Here’s an interesting post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Do Stories Have a Universal Shape?
Do most novels share certain storytelling patterns? More than three decades ago, Kurt Vonnegut toyed with the idea that stories have universal shapes. He suggested that, with few exceptions, the stories of classic and modern literature can be grouped into a handful of archetypes. …
Vonnegut was talking about the structure of stories like, boy meets girl, romance ensues, boy loses girl, dark night of the soul, boy gets girl again, the end. Big hero’s journey sort of structures.
Jockers and the data team at the tech startup Authors A.I. have recently created an artificial intelligence named Marlowe that analyzes fiction manuscripts. And after ingesting thousands of popular fiction titles, it turns out that Marlowe concurs with the late Professor Vonnegut about story shapes at a high level, if not in all the specific details.
Then the post details these shapes:
—Emergence, with a general upward curve to the story arc
—Man in a hole, that moves from positive into a pit of despair and rises out the other side
—The quest. The curve here seems weird, as the story arc starts in a low place, describes a mild sine curve, and falls again at the end. I don’t get the terminal fall. I’m having a hard time coming up with quest stories that end up with the protagonist in a bad place at the end. That sounds like a failed quest to me. But moving on.
—Rags to richs, where the protagonist gains something nice, loses it, and rises again at the end. That makes sense. Very much a Pretty Woman scenario.
—Voyage and return. Wow, very much a sine curve, I should have saved that description for this one. I like the description from the post: “In these tales, characters are plunged into a strange and foreign land, come to grips with it, confront setbacks and dark turns but wind up in the end with a return to safety and some form of normalcy—as well as achieving a degree of understanding during their journey from naïveté to wisdom.” I have to say, that pretty much describes Tuyo.
—Rise and fall. Yeah, it takes a lot for me to tolerate that story structure. I’m thinking here of The King Must Die by Mary Renault — especially if you include The Bull From the Sea.
—Descent. That is a very self-explanatory title. Nothing could get me to read a book with this story structure, as long as I knew going in that this was the structure. Ah, actually, the novel used as an example is Gone Girl. I remember reading …. yes, here it is … this review of Gone Girl and saying Ah ha, I have dodged a bullet here, now I know never to get anywhere near this novel.
So, those are the proposed shapes. Seven, as opposed to Vonnegut’s eight. I would definitely add an alternative quest shape where the arc at the end is upward, not downward. I’d give the basic structure a different name if it wound up turning down rather than up at the end. Other than that, I guess I agree that these basic shapes look like they might plausibly describe a very large proportion of novels, as one might expect with such broad definition.