i­ty of writ­ing in this arti­cle is and amaz­ing and acci­den­tal­ly hilar­i­ous. You’ve tak­en irony to a new lev­el.

  • Brad Bradford says:

    Rose­wa­ter, you don’t even have cor­rect writ­ing in your own post so you should­n’t be crit­i­ciz­ing this writ­ing when it real­ly isn’t that bad.

  • Fah Q Vitriol Spewers says:

    Very insight­ful arti­cle on a tru­ly land­mark writer who is appar­ent­ly STILL being assault­ed by igno­rant naysay­ers. In fact, the insane lev­el of vit­ri­ol spewed here in the com­ments sec­tion is indica­tive of noth­ing more than igno­rance and jeal­ousy. None of you (Mira­mon, Jace X Anders, Rose­wa­ter) will EVER pro­duce any­thing that even comes close to the impact that Slaugh­ter­house-Five has had on the mod­ern world. Inso­lent, unimag­i­na­tive and illog­i­cal indi­vid­u­als such as your­self have no place in bal­anced con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. You are, for all intents and pur­pos­es ANTI-INTELLECTUAL and your lack of com­pre­hen­sion here per­fect­ly demon­strates this fact.

  • mike says:

    I could­n’t agree more with Fah Q … although I would tone down the invec­tive. Many, many read­ers find Von­negut inspir­ing and inge­nious. Crit­ics are wel­come … but not asked to stay for cof­fee.

  • dario says:

    Nice and insight­ful? Yes! Sci­ence? Nope! :)

    It’s kind of the teacher from Don­nie Darko, who tries to make a “plot” between Fear and Love, try­ing to explain Aris­totle’s Poet­ics!

  • Lars says:

    Eter­nal Sun­shine… as an exam­ple of a sto­ry with a hap­py end? Did you even see the damn movie?!

  • Rye says:

    Von­negut is a genius, and a hum­ble one at that. For those look­ing for a taste, but not ready for a full nov­el, read WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE, his col­lec­tion of won­der­ful short sto­ries.

  • todd holmes says:

    Thank you for your com­ment Rose­wa­ter, Do you go by Franklin or Bar­ry these days?

  • Steve Dylan says:

    Relax. I think he’s being tongue in cheek.

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