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?
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