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Watch Kurt Vonnegut explain the different shapes of stories.

Katie Yee

November 11, 2021, 1:23pm

Writers, here’s a little fun Thursday lunchtime activity for you. Think about the story you’re currently working on/avoiding. What shape does it take? Get a pen and some paper and trace it out. On the axis of good fortune versus ill fortune, where do your characters tend to fall?

Kurt Vonnegut was born 99 years ago today, so it’s high time we revisit one of his best craft lectures. In it, he breaks down his taxonomy of storytelling. But none of this “beginning → rising action → climax → falling action → resolution” crap that we learn in middle school. He begins: “Stories have very simple shapes, ones that computers can understand.” And then he goes on to do a little literary stand-up comedy, tracing the story arc of HamletThe Metamorphosis, and even Cinderella. Not by plot, but by the feelings of the characters we follow. For Kurt Vonnegut, the true movement of a story lays in a character’s happiness.

If you have 17 minutes to spare today, I recommend you give it a watch and maybe plot your own happiness, too. In fact, tag yourself. (We’re Kafka’s cockroach.)

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