Kurt Vonnegut On The Shape Of A Story
by Terry Heick
The ‘narrative arc’ is a way of describing the traditional rising and falling of action in a story.
Most stories are built around a character that wants something–Shrek wants his swamp back, Cinderella wants love, Woody wants to be played with (Toy Story). This character motivation is usually a matter of ‘conflict,’ and the story, then, allows the character to seek out what they want, in the process overcoming challenges, creating relationships, and going on a (sometimes literal) journey of self-exploration and discovery.
The best way I’ve heard a story described is that it’s the tying and untying of a knot (conflict–>resolution=character growth). In the video below, Kurt Vonnegut adds to this conversation in a very Vonnegut–through the lens of human suffering. Every story, Vonnegut playfully asserts, can be ‘shaped’ on a Y-axis of Good Fortune & Ill Fortune extended along the X-axis of Time. Where the character begins and ends–and what they overcome in between–creates a shape of a story that can be “fed into computers.”
Computers, he presumes, should be able to make sense of the different shapes of human suffering. (See What Vonnegut Might Say About Your Teaching.)
That he thinks they can and should is why I love Kurt Vonnegut.