By Ben Polkinghorne

By Ben Polkinghorne

Aug 5, 2023

Aug 5, 2023

The eight shapes of stories

The eight shapes of stories

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007) was an absolute maverick. 

An American author, he was known for his dark, dry humour. 

His most prominent novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, has been objected to or removed at various institutions in at least 18 instances

His Master’s thesis was rejected because it “was so simple and looked like too much fun”. 

The premise was that stories have simple, beautiful shapes that computers can understand. 

This was back in 1947.

Vonnegut’s idea was that a story’s main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the story’s shape. The X-axis represents the story from beginning to end, the Y-axis represents good and bad fortune.

Every tale, he claimed, could be mapped to one of his eight distinctive shapes.

One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called ‘Man in Hole’, “though it needn’t be about a man and it needn’t be about a hole…”

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’s hand-drawn diagram

Using a different shape, he points out the similarities between Cinderella and early Christianity. 

The stroke of midnight mirrors Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cinderella’s rise to bliss with the prince mirrors redemption through Jesus Christ. 

Vonnegut’s hand-drawn diagram

If you're curious to dive deeper into Vonnegut's brilliance, I highly recommend watching his hilarious lecture. There's a 4-minute version and a more elaborate 17-minute version.

moveme took inspiration from Vonnegut's ideas. We use computers to understand stories - but focus on the emotional impact, rather than narrative structure. 

In doing so we strive to deliver a personalised movie experience that resonates deeply with each individual.

We share Vonnegut’s view that real life is too complex to fit neatly into one of eight shapes. 

But seeing life’s ebbs and flows in stories can help us appreciate the good moments. 

Vonnegut concludes his longer lecture with a tribute to his Uncle Alex. 

“What Uncle Alex found objectionable about so many human beings is that they seldom noticed when they were happy.”

His Uncle made a habit of noticing the good times.

When the pair were sitting under an Apple tree on a warm July afternoon, drinking Lemonade, talking about this and that, Uncle Alex would stop everything and say “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” 

“It was very good advice,” Vonnegut said.