Kurt Vonnegut on the 7 Universal Narrative Structures

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Renowned author Kurt Vonnegut proposed there are just 7 basic plots to every story ever told.

Kurt Vonnegut’s university thesis proposed 7 deep narrative ‘shapes’. Sadly, his thesis was rejected (Vonnegut says that was because “It was so simple and looked like so much fun”).

He shares his thesis in this lecture, charting the emotional and narrative journey to create various shapes representing the underlying story forms:

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

In spite of the rejection of Vonnegut’s thesis, many storytellers and researchers were interested in the theory, leading to a new academic study that analysed 1,373 fiction novels from Project Gutenberg to analyse them for the emotional arc of the story.

This study found “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives”. These structures were:

  • “rags to riches” (from low to high)
  • “riches to rags” (aka Tragedy – from high to low)
  • “Man in a hole” (Fall to rise)
  • “Icarus” (rise-fall)
  • “Cinderalla” (rise-fall-rise)
  • “Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

This study is a strong vindication of Vonnegut’s thesis – but alas too late for the late professor to enjoy.

Most fascinating to Vonnegut was the pattern of Cinderalla – but he struggled to get this tale to fit his model.

“I confessed that I was daunted by the graph of Cinderella, and was tempted to leave it out of my thesis, since it seemed to prove that I was full of shit. It seemed too complicated and arbitrary to be a representative artefact … but then I said to myself: ‘Wait a minute – those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth.’ And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity. The tales were identical.”

 

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