Kurt Vonnegut on the Universal Shapes of Stories

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Kurt Vonnegut claimed that his prettiest contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a largely forgotten master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. The thesis argued that a main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the taxonomy of a story, as well as something about the culture it comes from. Rejected at that time, as it was considered extremely hilarious, it is now considered to be a great thesis. 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. Vonnegut plotted the phases of human life on a vertical GI axis and a horizontal BE axis as shown below.

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One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started. A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

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Creation and religious stories follow a different arc, one that feels unfamiliar to modern readers. In most creation stories, a deity delivers incremental gifts that build to form the world. The Old Testament features the same pattern, except it ends with humans getting the rug pulled out from under them.

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The New Testament follows a more modern story path, according to Vonnegut. He was delighted by the similarity of that story arc with Cinderella.

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Some of the most notable works of literature are more ambiguous – like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and “Hamlet,” in which story developments are deeply ambiguous.

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