Research, Technology

From a Scientific Perspective: What are Kurt Vonnegut's Story Forms?

People have been writing stories since time immemorial.The imagination of our species is reflected in folklore, fairy tales, poetry and prose. Indeed, wandering stories such as Cinderella, Hamlet and Don Juan have wandered from one culture to another for centuries. This feature was noticed by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut and described it in his master's thesis. He believed that the stories had a form that was "no less interesting than the form of ancient pots or spearheads". For Vonnegut, the stories told by people were complex and enchanting artifacts, reflecting all the changes in the protagonist's life on a good-bad scale. Moreover, he was convinced that absolutely any story can be turned into a graph. But how?

Science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut paid much attention to ideas, believing that they are the main driving force of the plot.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) - American writer, author of 14 novels and over 50 short stories, including Slaughterhouse Five, Titan's Sirens, and Cat's Cradle.


  • 1 Kurt Vonnegut story shapes
  • 2 Literature in graphs
  • 3 Drama Lovers
  • 4 Have pity on the reader

Forms of Kurt Vonnegut stories

My acquaintance with Vonnegut began with Slaughterhousenumber five ”- a story in which the main character is abducted by creatures from the planet Tralfamador. Since their perception of time is very different from ours, the protagonist named Billy Pilgrim travels through different time periods of his own life, remembering and reliving all the horrors of the Second World War.

In general, all the works of Vonnegut one way or anothertouch on the theme of the war - in his youth, the writer survived the bombing of Dresden and was captured, but was soon released by the Red Army. Another theme reflected in the writer's work is the apocalypse and the disappearance of mankind. So, the novel "Cat's Cradle" tells about the invention of the substance "Ice-9", which in an instant can destroy all life on Earth.

No matter what scientists work on, they still get weapons - "Cat's Cradle"

Forms of Kurt Vonnegut stories

As a PhD student in the Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Chicago, Vonnegut defended his master's thesis twice. Alas, according to academicians, his work was too simple and fun. Vonnegut defended his approach to literature throughout his career, but only graduated with the publication of Cat's Cradle.

In 1995, Vonnegut gave a lecture in whichoutlined his theory of story forms by drawing several popular stories on the board. His diagram reflected several plot forms, along the way explaining why these patterns constantly appear in the narrative. So, an orphan, forced to endure the attacks of an evil stepmother, at the beginning of the story experiences a difficult emotional state, but then the fairy godmother comes to her aid.

On the graph, these changes can be reflected in the form of stairs up which Cinderella climbs in search of a prince and happiness, the famous science fiction writer explained.

Vonnegut giving a lecture on the forms of stories, USA, 1995

Vonnegut's story forms were composed as follows: "G-I axes" reflected misfortunes and failures, and "B-E axes" - origin and entropy. When the protagonist moves up or down the y-axis in pursuit of what he wants or needs, the reader feels tension and interest in the story.

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The fact is that the structure of history underliesmost of our social communications - from correspondence to telephone conversations. And although real life is too complex to be depicted in a diagram in any meaningful way, Vonnegut suggested that seeing the ups and downs of characters can help readers appreciate what is going on in their own lives.

Literature in charts

Vonnegut defended his approach to literature throughout his career, noting that the main characters are constantly changing fate. He also believed that all world stories - from old fairy tales to popular blockbusters - have simple forms that can be easily reproduced on a computer.

Story chart created by Vonnegut

In fact, the idea of ​​universal plotarchetypes is not new - in the end, most stories have simple and understandable forms. So much so that Vonnegut summarized them in one elegant sentence:

The fundamental idea is that stories have a form that can be drawn on paper.

Special vision of the plot and lecture in 1995a few years ago I got interested in Matthew Jockers, the author of books on text mining from the University of Nebraska. Based on the available data, he created an algorithm that, with an accuracy of up to 83%, predicted the hit of a work on the New York Times bestseller list.

Source: Source: Maya Eilam

Interesting fact
The New York Times Best Seller List has been in existence since October 12, 1931, publishing the best-selling books in the United States.

Ultimately, the Jokers and the team fromtechnology startup Authors A.I. created a program called Marlowe that analyzes fiction and confirms Vonnegut's theory that stories do have form. Moreover, almost all Western literature can be placed in six storylines.

In 2016 researchers from the universityVermont and the University of Adelaide came to similar conclusions. After analyzing more than two thousand works of fiction, the authors of the work came to the conclusion that 85% of stories fall into one of the six categories proposed by the American novelist.

  • From poverty to wealth (gradual rise from bad to good)
  • From Wealth to Poor (Good to Bad)
  • The Man in the Pit (rise and fall)
  • Cinderella (rise, fall, rise)
  • Oedipus (fall, rise, fall again)
  • Cornered Man (fall and rise)

In his master's thesis, Vonnegut identified 8 forms of stories.

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Agree, we love such stories, theydraw our attention. We suffer together with the heroes, hope for success and rejoice in their victories. In addition, such stories exist not only in fairy tales - there are plenty of them in real life.

drama lovers

In his writings, Vonnegut visualizedstory arcs of characters in the style of a real data scientist - he showed that literary works can be studied using the scientific method. Moreover, it is the simple stories that we tell each other over and over again that most often grab our attention.

Creation of the world, doomed lovers andlosers are classic story arcs that can be found in the literature of any period of time and corner of the globe. Perhaps we are in desperate need of drama as we have heard fantastic stories from time immemorial. Why, we all sometimes think that life should be like in fairy tales.

Science is sorcery that works. "Cat's Cradle"

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Recall that character arc is an easy way to visualize a character's progression through the story, whether it's a comparison of their start and end states, or a dot plot of ups and downs.

Have pity on the reader

In his works, Vonnegut linked into a singlewhole reality and fantasy, filling novels with drama, satire and absurdity. In places, his work may seem too gloomy and pessimistic. However, Vonnegut's stories and novels in some incredible way make the reader laugh through tears.

Maturity is a bitter disappointment and there is no cure unless laughter is the cure for everything - Bokonon, fictional religion leader in Cat's Cradle

And although people are stupid and cruel, look what a beautiful day it is today.

Vonnegut also gave a lot of advice and parting words to future writers, urging them to respect the reader. Which, you see, is a rarity today.

“You will be read by strangers, and your task is to make sure that they do not regret the time spent on your story,” Kurt wrote.

Well, I sincerely hope that dear readerfound something interesting in this article. And while the storytelling debate is still far from over, the writings of great writers and thinkers are now available to everyone (thank you Internet). By the way, if you want to make reading your daily habit, you are here. And do not forget: “New knowledge is the most valuable thing in the world. The more truths we discover, the richer we become.”