The Shape of Stories

Famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote his master’s thesis on the shapes of stories. 

As an anthropology student, he argued 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.” 

His thesis was famously rejected by the University of Chicago, as being too “simple” and looking “like too much fun.” 

The simplicity of Vonnegut’s proposal surely eclipsed it’s visual and societal importance — namely that the shapes created by stories are “ones that computers can understand.”

There is a vertical (G-I) axis, he explains, that plots a character’s “good fortune” and “ill fortune” and a horizontal (B-E) axis that Vonnegut has called “beginning” and “end” (or sometimes “entropy”).

According to Vonnegut, the oldest stories from ancient cultures were “boring” — flat shapes in which the listener can’t tell good fortune from bad (“we came to a river, we came to a mountain, etc.”).

The Man in a Hole shape (pictured) begins with a character (“it needn’t be a man”) having an above-average day, stumbling or sliding into a bad situation, and eventually redeeming himself to a place slightly higher on the G-I axis — presumably because they learned something from the ordeal.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a traditional Man in a Hole shape — Ebenezer Scrooge is a selfish businessman whose visions haunt and torment him until he sinks to a place of empathy and emerges to share a message of compassion and charity with his community.

A Christmas Story (an adaptation of the works of Jean Shepherd) on the other hand is a holiday fable about masculine adolescence (bullies, fantasizing, daring friends to do dangerous things, awkwardly winking at your schoolteachers). This story provides enough small bursts of levity and humor to balance out the backyard bullying, self-inflicted wounds with BB guns and washing-out-of-mouths-with-bars-of-soap to make it a flat Which Way is Up? shape (pictured).

The story shape theory is complicated by films like Jacob’s Ladder (1990, written by Bruce Joel Rubin and directed by Adrian Lyne). This story takes the From Bad to Worse shape (pictured) and turns it on its head in the final moments. 

Spoiler alert: Jacob’s death in the final frames (and our realization that the whole movie has been a single flash before his eyes) is only considered worse depending on our personal outlook on death. The demons in the story have made him cling to life and the angels have encouraged him to let go. The viewer can subjectively decide whether that curve finally points down or up.

In the post-modern age (beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s) we see filmmakers like Robert Altman, P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino weaving together many different story shapes within a single story arc — a meshwork of intersecting and interdependent shapes working together inside the visual frame.

It’s as if the artists of our era have responded directly to the post-modern age of the internet, screen-in-screen use and the curse of Continuous Partial Attention with a clear and bold statement:

“So, you think you can take the perspective of more than one character? You think that you are cognitively ready for multiple information sources? Well, try this on for size.” 

Even a film like 2000’s Timecode may be a flat Which Way is Up? story shape, but its innovation lies in the fact that four uncut (shot in one take) stories unfold on a split screen simultaneously. 

With such innovations in storytelling (including Netflix’s recent interactive programming), it’s no wonder that we have ended up with dense, operatic award-winning masterworks like Anderson’s Magnolia and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

Like the shape of a rose or lotus flower, they bloomed in an ever-expanding social psyche that has exhibited a tolerance for increased complexity and provided stability for a chorus of perspectives.

Simply put, the world is ready for new multi-dimensional story shapes — technologically, cognitively, and spiritually.

P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia


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