Jeanne: Vonnegut’s Story Shapes

Kurt Vonnegut once said that his biggest contribution to the culture was his master’s thesis, rejected by the anthropology department at University of Chicago, wherein he theorized that if you graph stories along two axes (good fortune to ill fortune on the vertical axis and beginning to end along the horizontal axis), there are only eight basic shapes. If you want a scholarly take on this topic, I recommend this article. If you’re okay with something less erudite, stick around.

  1. Man in a Hole

Man begins with slightly better than average luck but immediately falls into a hole of ill fortune and has to dig himself back out.

2. Boy Meets Girl

This is the shape of all romance novels. As you can see, it’s basically Man in a Hole, with one addition–the infinity sign at the end, signifying the HEA.

3. Bad to Worse

Bad to worse describes Kafka’s Metamorphosis and almost every Twilight Zone episode–things start out bad and get worse.

4. The Indeterminate Universe

Lots of things happen in Hamlet, but it’s impossible to tell whether these occurrences are bad or good. I played Ophelia in a high school production of Hamlet and I’ve seen half a dozen interpretations of it since then and this has honestly never occurred to me. I can see the genius of it, though–it’s a lot like life.


If you smooth out the stair-steps, you can see that Cinderella is a romance story. You can watch Vonnegut talk about these story shapes, and a couple of others, here.

What kind of story shape appeals to you?

2 thoughts on “Jeanne: Vonnegut’s Story Shapes

  1. Great minds think alike, Jeanne! I write for another site, too, and I just did a post over there about Vonnegut’s story shapes. You probably found this in your research, but I was interested to learn that the academic advisors rejected this thesis topic essentially because they didn’t believe it, or didn’t believe story types could be graphed. And then subsequently, lots of other people came to the same conclusion and published the theory in various forms. Vonnegut dropped out and never did get his Ph.D. and look how that turned out for him. 🙂

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