The shapes of stories

Already in 2015, I wrote a blog post about the five elements of a story. Almost all novelists and movie directors rely upon character, setting, plot, theme, and style to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage.

A few days ago, a tweet by Dutch mathematician and science communication professor Ionica Smeets brought a video under my attention with a lecture about the shape of stories.

The presentation is given by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-1977), probably best known for his controversial – the book was banned in various US libraries and schools – anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1947, Vonnegut’s master thesis about “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks” was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun (as he wrote in his autobiography “Palm Sunday”).

In this brilliantly funny talk, the writer draws a graph on which any story can be plotted. The vertical axis represents the good and ill fortune the characters experience, while the horizontal axis represents the timeline from the beginning to the end of a story.

Have a look at the video and enjoy the lecture…

For those interested (or provoked, surprised or intrigued), there’s also a recording or a longer version of the lecture on YouTube.