Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The shape of stories

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.

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7 Comments The shape of stories

  1. Alison

    Voyage and Return: I think otherwise known as ‘the sea change’: where the voyage changes the protagonist irrevocably. Captains Courageous, Jack London’s sea books, even Sean Russell’s Moontide and Magic series. I love this type of book.

  2. Rachel

    So do I, Alison — this and Quest (with an upward direction for the ending, of course!) are the two that work best for me.

  3. mona

    Likewise wondering why the Quest archetype falls at the end. It’s not just a little dip; it’s worse at the end than at the beginning! (And why is Pride and Prejudice categorized as Rise and Fall?)

    Other than that, this is pretty handy! It’s not quite like grimdark vs noblebright (was that the term?), but it’s a parallel visual representation, at least as far as plot goes.

  4. Rachel

    Yes, noblebright, not a term that caught on. It’s just hard to do a term that sounds good enough to stick, I guess. And, yes, isn’t that plainly a failed quest pattern, not a quest pattern? I really can’t get how that is supposed to be at all accurate for an actual quest story.

    I didn’t even notice that Pride and Prejudice was characterized as Rise and Fall! How very strange.

  5. Elaine T

    I wondered if the Quest wave was for the winding down of said quest? Like the long return in The Hobbit; the calming down and celebrations after the successful completion.

    I’m more accustomed to three patterns: man against man; man against nature; boy meets girl.

    I think I’ve heard Human Wave used as a term for the non-grimdark category. n It flows off the tongue better (IMO) than noblebright.

  6. Hanneke

    Is the line the computer found at least in part for the tension in the story, the use of words with an emotional lading? That maybe doesn’t quite correllate to the positiveness of the end result, if the ending features a ‘return to normal life’, albeit in better circumstances. The emotional high of the winning of the quest, or the acceptance of mr.Darcy by Elizabeth can tail off into a calmer, less emotionally-fraught homecoming or epilogue or whatever – which in comparison the computer could read as containing less upbeat words or something like that.

    That still doesn’t explain how long it takes, in story-time, for that downward slide at the end*. That looks more like the gradual ramping up of tension towards the final conflict and resolution (which would naturally use more negative words), but with the final catharsis left off at the end of the line. Maybe because it’s often not that many pages, in absolute and relative numbers, at the end of the story? If the line is smoothed out as a sort of ‘rolling average’ over a certain amount of story-length (I don’t know the right mathematical/ statistical term for this) those few positive pages at the end might be hardly noticeable.

    Or, a really stupid possibility, they fed the computer with complete ebooks, including the back material like previews of other books – which describe the hole the protagonist of the new book finds themselves in, as a hook for the reader to buy those further books. Weird results, like Pride and prejudice ending on a downer, warrant a sharp look at the methodology…

  7. Rachel

    Hanneke, that is a delightfully stupid way to get that strange downturn! Maybe, who knows, I’d hate to say that was impossible.

    It does seem more reasonable that this downturn would be the denouement, except yes, it’s so prolonged and sometimes falls so far. Mysterious!

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