Esteemed write Kurt Vonnegut noted that his special contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago.  The thesis argued that a story’s protagonist has “ups” and “downs” that can be graphed to reveal the story’s “type”, as well as something about the culture it comes from.

“The fundamental idea is 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,” said Vonnegut.

He illustrated the primary argument of his thesis in a lecture where he graphed some of the most common story types.  The transcript of this lecture was later published in his memoir, “A Man Without a Country,” which included his own drawings of the graphs.

Here’s how it works.

Vonnegut plotted stories on a vertical “G-I axis,” representing the good or ill fortunes of the protagonist, and a horizontal “B-E” axis that represented the direction or “path” of the story from beginning to end.

story plot
Graphing the good or ill fortune of a story’s protagonist versus time.


One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole,” graphed below by designer Maya Eilam. In this type of story, somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started.

“You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut says in his lecture.

A similar variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

Keep these story types in mind the next time you watch a movie – you’ll be amazed to see how well they match up and how predictable the storylines become.

shapes of stories 1


shapes of stories 2


shapes of stories 3


shapes of stories 4

Source: Washington Post
Images designed by Maya Eilam.