See How Kurt Vonnegut Explains the Emotional Form of Creative Stories

It is impossible to quantify what exactly makes a story good. Underneath the most popular stories, however, there are only a few familiar storylines that we tell over and over again. In this video, author Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates these arcs by drawing them.

As Vonnegut, author of the New York Times bestselling Slaughterhouse 5 , explains, the basic form of many stories is so simple that it can be displayed on a simple diagram. The writers change important elements such as the setting, the characters, and the specifics of what triggers the arcs, but these forms form a kind of “skeleton” for the story.

This idea was recently explored by researchers at the University of Vermont’s Computational History Laboratory . Here, researchers examined the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories and identified six main trajectories that most of these stories followed. For all the differences the individual stories had, the emotional arcs were all too familiar.

So what does this say to a budding writer? First, it says that you don’t need to fear “unoriginality” as much as you think. Storytelling is not about literally saying everything in a new way. It’s about a new mix of ideas that we’ve seen before. Many writers have achieved success not by reinventing genres, but by telling new stories within that framework. Most of us have seen many stories of going from dirt to wealth, and most of us are equally likely to see and enjoy another similar story at some point in our lives.

It can also be helpful to study these forms to get a starting point for work. Some of the greatest and most controversial works begin with basic structure and its deconstruction. Game of Thrones, for example, often undermines the happy ending by cutting off storylines (and heads) in places we never expected. Only by learning how we already tell stories can we tell stories in new and new ways.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Forms of Stories | YouTube via Technology Review


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