Our Stories Have Shapes

Anyone wishing to be an novelist could do much worse than to emulate Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Critics of art or life should pay attention too.

In an undated video, Vonnegut explains the Shapes of Stories.

This video is an excerpt of a longer talk with a more complete transcript here.

The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t? I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.

Our stories follow a few basic shapes only the details are changed to protect our sanity. What is the significance of the outcome for the Dane?

Neither good news nor bad news. Hamlet didn’t get arrested. He’s prince. He can kill anybody he wants. So he goes along, and finally he gets in a duel, and he’s killed. Well, did he go to heaven or did he go to hell? Quite a difference. Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

The end result in Vonnegut’s words:

The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

 

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