The Shape of Things

booksNo, I’m not referring to the play by Neil LaBute. Today I’m talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s theory of the universal shape of story types. According i09, Vonnegut believed “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” This was his thesis for his anthropology degree at the University of Chicago. However, his teachers told him the idea was too simple, and according to Vonnegut, too much fun. Not long after, he left the university without completing his degree.

Story types
Vonnegut described seven different story types, a few of which originate from the bible. Graphic designer, Maya Eilam recently completed Vonnegut’s graph thesis by putting turning the plot types into an infographic. Here are the seven stories:

Man in hole: At the beginning of these stories, the hero is doing alright (in stasis), but then conflict arises and he goes through hell (or something less challenging) to get out of it (return to stasis). He has grown because of the experience. This is a standard in theater and many literary works. Eilam gives the example of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Boy meets girl: This is your standard love story. The boy and girl meet. The boy gets her, looses her, then gets her back once again and they live happily ever after. Think “Jane Eyre.”

From bad to worse: The hero’s life sucks as it is, but more bad things happen and things out of control and never get better. Examples include “Metamorphosis.”

Which way is up?: The viewer (an many of the characters) aren’t sure what’s true and what isn’t for a majority of the story. There’s a lot of ambiguity and misconception. “Hamlet” is the perfect example, as you don’t really know if Hamlet is crazy, a genius or a ghost whisperer.

The creation story: Most cultures have a tale of how the earth and everything in it came to be. A deity (or several deities) gifts humanity with various things, starting with major items (such as an earth and sky or moon and sun), and they get increasingly (or incrementally) smaller, such as birds and other animals.

Old Testament: This is the creation story plus a little more. After mankind has all this stuff, humans screw themselves over and get ousted from favor.

New Testament: Adding on to the Old Testament, the deity bestows a gift of amazing magnitude (Christ in Christianity) right in the middle of mankind’s greatest need. That gift gives human’s their good standing back along with unending rewards. Vonnegut believed the Cinderella story had a lot in common with this plot structure. Cinderella had a great life with her dad, but a mean step mother ruined it and put her in rags. She is given a gift from a deity (fairy godmother) and is rewarded with the love of a prince and plenty of wealth.

Reworking the same plot
Vonnegut talked about these plot structures even after his thesis was rejected, and it’s no wonder. You can probably come up with plenty of examples. When I think of the New Testament plot I’m immediately reminded of Greek dramas in which a deity swoops in to save the day. How would you categorize popular works of literature?


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