Story Shapes

February 28, 2013 at 11:04 am 5 comments

I’ve had a chance to look through ds106 this week a bit more than I was expecting.  I’ll admit I skipped past the posts on week one and two which seemed to be mostly for enrolled students, but week three has grabbed me.  It looks at a premise by Kurt Vonnegut that stories have simple shapes that can be graphed.  This infographic is a pretty good summary, though I disagree with a couple of her shapes which I’ll come to later.

I was really taken with the video on the week 3 blog post.  I think it’s fairly safe to say that most stories probably fall into only two or three different shapes, but two things struck me:
What gives the story it’s shape? And,
What about the stories that don’t fit the standard shapes?

The examples in the video focus on the main character as defining the shape of a story.  A man gets into a hole and gets out of it again.  Boy meets girl, thinks he’s going to lost girl, gets her back.  And Cinderella.  In theory the majority of more complex stories can even be boiled down to this kind of shape even stories that have all kinds of depth and meaning, for example, Lord of the Rings: hobbit gets embroiled in bad stuff, saves the world.

But what about stories without a clear main character?  Lord of the Rings isn’t a bad example as you could argue that it’s about Aragorn taking his place as king, or about Gandalf or about Sauron (which would make it: being tries to take over, taken out by puny hobbit changing the point of the story from “good triumphs” to “pay attention to detail”).  And yet I’m going to use the recent Avengers movie as an example instead because it’s way easier.

For those who haven’t seen it The Avengers is about a group of superheros, each with their own franchise, coming together to kick evil butt.  The key here is: each have their own franchise.  They each have separate backstory, different motivations, and different feelings about what happens when they are forced/tricked/asked to come together to fight the bad things.  The film arguably has 6 or 7 main characters: Thor, Stark, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk (and possibly Nick Fury).  Overall the shape of the film is: average day, bad stuff happens, day saved – so pretty much man in the hole.  But if you graph each of the main characters you get something a bit different.


Here I’ve poorly graphed in Paint: Stark (red), Captain America (blue), Hulk (green, natch) and Hawkeye (grey), chosen because they had interesting curves that don’t quite follow the man-in-hole dynamic.  For example Stark – he’s egotistical enough to be pretty much close to max happiness at all times…Apart from that tricky part where he almost dies, but then he’s fine again.  Captain America wants to fit in and while bad stuff is certainly happening it’s what he was trained for and what he feels comfortable doing.  Hawkeye gets possessed at the beginning of the film…Sucks to be him.  And Hulk is effectively tricked into joining, doesn’t want to be there, hates it, rages out and destroys everything…And then is given completely free reign to SMASH THINGS and goes to his happy place.

Now one of the reasons I don’t completely agree with the infographic I linked to is because the person (note: I don’t know whether the author has got this from Kurt Vonnegut or has come to this conclusion themselves) has denoted Hamlet (disclaimer: my favourite Shakespeare play) as a flat line with the idea that it’s too complex and too like real life.  Personally I would disagree: I think Hamlet is half a Cinderella story.  Suicidal (working for evil stepmother), gets happier and happier as he goes on with his crazy plans (ghost as fairy godmother…ish), kills the King (akin to dancing with the Prince), then dead and Norway seizes the throne (strikes midnight)…It’s just you don’t have the happy ever after.

This got me thinking about two things (three if you count my concern that this blog post is going to get far too long). 1) are eastern stories in different shapes to western ones? And 2) can I find a story that is mostly flat?

Well I wouldn’t call this next example flat exactly, but it certainly is far too complex a shape to graph easily: The Prestige.  Brief synopsis: two magicians continually screw each other over trying to be the best and failing horribly…That really doesn’t do the film justice at all, but we’re about basics here today.  Now, how to graph that one sentence synopsis………..On it’s own I have no idea.  So take the two main characters and you come up with something like this:


The curves don’t denote exact points in the film, they were just to give a vague impression (very vague given my drawing skills).

But do eastern stories follow similar shapes to western stories?  Now I’m going to generalise horribly here so you should know that I by no means consider myself an expert on eastern culture.  I have looked a fair bit into some traditional Japanese folk tales and modern anime/manga.  The one thing I feel comfortable saying therefore is that, the Japanese at least, are much more comfortable with leaving loose ends, or actively ending stories on a down note.  All our stories end upbeat, even if they dredge the pits of despair in the telling, but the Japanese have plenty of stories where people end up worse than when they started, which is perhaps a reality that we prefer to keep out of our entertainment.


Entry filed under: ds106. Tags: .

LARP and the variety of stories Audio and serious storytelling

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris Thomson  |  March 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Great post, Jen.

    The Prestige is an interesting one. If you assume the film is just about Hugh Jackman’s character and Christian Bale is just a there as a foil it becomes a lot more linear; his decent into obsession and madness. If Bale is the main character things get a LOT more complicated (for reasons I won’t say in case someone reading this hasn’t seen the film!)

    Also (I love thinking about this stuff) have you seen Billy Elliott? If you use this graphing technique to visualise who has been on the greatest journey, the film isn’t actually about Billy at all.

    I’ve been thinking about your technique this week as a way of helping project teams think about their stories. Crating a time line with multiple characters on it (a bit like Avengers Assemble!) and seeing how the journeys compare. You can see where the crucial, and therefore interesting, parts of the story are where the changes in the lines’ directions happen.

    My colleague Will was also talking about individuals mapping out their story like this but tracking different emotions like happiness, frustration, anxiety and so on.

    On a slightly related note – did you ever see this XKCD cartoon? –

    Looking forward to your next post – and probably going to re-watch Billy Elliott this weekend!

    • 2. jennifermdenton  |  March 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks ^_^

      Yes, if Bale is the main character then you have something of a choice of graphs…

      I’ll have to watch Billy Elliott again – it’s been a while, but at a guess I’d think, if not Billy, then his dad probably has the biggest journey (emotionally)?

      I hadn’t been thinking about this in a project context, but now you’ve got me thinking. It could potentially be a good way to show progress of the stakeholder engagement from start to finish. Especially if you can graph a number of the key stakeholders at the same time and then show how they start to come together and at what point(s) they’re on the same page. I wonder if it could even be a way to gauge stakeholder engagement throughout a project? I can imagine plotting on a regular-ish basis where you think each stakeholder/relevant department is on a sabotage-acceptance-promotion kind of axis…

      Yes I’ve seen that one before but I had forgotten all about it!

  • 3. Maya Eilam  |  March 17, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Hi Jennifer, it’s great to see deep engagement with this theory! I created the Vonnegut infographic you mentioned, and I think you raise excellent points.

    I should mention, Hamlet is an example Vonnegut gave in either “A Man Without a Country” or “Palm Sunday” (I can’t remember which). Maybe a better example would be “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, or “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard.

    I think Vonnegut’s theory on the shapes of stories focuses on archetypal stories and assumes a traditional approach to reading them. There are many works centered around unconventional engagement, and I’d say that in these cases the story exists outside of the pages, somewhere between the book and the reader. The novel “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov (author of “Lolita”), and the film “Mulholland Drive” by David Lynch are puzzle-like works where a reader or viewer has to piece the story together. In these cases I think the shape of the story would more likely chart a reader’s confusion and clarity (C-C axis!).

    Thanks for your post,

    • 4. jennifermdenton  |  March 19, 2013 at 8:42 am

      I like the idea of a Confusion-Clarity axis 😛 I can think of a couple of books and films that would have some interesting shapes on that. Now I’m wondering what shape something like the Agatha Christie books might have…less “man gets into a hole and gets out of it” and more “man gets confused by an impossible situation then finds the answer”.
      Thanks for the comment

      • 5. Maya Eilam  |  March 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

        Yes, and M. Night Shyamalan movies would have erratic zigzags at the end!

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