The Shape of Your Story

Did you know that many of the world’s greatest stories aren’t really all that original?

Revered author Willa Cather once said “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never been told before.” (Wait, what? You’ve never heard of Willa Cather?! Oh, well, you must not have grown up in Nebraska…)

Like Cather, famed American author Kurt Vonnegut believed stories shared a handful of ‘shapes.’ He gave a wonderful lecture about the “simple shape of stories,” where he gives us story-shapes that we keep telling over-and-over-and-over again.

But first, you’ll need to understand our two dimensions.  First, our vertical line is the the happy/sad axis. At the top is happiness, health and wealth. At the bottom is bad-luck, sickness and poverty. And our horizontal line is time… beginning to end.


Shape 1: Man in Hole

For our first story shape, we start with a happy hero minding her own business… Then she falls into some kind of trouble… and eventually she gets out of trouble and back to happy. Man-in-hole is characterized by a fall-then-rise shape.

Story Shape

Let’s look at a modern example: Back to the Future.  Marty McFly’s a happy-enough teenager… when he accidentally time-travels 30 years into the past without the plutonium he needs to get back (fall)… and has to find a way to generate 1.21 gigawatts of energy to get back to the future, all without messing the meeting of his parents, thereby erasing his existence (rise).

This is the story shape I used for ‘Twas the Mouse Who Saved Christmas… Pipp is minding her business, ‘borrowing a cookie’ from Santa…when she’s rudely interrupted by Santa’s cat, Fritz, and accidentally rips Santa’s list (fall)… After several false starts, she cleverly avoids Fritz and saves Christmas! (then rise)

Shape 2: Cinderella (or Boy Meets Girl)

For our second shape, we start with an ordinary person on an ordinary day… they comes into some sort of good fortune … “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!”… but then they run into trouble and lose it…  “Doggone it!” … And then they work their way back to happiness… This story shape is characterized by rise-fall-rise. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl in the end.

Story Shape #2

Examples? Well, Cinderella for one. Plus. Every. Romantic. Movie. Ever… When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride and Pretty Woman, to name a few.  

But it’s not only romantic stories… An example from children’s literature is Charlotte’s Web. The runt of the litter of piglets gets saved by the farmer’s daughter (rise). But then Wilbur gets snubbed by the other animals and learns he’s being raised for slaughter (fall)… until a barn spider hatches a plan to save Wilbur: make him a famous pig by weaving words of praise for Wilbur into her web (rise).

Other Shapes

In 2016, a group of students in the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington published research supporting Vonnegut’s theory: The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

Basically, these researchers fed the text of 1,327 stories into a computer, used natural language processing to look at sentiment across the story (the story shape) and found the following six shapes:

  • “Man in a hole” (fall-rise)
  • “Cinderella” (rise-fall-rise)
  • “Rags to riches” (rise)
  • “Tragedy” (or “Riches to rags”) (fall)
  • “Icarus” (rise-fall)
  • “Oedipus” (fall-rise-fall)

See? Kurt Vonnegut and Will Cather were right!

So…What’s Your Story?

The magic is that you can borrow these story shapes for yourself.

I’m not saying it will be easy. But the only way to become a storyteller is by telling stories. Just like the only way to become {x} is by {x}ing (insert your passion here: writing, movie making, cooking, product developing, etc).

Get started. Fail. Start again. Fail better. Start again.

What’s your story?

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