Kurt Vonnegut Maps Out the Universal Shapes of Our Favorite Stories

Imag­ine a hat. Flip it upside down, and you’ve got your­self the out­line of a sto­ry the pub­lic will nev­er weary of, accord­ing to author Kurt Von­negut, who maps it on out a chalk­board in the video above.

His Y‑axis charts a range between good and ill for­tune. Von­negut rec­om­mends posi­tion­ing your main char­ac­ter slight­ly clos­er to the good (i.e. wealth and bois­ter­ous health) end of the spec­trum, at least in the begin­ning. He or she will dip below mid­line soon enough.

As for the X‑axis, Von­negut labels it B‑E, from begin­ning to end.

Now plot your points, remem­ber­ing that it’s all about the curves.

Some pop­u­lar themes include peo­ple get­ting in and out of trou­ble, and the ever­green boy gets girl. (The always pro­gres­sive Von­negut reminds his view­ers that the gen­ders in the lat­ter sce­nario are always open to inter­pre­ta­tion. Again, it’s the curves that count…)

Think­ing about my favorite books and films, it seems that most do fol­low Vonnegut’s upside-down hat nar­ra­tive arc.

Are there excep­tions?

Hor­a­tio Alger’s rags to rich­es sto­ries, for exam­ple. We should all be so lucky to find our­selves pow­er­ing up such a steep uphill grade.

Of course there are excep­tions!

Von­negut him­self iden­ti­fies a par­tic­u­lar­ly high pro­file one, whose geom­e­try is less an ele­gant curve than a stair­case that ter­mi­nates in a free fall. (SPOILER: it involves a fairy god­moth­er and ends in an infin­i­ty sym­bol.

Those weary of pars­ing sto­ry using the Hero’s Jour­ney tem­plate should inves­ti­gate Vonnegut’s graph­ic approach. It works!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Kurt Von­negut Urges Young Peo­ple to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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