Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories: From Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to “Cinderella”

Few Amer­i­can nov­el­ists of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry looked as pro­fes­so­r­i­al as Kurt Von­negut, at least in a rum­pled-fix­ture-of-the-Eng­lish-depart­ment way. But though he did rack up some teach­ing expe­ri­ence, not least at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, he could hard­ly have been a con­ven­tion­al lec­tur­er. This is evi­denced by the 2004 clip above, in which he explains his ideas about the “shapes” tak­en by all sto­ries — an idea he first for­mal­ly pre­sent­ed as his master’s the­sis in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. Though the the­sis itself was reject­ed (a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry lat­er, the uni­ver­si­ty accept­ed Cat’s Cra­dle in its stead), its ideas proved pow­er­ful enough to enter­tain Von­negut’s audi­ences up until the end of his life.

On his chalk­board, Von­negut draws a ver­ti­cal and a hor­i­zon­tal axis: the for­mer charts the pro­tag­o­nist’s for­tune, good or ill, and the lat­ter rep­re­sents time (from B to E: “begin­ning, entropy”). He then plots the curve of an espe­cial­ly sim­ple and reli­able sto­ry form, “man in a hole,” which involves some­one get­ting into trou­ble — down­ward turns the slope — then get­ting back out again.

But the pro­tag­o­nist should end up a bit high­er on the scale of for­tune than he began, because “the read­er thinks, ‘Well, by God, I’m a human being too. I must have that much in reserve if I get into trou­ble.” Then come the sto­ries of oth­er shapes, includ­ing such pop­u­lar favorites as “Cin­derel­la” and Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis.

“This rise and fall,” Von­negut warns us, “is, in fact, arti­fi­cial. It pre­tends that we know more about life than we real­ly do.” When he attempts to describe the shape of Ham­let, he ends up com­ing across one rea­son the play is regard­ed as a work of genius: “we are so sel­dom told the truth,” but Shake­speare tells us the truth that “we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” Rather, “all we do is echo the feel­ings of peo­ple around us.” As Von­negut’s read­ers know, a dim­mer view of human nature than his would be hard to come by. But if he did­n’t have faith the abil­i­ty of sto­ries to teach us good from bad, he did have faith in their abil­i­ty to teach us that we aren’t about to fig­ure it out for our­selves.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

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

Why the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Reject­ed Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s The­sis (and How a Nov­el Got Him His Degree 27 Years Lat­er)

Why Should We Read Kurt Von­negut? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Iden­ti­fies the Six Main Arcs in Sto­ry­telling: Wel­come to the Brave New World of Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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