Writers are accustomed to thinking about writing with a 3-Act structure, often shown as an incline plane of action rising gradually throughout the story towards the climax. But another way of looking at stories is their shape based not on action, but on the rise and fall of the protagonist’s fortunes—good or ill.
As I understand it, the notion of these story shapes was first proposed by Kurt Vonnegut. Inspired by his research into stories from various cultures while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, he discovered common patterns of the fortunes of the protagonists. He found that there is not one universal pattern, but several designs, just as the rise and fall of volume and intensity give shape to different styles of music. These shapes cross cultures and time periods to create the stories we love to read and retell.
To visualize these shapes, he used a simple graph. The vertical axis, or what he calls the G-I axis has good fortune at the top and ill fortune at the bottom. The higher on the vertical axis a character is, the happier they are. Conversely, the lower they are, the more miserable they are.
The G-I axis is bisected by a B-E horizontal axis. This takes the story left to right from the beginning (B) to the, uh, well Kurt Vonnegut has various ideas for what the E stands for, but let’s just call it the ending. It looks a bit like this:
Interestingly, his theory was proven when researchers at Washington State University and the University of Vermont did a computer analysis over 1700 stories. (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180525-every-story-in-the-world-has-one-of-these-six-basic-plots ) Text-mining of these stories revealed six basic story shapes, most of which Vonnegut had already described. They graphed each, renaming Vonnegut’s G-I axis to “sentiment scale.” They found that each of the 1700 stories conformed to one of these six shapes:
Our protagonist begins high on the sentiment scale but, by mid-story, finds themselves in low ill-fortune. But, don’t despair. Good things follow, and by the end of the story, our protagonist is once again up in the good-fortune range. This shape is often found in mystery stories and adapts well to the three-act story structure we’ve been taught.
This shape has the main character begin on the lower end of the sentiment scale, but then they rise steadily throughout the story to the upper portion of the G-I axis by the end of the story. An example of this is the story of Little Orphan Annie who starts out as an orphan in a miserable workhouse and becomes the ward of the extremely wealthy Daddy Warbucks, or the story of another orphan, Oliver Twist. Everyone loves a happy ending.
From the obvious example, our protagonist begins very low on the sentiment scale, but then rises to a high good-fortune point—only to have it snatched away. Despite being once again in the lower portion of the G-I scale, the protagonist’s despair is not as low as it was. As the story progresses, the protagonist moves back up again to the top of the sentiment. (You have to see Vonnegut describe this one and others on YouTube below.)
This shape is just the opposite of #2. The protagonist begins in the upper range of the sentiment axis, but who falls into poverty and despair. A simple tragedy.
If you know the Greek myth about Daedalus and his son Icarus who escaped from the island of Crete by flying with wings made of feathers and wax, it won’t be hard for you to envision this shape. Starting around the midpoint of the G-I axis, it rises into good fortune, then falls into the ill fortune range before falling further to the bottom of the G-I scale (when the wax melts because Icarus flies too close to the sun). Not a happy ending.
Named for another Greek tragedy, this pattern falls (as Oedipus wanders toward Thebes, killing Laius along the way). But then it rises (when Oedipus defeats the sphinx, becomes king, and marries the queen with whom he has several children and plans to live happily ever after). Oh, but our protagonist is not destined for a happy ending. The story ends with a plummet to the low ill-fortune range (when Oedipus discovers Laius was his father and he has married his mother—who then kills herself. Oedipus puts out his own eyes). A less than cheery shape.
I must confess that I was surprised that every one of the stories studied fit in one of these six shapes. But Vonnegut tells us about two more shapes.
While he tells this shape is boring, he also says it often can be found in primitive cultures. There is, however, one Shakespearean classic that employs this shape. Things start low on the sentiment scale, stay low, and end low. Can you guess which one this is? See the video link above to get the answer.
And one final shape Vonnegut offers for your consideration—one we don’t often see—where the protagonist starts at the bottom . . . and goes down. Which story is this? Here’s a hint: Kafka!
All this brings new meaning to the question: What kind of shape is your story in?
August’s from A Cabin in the Woods features a short short by Christopher D. Ochs. Christopher’s foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work, If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep , is a collection of bedtime reading to inflict on naughty children.
His current projects include: a YA urban-fantasy/horror novel My Friend Jackson; a short story in Firebringer Press’ last anthology in their Middle of Eternity series; and the next installment of the Pindlebryth saga.
Christopher says, “The following is semi-autobiographical. I leave it to the reader to determine how much of this tale is true.”
I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, though there have been several curious incidents in this house over my lifetime.
Nothing frightening, mind you, nor anything remotely harmful. If anything, the unseen forces-that-be have been nothing but helpful.
The first instance I clearly recall occurred during my junior-high school years. I was raised the classic latchkey kid. Both parents held down two jobs, so yours truly was responsible for closing up the house before heading to classes.
That spring day, I woke up looking out the open window above my headboard at a sky filled with roiling clouds still deciding whether or not they wanted to rain. By the time I finished dressing for school, Mom and Dad had already slogged off to their crack-of-dawn work shifts.
Dashing out of the house, I was halfway through my shortcut across our neighbor’s corn fields, when I heard the rumble of thunder. On its heels came the realization I couldn’t remember if I had closed my bedroom window.
With a grunt of exasperation, I made a U-turn back for home. Sure enough, my second-floor window was wide open. Ready, willing and able to let the impending squall soak my pillow.
I had sprinted halfway up the stairs when I heard a bang, loud as a gunshot, reverberate from my bedroom. Once I summoned the courage to enter my room, my jaw dropped in bewilderment. The old warped double-hung window–which would normally require my full weight to close–was firmly shut, fierce raindrops pelting its glass panes.
Then there was the time years later, when I returned home long after sunset, tired from work and a laundry list of errands. Both my arms were crammed with fully-loaded grocery bags as I fumbled with the lock and shouldered the door open. I wasn’t two steps into the dark and deserted house when all the kitchen lights snapped on.
With the odd sensation of being watched pressing in on me, I proffered a nervous “Thank you very much?”
The lights flickered in response. I could almost hear the house chuckle.
These humorous but unsettling episodes continued, though with less frequency as the years rolled by. Eventually they stopped entirely–or perhaps, they merely escaped my notice–as responsibilities and drudgeries crowded most everything else out of my life. Adding events like the passing of my parents, the transformation of neighbors’ cornfields to townhouses, and other milestones kept my attention firmly planted in the world of the mundane.
That is, until I discovered an old family heirloom–a county map, penned soon after my ancestors and hundreds of other immigrants had formally established my hometown and surrounding boroughs. The yellowed parchment document, complete with an antiquated county seal, depicted Iroquois trails that were already centuries old by the time the colonial-era deeds had been drafted.
The paths snaked along the ridges of the local offshoots of the Appalachian mountain chain, including a few thoroughfares that wended their way through the new and burgeoning county. The map’s legend declared that the indigenous peoples–the Lenni Lenape, Delaware and other members of the Iroquois nation–had “rights in perpetuity to sole and unhindered access to the mineral fields atop and in vicinity of Jasper Mountain, for the purpose of fashioning arrowheads and other baubles likewise; to deliver said freight without impediment, toll or tax along the footpaths documented herein.”
I was overcome by an unsettling sensation that the house was looking over my shoulder, when I learned the map indicated the footpath connecting Jasper Mountain to the Appalachian Trail formed my estate’s western property line.
Barely a week had passed since finding the map, before I found unmistakable signs my unseen helpers had resumed their work. On the other hand, maybe I was simply paying closer attention.
Like the instance when a limb from the locust tree my father had planted close to the house had fallen. Carpenter ants had eaten away at its core, and the massive limb finally snapped under its own weight, coming to rest harmlessly on open lawn nowhere near the tree’s trunk. By all rights, left to gravity and a windless night, that moss-laden battering ram should have crashed straight through my bedroom ceiling.
The latest instance of helpfulness was thankfully far less life-threatening. It was a windy fall day when my dog bolted out of the house to pester the mailman. I gave chase, still in my bum-around-the-house sweatpants. A stray gust banged the door shut behind me.
My heart leapt into my throat once I realized I had left my keys on the kitchen table, and the door was set to lock behind me. With my recalcitrant puppy in tow, I returned to the house, upset with the predicament I expected to find. I could only shake my head and smile at my invisible helpers, come to my rescue once again.
The deadbolt, which could only have been operated with the key in the lock, had somehow extended itself, preventing the door from closing completely.
I suppose some would attribute these events to poltergeists or other denizens of the afterlife. Other might dismiss them as quaint tall tales. As for myself, I prefer to believe the gentle spirits of Nature, who guided the lives and culture of the countless indigenous peoples before me, still favored this locale.
But how to repay their longstanding kindness?
When I got around to replacing the rotting tree that nearly did me in, I found entangled in its roots a cache of pristine jasper arrowheads. Lost or forgotten by some long-dead traveler, their points were still sharp enough to pierce a deer’s heart. Despite my knowing they would command an impressive sum from any number of collectors, something bid me do otherwise.
Finding a secluded grove overlooking Jasper Mountain’s babbling brook, I reburied my discovery.
Back in my kitchen, I mused over my evening tea. Had I had performed a noble deed, or something unquestionably foolish? With a maudlin sigh, I wondered if I might never again be visited by my unseen helpers.
The lights flickered in response.
Larry Deibert has written fourteen books.
He is a Vietnam veteran and is the past president of the Lehigh Northampton Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Macungie, Pa. Larry retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2008 after working as a letter carrier for over 21 years. He and his wife, Peggy, live in Hellertown, Pa., where he enjoys reading and writing.
Larry’s website is www.larryldeibert.com.
You can contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Signed copies of Larry’s books may be purchased directly from the author.
Today, July 13th, 2020, is my 73rd birthday and I my topic is mortality. I have gotten farther along in my years than I ever thought I would, and this subject really hit me last August.
I took my son to a ball game on his 42nd birthday. Around the eighth inning he said, “Dad, I’m 42 and you’re 72. In 8 years, I’m going to be 50 and you’re going to be 80! What do you think you would like for your 80th birthday?” Without hesitation, I replied, “I’d like to be alive.” I think he was stunned, but I cannot honestly say that I’ll attain that lofty age. I hope I do, and in reasonably good health.
In my life I have done many things that I would never have thought possible when I was younger. I graduated from high school and business school. I went into the army, served in Vietnam, and survived. I married the mother of my two kids. When I was 39 and a half, I lost a great paying job and became a letter carrier, retiring after nearly 22 years in 2008. I helped to create a Vietnam memorial, a lasting tribute to the 126 men from Lehigh and Northampton counties lost during that war, and a place for all veterans to be honored.
In 1974, when I found out I was going to be a dad, I decided to write a book about my limited army experiences, in case Agent Orange would take my life before my children would know me. 23 rejections later, I gave up, and didn’t write again for 25 years. Since 1999, I have written and self-published fourteen books and I am currently working on a rewrite of my first vampire novel.
I think we try to guess how long we might live, based on the lifespans of our parents and siblings. Unfortunately, my mom was 71 and my dad was 76 when they died. My sister is still going strong a month and a half before her 82nd birthday, so I would certainly like to walk in her longevity shoes. One of my mother’s sisters died at 37, and her brothers died at 75 and 92. My dad’s brothers and sisters lived long lives, except for a brother who committed suicide when he was late forties; PTSD from WWII. Studying all the numbers can be overwhelming, and only God knows how long I will live, so I just try to do my best every day.
Since Covid-19 has become a part of all our lives, I hope I am fortunate to not become a statistic, having many more years to write and to watch my two grandchildren grow up. We had not seen our grandkids since March 8th, but on June 28th, we finally had the opportunity to visit with them. Seeing how much they had changed in over one-hundred days was remarkable. Cody, who turned two on July 1st, had learned more words. He had grown a little in our absence. Avery, now five and a half, talked like there was no tomorrow, and she had become so pretty while we were quarantined from them. She read out loud to me for the first time. Those are moments I will never forget. Oh, Avery was our Christmas present in 2014, being born around six PM in the evening. We had hoped that Cody would be born on July 4th, giving us two holiday grandkids, but that didn’t quite work out.
I am so lucky to be retired and able to travel with my wife, Peggy. Every year we go to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and over the eighteen years I have known her we have traveled to England and Scotland, Seattle, California and Hawaii, and perhaps more places in the future. Travel or do whatever you enjoy as often as you can, because if you put off that trip or project until next year, next year may never come. There is way too much to do and see in this world, even if your world does not extend as far as mine has. I don’t have a bucket list on paper, but I know some of the places I want to see. I want to go to Texas to see my Cowboys play and stand in the shadow of the Alamo. I would like to see a baseball game in St. Louis, and we would someday love to go to Wales.
Do not take a single day for granted and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something without even trying.
From a Cabin in the Wood’s is a column featuring authors from the Bethlehem Writers Group. Writing for us this month is Dianna Sinovic.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Dianna Sinovic has also lived in three other quadrants of the U.S. She writes short stories and poetry, and is working on a full-length novel about a young woman in search of her long-lost brother.
The Bethlehem Writers Group, one of the writers groups I’m in, sponsors an annual short story contest for all non-members, and the members do much of the judging—the first cuts, the semifinalist round, and the finalists. Once the finalists are selected, a guest judge (an author outside the organization) makes the final call on the rankings of first, second, and third.
Each story is judged by three people, using a templated rubric, with the two highest scores determining whether the story makes it to the semifinalist category. Sometimes the same story can accrue widely divergent scores. How could three readers have such different reactions? That difference of opinion explains why sometimes the debates the group has on which stories come out on top are quite heated.
I’m often amazed at the creativity of some of the entrants, but also always disappointed in others. I think—if only the author had done X, Y or Z, the results would have been much more satisfying or made more sense.
It’s also instructive to see how often an entry lacks a story arc. Even if a story is short and basically just one scene, it still needs a beginning, middle and end, with a goal in mind for the main character. Author Juliet Marillier said that stories with no proper ending also don’t make the cut when she judges.
It’s also interesting to see that some authors submit pieces that are mostly likely memoir. This can work if the personal account contains the essence of a good story, with that needed arc and depth of character/emotion, but many often don’t.
How the theme is approached is also eye opening. We choose a new contest theme every other year. This year’s topic was animals; it didn’t matter what kind of animal or how many, but an animal had to play an important part in the story. I read tales that featured insects, cats, horses, dogs, sea animals, and reptiles, some good, some not so good. With research only a browser click away, I was discouraged at how often writers didn’t do their homework when trying to depict animal behavior.
Of course, it’s much easier for me to see the flaws in other people’s works than in mine.
Each year’s judging process serves as a reminder to always ask others to read my work and offer their feedback, to let me know where my stories fall short so I can further revise.
Bethlehem Writers Roundtable seek animal stories (broadly interpreted) of 2000 words or fewer.
First Place winner will be considered for publication in their newest “Sweet, Funny, and Strange” anthology:
Fur, Feathers, & Scales: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Animal Tales
The latest of their “Sweet, Funny, and Strange” Anthologies
Abrahams was born in Boston, graduated from Williams College, and lives on Cape Cod.
You read an interview of Mr. Abrahams here.
Previous BWR Short Story Award Judges
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