The Shape of Stories: Part 3

In the last post, I discussed the idea behind narrative weight and how we can turn the fluctuations in a narrator’s depth of attention into a story shape. But that method of creating a shape is only one way to visualize narrative weight. A second way is to integrate a story’s narrative weight into its Vonnegutian shape.

As previously noted, Vonnegut created story shapes by graphing the ups and downs of a protagonist’s situation. His shapes allow us to see how seemingly disparate stories use similar narrative structures. But those stories are still disparate for a reason, right? And one of the things that makes them different is the way they use narrative weight.

I’ll explain more fully by comparing two stories: Story A and Story B. Both stories are a doomed love story and follow the same, basic Vonnegutian shape. The protagonists begin in a less-than-perfect state and are headed downward but, when they find love, their condition improves and things move upward until an event tears them from their love, sending them into a final, tragic descent. This gives us a Vonnegutian shape of:

Story Shapes - Doomed Love StoryBut Story A and Story B are not as alike as their Vonnegutian shape indicates. That’s because Story A is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Story B is a Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. While both stories center around a doomed love (Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Jude and Willem in A Little Life), they take a vastly different approach, and not just in the length of the novels (The Great Gatsby is barely a fifth as long as A Little Life). A substantial part of their difference is in where the narrative weight of each story rests.

Before I go on, let me say I love both of these novels. I’m not attempting to compare their artistic merit; I’m attempting to show how, despite their Vonnegutian similarity, the shapes of their stories are still quite different.

We’ll begin with The Great Gatsby.

The central character is Jay Gatsby, but the character of Nick Carraway tells Gatsby’s story. That means it’s Carraway and his interests that determine what elements the narrative focuses deeply on and what elements the narrative speeds past. Carraway spends a long time on the lower part of the Vonnegutian curve upward, giving us glittering details of Gatsby’s parties and Gatsby’s demeanor. He also spends a long time on the beginning of the final slope downward, taking his time to set up and describe the confrontation between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband and the immediate fallout from that confrontation.

However, Carraway spends relatively little time describing how Gatsby became Gatsby (the initial slide down), only a bit of time on Gatsby and Daisy’s affair (the upper part of the rising line) and just 15 pages on the aftermath of Gatsby’s ultimate death, relying on lyrical elevation (which I will discuss in my next post) rather than narrative weight to bring the novel to a close. In short, The Great Gatsby is heavily weighted around the early part of the Vonnegutian shape’s rise and the early part of the final fall and lightly weighted everywhere else.

How does that compare to A Little Life?

A Little Life uses a 3rd person omniscient-leaning narrator that dips in and out of the perspectives of the novel’s four primary characters. Yanagihara uses this expansive narrative voice to give us multiple views of the characters and to control the speed and intensity at which we learn about the novel’s central character, Jude St. Francis. It’s Jude’s story that holds most of the novel’s narrative weight, with his tragic past of victimhood described in graphic detail over the course of multiple flashbacks spaced throughout the novel’s second half.

In fact, Jude’s life of pain, both mental and physical, pervades the novel, centering the story’s narrative weight along that first descending line in the Vonnegutian shape. The romance with Willem and the hope that it brings Jude (the rising line) takes up a relatively small fraction of the narrative attention. So does the ultimate fall, occurring after the tragic death of Willem, which itself happens in less than a page.

The intense focus on Jude’s years of pain gives A Little Life a notably different feel than The Great Gatsby. Where The Great Gatsby feels like a melancholic sigh, A Little Life feels more like a vice around the heart. This difference is due to a lot of narrative choices, but I would argue that one of the most significant is the difference in where the narrators center the narrative weight.

And this is a difference we can turn into a shape. The shape uses the ups-and-downs of the Vonnegutian shape but, instead of the line being a consistent width, the line thickens wherever the narrative weight is heaviest.

Using that method, The Great Gatsby’s shape looks like:

Story Shape -- Great Gatsby

A Little Life’s shape looks like:

Story Shape -- A Little Life

My less-than-fantastic artistic skills aside, this method of visualizing a story lets us see that the two stories share a similar arc but have profoundly different shapes. I think this method of creating a story shape can help us think more deeply about the narrative construction of stories and how those structures function to create the reading experience. Additionally, I think this method of visualizing stories can help us better see the structures of our own stories, which can help us refine them into the shape—and reading experience—we want.

And thus ends my discussion on narrative weight. Up next: lyrical elevation.

The Shape of Stories: Part II

The first of the two types of story shapes I want to discuss in this series is what I’m calling narrative weight. I’ll preface this by saying my ideas on this are nascent, which is why they’re appearing on my blog. I’ve always found blogs to be a good venue for test-driving ideas.

So… what do I mean by narrative weight? Simply put, I mean how much or how little attention the narrator of a story is giving to any particular event, situation, setting or emotion. The more attention a narrator gives an element in the story—the longer the narrative eye examines it—the more weight that portion of the story has. The less attention—the briefer the narrative eye examines an element—the less weight that portion of the story has.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve realized there are two different ways to turn narrative weight into a story shape. In the interest of keeping these posts at a somewhat manageable length, I’ll discuss the first way here and the second way in the next post.

The first way to create a story shape using narrative weight to is to line-graph the story from beginning to end, moving lower on the graph to represent when a narrator is giving an element extra attention and moving higher to represent when the narrator is giving an element less attention. This creates a shape that captures how often a story slows for examination and how deeply that examination pierces. It also reveals how often and for how long a story uses a lighter touch.

As an example of how this would look, I did a quick, narrative weight graph of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s off the top of my head, but I think it gets the point across. The narrative weight shape of the story looks like this:

Manhattan Beach story shape

Egan is a descriptive writer who takes her time delving into emotions and creating vivid scenes, so most of the novel exists in the weightier realm. In Manhattan Beach and her other works, she rarely crosses the line between weightiness and lightness, although the placement of that line is certainly up for debate. Nevertheless, I think this graph demonstrates how a story’s shape looks when we use narrative weight as the measure, rather than using the Vonnegutian measure of whether the protagonist’s condition is improving or worsening. For reference, the Vonnegutian story shape for Manhattan Beach looks like this:

Manhattan Beach Vonnegut

The difference is clear. And I think envisioning a story’s shape as a measure of the narrative weight’s ups-and-downs can be as helpful for writers as envisioning the story’s shape as a measure of the protagonist’s ups-and-downs. In particular, a story’s narrative weight shape can help us identify whether we’re leaning into detailed descriptions and analyses more than we want or less than we want. After all, narrative weight directly affects reader experience. Weightier elements in a story can be intellectually and emotionally engaging to read but risk being dull. Lighter elements, on the other hand, can be fun and breezy to read but risk being forgettable. A controlled fluctuation of narrative weight can help a story take advantage of both weightiness and lightness without succumbing to either’s negative side.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a story with little or no fluctuation of narrative weight can’t work, artistically, commercially or otherwise. In fact, some stories, when graphed for narrative weight, are flat, existing along one level for the entire narrative.

For example, the narrative voice in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code spends a brief amount of attention on every moment, never slowing things down to examine a particular element for any longer than it takes to get the basic facts across. The novel’s narrative weight shape is a straight line running along the upper part of the graph. There are also stories that run in a straight line on the lower part of the graph. I’m thinking specifically of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which the narrative voice obsesses over every element in every moment, making every page narratively heavy.

For my tastes, a flat narrative weight creates an unenjoyable read, although given the popularity (albeit different kinds of popularity) of The DaVinci Code and Infinite Jest, my preference for frequent fluctuation in narrative weight is obviously just that. A preference. I’m not positing that one kind of narrative weight shape (or one position on the heaviness/lightness scale) is superior to another. All I’m saying is that the shape of a story, as measured by narrative weight, affects the nature of that story and the reader’s experience with that story.

But graphing narrative weight in the way I describe here is just one way to think about narrative weight as it pertains to story shape. There is a second way, which integrates Vonnegut’s shapes. And which I will discuss in the next post.

The Shape of Stories: Part 1

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.

Stay tuned…

On Not Publishing

It’s been years since I’ve published anything. I even went two years without updating this blog. This wasn’t planned. It was a slow, barely noticeable derailment. But like all derailments, I’m left to look back and ask, how the hell did that happen?

Here’s what I can use for an excuse:

  • I’ve been working on a novel for four years
  • What short stories I have written I haven’t submitted to more than a handful of journals
  • All those journals have been highly competitive
  • I’ve been busy raising two kids
  • I’ve had twice as much paying work than I used to, requiring twice as much of my time
  • I waste too many hours on Twitter
  • I waste too many hours thinking/talking about politics
  • I have a lazy streak

All of that’s true. But none of it’s right. None of it gets to the root of why, after publishing at a good clip for a number of years, I’ve released nothing since 2015. The real reason is this:

It wasn’t a derailment at all. I simply stopped worrying about my eventual death.

That sounds somber. It’s not. The thing is, I started writing late. Or at least late for the youth-obsessed publishing world, which likes to reward writers for being great while still being young (the 5 Under 35 award comes to mind).  Since I didn’t start focusing on my fiction writing until I was 34, I felt I needed to play catch-up.  After all, there was still a chance for me to get on a 20 Under 40 list!

But then I turned 40.

And it seemed I had crossed a great and wild river. I would never be a young genius. And that was freeing. Instead of focusing so much energy on publishing, I focused it all on writing the best fiction I can possibly write. Not that I wasn’t trying to write well before. But, now, I don’t worry about when I might publish a piece; I worry about how good it will be when it’s published. And by good, I mean lasting.

I want to write something people will read in 100 years. In 200.

Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe that’s beyond my talent and skill. But it’s what I think about when I write these days. And I have been writing. I’ve been writing a lot. Maybe soon, a story of mine will appear in the world again. Maybe my novel will too. I’m excited about the work no one has seen. I think it’s some of the best I’ve ever done.


After We Stop Playing God

I’ve written three novels. And by “written” I mean I have taken three novels to the point where I was confident enough in their quality to send them out in an attempt to secure representation. But this isn’t about the process of submission. This is about relating to a novel once we are through writing it, once we’ve stopped being the godhead of the world we’ve created and start observing it from further away.

My first two novels are gathering digital dust in the “dead projects” folder on my computer. I long ago stopped sending them out. In fact, I stopped sending them out pretty quickly in the process. Neither ever went out to the quantity of places it usually takes to find representation, let alone a publisher.

Why did I stop so soon? Because the novels died for me.

When I explain this in conversation, I usually say “I decided that neither was a novel that really captured what I wanted to write.” A lot of people nod, a bit glassy-eyed, probably thinking my words are just a way to make my failure to get the books published seem less failure-y. But it wasn’t about other people’s opinions (I can handle rejection for far longer than I gave either novel). It was about what the novels meant to me. They were like sweaters I’d knitted for months only to discover that the arms were too long and the neck was too tight. I wore them around for a while because, damn it, I’d spent a lot of time on them. But there’s only so long you can be choked by your sweater before you set it aside and make a new one.

Of course, I’m now mixing metaphors. I initially described a novel as something that can live or die. Clearly, the problem with my first two novels was deeper than the way they “fit” me. Yes, it’s true, they didn’t fit well (there were parts of both I never got to work in the ways I wanted them to work). But the real problem was: they didn’t stay alive.

This happens to me all the time when I read novels. I might enjoy a novel while reading it, but after I put it down, it dies, leaving little but memories of plot points or well-written passages. That doesn’t mean the novel isn’t good or can’t live forever inside other readers, just that it stopped living for me.

I don’t want to put a book into the world that feels dead to me.

But why did those novels feel so dead? Usually, a novel stops living for me because the plot was engaging but there was nothing that pierced me deep. For more literary endeavors, the death is usually due to the opposite problem. There’s plenty of depth—exploration of big ideas that I find important and meaningful—but no real consequence, no heat that scars me.

Is it that simple for our own novels? Did my first two novels cease living for me because they failed to pierce me and/or burn me? I wish I had an answer. But I don’t. Not fully.

What I know is that writing this newest novel felt different. I was in a much deeper fog during its creation and particularly during its revision. And my own thoughts on the world changed during the course of the writing. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything during the writing of my first two novels; it’s that neither novel bothered my sense of my place in the world like this novel bothered me.

I don’t know if that means the new novel is a better novel. I’m sure a good agent/editor could improve it in ways I can’t possibly see. But I have to say: I do like its chances. If nothing else, I’m going to give it a much better shot to find its place in the world.