The Universal Shapes of Stories, According to Kurt Vonnegut

Illustration for article titled The Universal Shapes of Stories, According to Kurt Vonnegut

The fundamental concept behind Kurt Vonnegut's master's thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago was, in Vonnegut's words, "that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper."

Vonnegut's thesis was rejected* ("because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun," according to him), and he left the university soon thereafter, sans degree, to take a job with the public relations department at General Electric; but he would champion his theory defiantly, with characteristic wit and charm, for the rest of his days, both in writing and in lectures like this one:

Now, Vonnegut's musings on the universally plottable shapes of stories have been cleanly and creatively reimagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam, in a rare, appropriate use of the otherwise hackneyed infographic format:

Illustration for article titled The Universal Shapes of Stories, According to Kurt Vonnegut

The addition of contemporary examples is a great touch. What other examples can you think of that adhere to Vonnegut's shapely archetypes?

Complement with: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar.

*Vonnegut readily admitted that he was a miserable anthropology student. In fact, if his account of history is to be believed, Vonnegut's "Shapes of Stories" proposal is one of at least two theses rejected during his pursuit of a master's degree. According to Vonnegut, the university turned down another thesis "on the necessity of accounting for the similarities between Cubist painting and late-19th Century Native American uprisings," claiming it was unprofessional.


Vonnegut, as was previously mentioned, left school in 1947 to work for GE. Fourteen years later, UChicago accepted Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle as his thesis, and awarded him the M.A. degree based on "the anthropological basis of his novels."

[Maya Eilam via Open Culture]


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I once saw Vonnegut give a lecture about Hamlet where his central thesis was Hamlet is a story where nothing happens. He demonstrated his claim with one of his graphs.

I'd say Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" fits that Which Way Is Up? mode. Like Vivian Mercier wrote, it's a play where nothing happens, twice.