Reviving Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories”

Published August 23, 2014 by James Lyons

This weekend I was tooling around on the internet and found this video of Kurt Vonnegut drawing out what he called the “Shapes of Stories.” It’s a funny little piece that you should watch–after you read my blog of course. But it got me thinking about the shapes of stories in general and if one chart could be developed that incorporated all the story theories I teach. To make sure I wasn’t wasting my time, I did some more searching on the internet and low and behold nothing met my criteria. There are some amazing charts that have been created, including Mr. Vonnegut’s, but they all seemed to be missing something. So I decided to give it a shot–oh I do love a challenge!

The first thing you need to know about me is that I love detail and have a tendency to pile details on top of details. I do this so I can see the entire picture at once, which if you have a lousy memory, like I do, is an absolute necessity; however, it can be confusing for others when I throw out all the concepts at once.  And since I really appreciate everyone who reads this blog, I’m going to save you the pleasure of looking at something like that, right off the bat. Instead I’m going to simplify my approach by breaking down my complex Story Chart into smaller, and simpler, chunks. Then I will slowly present one chunk at a time adding layer upon layer.

So where do we start? How about the simple (and familiar) like I promised?

The chart below is an outline of the Four Act structure. Most people call it Three Act structure, but as you can see there are four equally sized acts. Aristotle came up with the idea of Three Acts a very long time ago, and then a couple thousand years later Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces brilliantly outlined what happens to a Hero within each of those acts.  I’m not going to discuss Campbell’s story chart specifically, because his ideas can be difficult to grasp at first. Instead I’m going to be using simpler interpretations of Campbell’s theories, which can be found in the following books: Larry Brooks, Story Engineering;  Christopher Vogler, The Writers Journey; Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.


Acts One through Four

Acts One through Four


We begin with a simple graph. The four acts above are labeled to identify the role of a Hero (or protagonist) in each act.  Placing the acts on the X-axis above, which represents Time, we are then able to show how the Tension of a Story, measured by the Y-axis, changes over time. The first and fourth acts occur when a hero is in his “Ordinary World”, and the second and third acts occur in a “Special World” of adventure. The acts are also described using these descriptions, for clarity: “Introduction to the Hero”, “Hero as Wanderer”, “Hero as Warrior”, and “Hero as Martyr”. If you think about the way we deal with adversaries or solve problems in our own lives, the chronological order of these descriptions makes sense: First we are introduced to an adversary, then wander around and gather information to defeat the adversary, next attack the adversary, and if that doesn’t work we pull out all the stops and sacrifice something important to us to defeat the adversary.

On the chart below I have added some additional labels to the X-axis. People call them different things, but I prefer the name “Story Milestones” that Larry Brooks uses.  Notice that there is a story milestone at the end of each act and in the middle of each act. Some of these milestones carry more weight than others, and if you want to learn more about them, Mr. Brooks does a fine job explaining each milestone’s purpose in Story Engineering.


Story Milestones

Story Milestones

The next pair of concepts I’ve layered into our graph below are Premise and Theme. These are two terms that have some holes in how they are viewed by story theorists. Let’s first start with Premise. In James N. Frey’s book  How to Write a Damn Good Novel, he states, “’Premise’ comes from two Latin words, meaning to put before. The premise is the foundation of your story-that single core statement, of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.” Then a second author, Lajos Egri, in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, describes how to develop a premise: “every good premise — is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine ‘Frugality leads to waste.’ The first part of this premise suggests character — a frugal character. The second part, ‘leads to,’ suggests conflict, and the third part, ‘waste,’ suggests the end of the play.”

What’s interesting about both of these descriptions is they are specific about every part of a story except for the ending. The word “foundation” is usually understood to describe something that comes first, upon which all other things are built. Then Lajos’ statement that Premise “suggests the end of the play,” is saying the Premise only gives some clues about the ending, not that it nails it. Is it possible that  something else, which they didn’t mention specifically, points to the end of the story, or am I just reading into it?

Adding Premise and Theme

Adding Premise and Theme

Of course not. In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks writes that Theme “is the essence of what a story means” as defined by the end of the story and is connected to the beginning of the play by the Character Arc. He doesn’t say what guides the meaning of the story from the beginning to the climax, just that theme is linked to the beginning by the Character Arc, or emotional growth of the character (I consider meaning different from Character Arc, which is more plot based). The problem with this is readers need to have a grasp on what the story is about from the very beginning, from the first word. So if you want to figure out what the meaning of a story is do you have to wait until the ending? Seems like a bit of head scratcher. Why didn’t Mr. Brooks mention anything about the foundation of a story like Lajos Egri did? I’m not clairvoyant, but my assumption is that Mr. Brooks comes from the world of film, and this was exactly the same thing I was taught in film school. The film world works off of the idea that theme defines the meaning from the end of the story, and perhaps the worlds of literature and theater prefer to focus on premise. I’m sure there are politics and ego involved, which usually leaves us with a head scratcher.

Despite the various interpretations, I felt there was enough there to move forward. If James Frey and Lajos Egri suggest that Premise starts at the beginning of the story and runs throughout the story, but isn’t directly connected to the end ,and Larry Brooks and my film school teachers believe that Theme is ultimately determined by the end of the story, maybe there is an easy solution that makes sense. Hey I know! What if Premise is the foundation of a story and runs from the beginning to the Climax, and Theme is what Premise turns into after the Climax?

I know this is a bit of “he said, she said”, but it makes sense if you think about how great stories work–especially those with strong endings. They go along convincing us that the story is about one thing, and we follow like sheep because the story is so convincing, but when the story reaches the climax, they surprise us with an ending that we didn’t expect (e.g., The Sixth Sense). The surprise ending works great, but it doesn’t give me an idea of how to organize this shift in perspective to ensure that everything fits together. I mean which do you focus on and when, premise or theme? I admit this confused me for a long time, until I read a third approach to storytelling that is based upon what happens in an argument.

… O.K., if you have lasted this long with me, I applaud you. You either really like story theory or you are a sucker for charts and graphs. I promise we are almost there.

To tie it all together, I’m going to share with you a very practical approach to storytelling that was developed sometime around 5th Century BC in Ancient Greece. It was originally developed as a method of argument in which an original opinion (Theses) is countered by an opposing opinion (Antitheses) to reach a conclusion where the Antitheses is incorporated into the Theses resulting in an overall change to the Theses. This change is known as Synthesis. Hugh?

Thesis & Antithesis become Synthesis

Thesis & Antithesis become Synthesis

Let’s think about it terms of storytelling. The first view, Theses is that held by the Protagonist. It is a naive view, based upon the types of things that we are taught to believe in childhood (e.g., the “shoulds” and “oughts”), and you could say is childlike. Only after this view is challenged by a second view, the Antitheses, does the Theses begin to mature through the acceptance of some of the Antitheses. Finally, by the time we reach the Climax of the story, the Theses incorporates the Antitheses and becomes a Synthesized view, or a Heroic view. If you look at the chart above, this corresponds to the view of a Martyr, a person more concerned with their community’s wellbeing than their own wants and needs.

If the Theses is the view held by the protagonist, then the Antitheses must be the opposing view held by the antagonist. And the stronger the Antitheses opposes the Theses, the better. This back and forth opposition between the Theses and the Antitheses is conflict, the lifeblood of storytelling.

An effective method for showing the growth of the protagonist is for her to internalize this oppositional point of view, which tells us that the protagonist requires the point of view of the antagonist to achieve personal growth. This is key, because in order for the protagonist’s view to  mature into a heroic view, they must accept part of what the antagonist stands for.  If it wasn’t for the antagonist the Protagonist would never leave their comfy home that is relatively tension free.

As you can see in the graph above, the Theses argument drives tension down, whereas the Antitheses argument drives tension up. After each major Story Milestone, both sides take a breather, and the protagonist drives the Tension back down. It may come as a shock, but until the Protagonist reaches the Climax, they are always trying to return to that point in the story where they experienced the least amount of tension. Why? Because stories reflect the human condition, and people want things to be easy and to feel as good as possible. We also don’t want our idyllic childlike view of the world to change and accept the realities that we don’t always live in a nice, safe world. In order for the protagonist to reach that heroic state, where he is more concerned with the needs of others over himself, he needs the Antagonist to drive him up there.

Then finally at the climax, the protagonist realizes that the only way to defeat the Antagonist, and to save the community, is to fully  integrate the opposing views of the Antitheses, which is the death of the Theses. It is also the death of the Antitheses, and often the antagonist. This isn’t because the Theses or Antitheses go away, but they are Synthesized within the protagonist to form a whole other mature point of view that is completely owned by the protagonist. This moment is referred to as Synthesis. It is also the moment when Premise converts to Theme–when the Antitheses is no longer needed because the protagonist has fully incorporated it into his psyche.


One comment on “Reviving Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories”

  • Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: