The Shape of Stories by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “The Shape of Stories.” Enjoy!
Authors sometimes like to think that the book they’re writing has never been done before. But more likely, they are (or hope they are) giving an old story a new twist.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Theory on the Shape of Stories
More than thirty years ago, for his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago, Kurt Vonnegut proposed to demonstrate that classic stories from popular culture had predictable plot arcs that could be graphed.
That concept was too far out for the faculty committee, which rejected the proposal.
Vonnegut’s theory was that any story could be charted along a vertical and horizontal axis, giving it a particular shape.
Scenes that evoked good fortune were plotted at the top of the vertical axis, and story events that resulted in ill fortune fell below the median (the “G/I” axis).
The horizontal axis denoted narrative time (the “B/E” axis).
Eight Universal Archetypes and the Shape of Stories
Vonnegut hypothesized that all stories fell into eight universal archetypes that could be plotted on this graph.
For example, the Man in Hole archetype (in which the protagonist, at great personal risk, must thwart a threat), when graphed, looked like a U and Boy Meets Girl looked like an N.
Now a recent analysis using artificial intelligence has proved his theory.
AI Analysis and the Graphing of the Shape of Stories
Matthew Jockers, a scholar and data scientist who has written two books on text mining, built an AI program that examined thousands of popular novels.
What he learned confirms Vonnegut’s theory about story shapes.
Of course, lots of people have written about universal story shapes, archetypes, or plots.
Jockers’s AI analysis adds another dimension to the work others have done.
In his work, he shows how popular authors tend to follow the same storytelling patterns: Isaac Asimov tended to favor The Quest and Descent archetypes, while Danielle Steel favors Man in the Hole.
Dean Koontz often employs the Rags to Riches archetype, which Stephen King avoids.
“Readers come to a novel with certain expectations,” Jockers said. “If you stray too far as an author, it can betray readers’ desires—or worse, bore the hell out of them. Literary experimentalists like James Joyce can get away with this sort of rule breaking. But Ulysses, for all its wonder, never made it onto tens of millions of readers’ nightstands.”
Archetypes as Guideposts for the Shape of Your Stories
No one is advising that authors use these archetypes—or any others—as a blueprint for their work. But these tools can help you form a conceptual framework for your story, a guideline of sorts to help you see what has worked in the past and shape where you want to take your characters.
For a detailed description of these archetypes, including the graphic depictions and some of the books included in the AI analysis, as well as an amusing YouTube video of Kurt Vonnegut describing how the graphs function, check out the article by J.D. Lasica here.
Barany School of Fiction offers a story structure course: “Choose Your Story’s Structure: Learn the ins and outs of five powerful storytelling structures” https://school.bethbarany.com/p/how-to-choose-your-story-structure
Some books on story structure
Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt https://geni.us/Uw91m8
The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger https://geni.us/paHFd
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at [email protected] to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.
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