Friday, March 22, 2019

The Shape of a Story

Kurt Vonnegut is famous for his rejected master’s thesis on the shape of a story. He proposed that there are six distinct story shapes that can be applied to any story. These six shapes are the emotional arc of three types of stories (and their opposites). Two additional shapes have also been added, for a total of eight different emotional arcs for stories. Vonnegut’s thesis has since been scientifically proven.

  1. Man in Hole
  2. Boy Meets Girl
  3. From Bad to Worse
  4. Which Way is Up?
  5. Creation Story
  6. Old Testament
  7. New Testament
  8. Cinderella

While I’m not going to dive into Vonnegut’s story shapes today, I propose a different kind of story shape.

Story vs. Plot

The story shapes Vonnegut observed were based on emotional arcs. But story is much more than an emotional arc. Story must include characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Working together, these elements allow someone to feel emotion in the first place.

So what’s the difference between story and plot? Story is the bigger picture. To tell a story, you have to have those four main elements: character, conflict, plot, and theme. Technically, you can tell a story without theme, but no one would care. Theme is what elevates your story to make it better so that people care. It’s what someone gets out of your story and how they apply that emotion to their own lives.

Plot, on the other hand, is merely another element of story. Plot is what happens in the story, the chronological sequence of events, even if you’re dealing with flashbacks and foreshadowing. Plot is action. And plot has a very specific shape - applicable to all stories, no matter what emotional shape it takes on.

The Shape of a Plot Diagram

While there are actually several different plot diagrams, there is basically one overarching simplistic shape of a story’s plot: the witch’s hat.

The left brim is the exposition. The left slope up to the peak is the rising action. The right slope down to the right brim is the falling action. And the right brim is the resolution. But if you read my last post, What Are the Parts of a Story Arc?, then you’ll know how I feel about the simplistic witch’s hat model of story narrative.

The squashed witch’s hat is more like a beret. Kind of. The left brim and slope are the same, but the right slope and brim get merged and shortened.

To give you a better understanding of this plot diagram, I’m going to share with you three different stories to help solidify the shape.

Plot Structure of a Novel

The three examples I’m giving (aside from the already given witch’s hat imagery) to help shape plot diagram are roller coaster, road trip, and marathon. I’m saving the best for last. The marathon method is nearly a one-for-one match. Hold on tight.

Remember, the falling action includes the resolution. I’m adding in another plot point in addition to the climax. The inciting incident is the first plot point and the climax is the fifth and final plot point. There are others, but I’m trying to keep this as simple as possible.

Roller Coaster Plot Example

Exposition = standing in line
Inciting Incident = getting on the roller coaster
Rising Action = climbing to the top of the roller coaster
Climax = the initial free fall and fast-paced exhilaration
Falling Action = coming to the end of the ride and dismounting the car

Road Trip (or Vacation) Plot Example

Exposition = planning to go on a trip and getting packed
Inciting Incident = gassing up the car
Rising Action = driving to your destination (the other three plot points in the middle are stopping at the gas station)
Climax = arriving to your destination
Falling Action = enjoying your time once there

Marathon Plot Example

Exposition = living a healthy life as a runner
Inciting Incident = signing up for a marathon
Rising Action = running the race
Climax = crossing the finish line
Falling Action = enjoying the after party

I know this is a simplistic view of plot, but I hope it helped you to understand the shape of a story, or the shape of the more accurate squashed witch’s hat plot diagram. So the next time you pick up your pen (or keyboard) to write, remember to don your beret and cackle with the best of ‘em.

What do you think about a story shape being compared to a witch's hat? Share your comment here.

Outline Your Novel With a Simple Plot

Keep on keepin' on...


No comments:

Post a Comment

I love hearing from you! Share your thoughts below.


Link Within

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...