Many years ago, I had the good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut deliver one of his famous lectures on the shapes of stories. It was enlightening. And yet, over time, I forgot most of what he said, and even (somehow) forgot the phrase “the shape of a story”—until a few months ago when a critique of my novel reminded me that, yes, stories have shapes.
It’s not that I hadn’t thought about the rising and falling action of my novel; it’s that I hadn’t taken the time to step back and examine the picture of the work as a whole. When I did, I naturally found areas to improve. But I don’t want to talk about my novel. I want to talk about the ways I’ve recently been thinking about shape.
You see, I’ve come to believe Vonnegut’s conception of story shape is incomplete.
For Vonnegut, a story’s shape captures the ups and downs of the protagonist(s). These ups and downs he renders as a line graph, with each up movement representing a moment that makes things better for the protagonist and each down movement representing a moment that makes things worse for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its simplicity and quite instructive in the ways it allows us to compare the shapes of similar stories (Vonnegut famously noted that the classic version of Cinderella has the same shape as the New Testament.)
Whether things are getting better or worse for the protagonist tells us nothing about how the narrator is portraying the bettering or worsening and nothing about how the characters are responding to the bettering or worsening. Those two factors are an important part of a story’s shape. I call them narrative weight and lyrical elevation. And in the next few posts, I hope to explain what I’m thinking. Because I love thinking about stories.