Character Arcs: The 6 Basic Shapes of Stories

Little-known fact about me: Kurt Vonnegut is on my list of top five authors that I aspire to write like. I particularly like his writing style, and Sirens of Titan changed my whole way of viewing the world!

More well-known fact, although new to me: Kurt Vonnegut had a theory about the shapes of stories that was later proven to be relatively true more than 50 years after he attempted to present this theory. It was proven by computers, and I can think of no better way for a Vonnegut theory to be proven!

Unless it were by aliens…

The basics are thus: All stories have a beginning, middle, and end that can be charted on a chart along an axis from left to right. Everything that happens to the protagonist is either good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, which can be charted along an axis from top to bottom. When you chart a story, any story, with these parameters similar shapes begin to emerge.

Now, if you, like me, are very into archetypes, you’ll know that basically he’s describing an archetypal structure to stories. The main difference is that he is describing it on an emotional level more than a plot driven level, and therefor stories that wouldn’t normally be lumped together (like Urban Fantasy and a War Drama, for example) are suddenly in similar categories… if the story shape is right.

Vonnegut came up with this theory back when he was in Grad school and it was rejected as his Thesis project. Then, in 1995, he did the lecture from which the above video comes. He suggested that we could feed the shapes into computers to be analyzed.

Then, in 2016, a group of students in the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington proved the theory true. They identified 6 basic shapes of stories, or rather, the computers did. Whereas Vonnegut wanted the computers to analyze the shapes, these students found a way to get the computers to find and categorize them.

So what are the shapes? And why does it matter?

The shapes are done in pairs. One ending on a positive note, the “Happily Ever After,” and the other going in the opposite direction with their being a mirrored progression in the plot between beginning and end.

Once you see the 6 shapes, you can start to identify them in different stories, and it helps, as a writer, to have an idea of whether an individual scene should end on a positive or a negative point. There are plenty of books on the structure of a story, but this shows that those same structures can be tweaked to have a different emotional impact on the story.

What happens, for example, if the climax of your story is a character’s highest point instead of a tragedy that pushes him or her to become the hero they were destined to become?

It’s the same plot element, but that one change can effect the entire mood of the story, and then suddenly we need to be looking at other literary factors in the writing. Do we, the audience, know that this high point isn’t going to last? Like in Oedipus, we already know that he is making the prophecy come true, so for Oedipus, becoming the king and marrying his mother is a great moment (because he doesn’t know it’s his mother), but for the audience, there’s some dramatic tension as we wait for the inevitable crash.

Suddenly there are lots of new things to be factored in.

So what are the shapes?

Rags to Riches

The protagonist starts at a particularly low point in his/her life, and every major plot point brings him/her up and up in a more positive direction. This could be a good plot structure for a younger kids’ book, or an uplifting story that is much needed in a time of turmoil (I’m looking at you 2020).

The movie version of The Wizard of Oz springs to mind (the book might work, too, but I haven’t actually read it). At the beginning, Dorothy is planning to run away, and she lands in a distant land, with nothing but her dog and a basket (after the house is destroyed). She goes on adventures, collecting friends along the way and vanquishing evil, until her wish to go home is granted.

Riches to Rags

This is the opposite, obviously. A character begins at a particularly high moment in his life, and constantly falls further and further into ruin.

The short story, Young Goodman Brown, strikes me as this type of story. It’s an old one, but one I love to teach, especially around Halloween. Young Goodman Brown leaves his newlywed wife at home while he goes on a walk with, we later find out, the Devil. As they travel, they keep running into people Goodman Brown knows and they are all on their way to the Devil’s gathering. It hits the lowest point when Goodman Brown sees his wife there, and while he resists temptation, he believes that she falls to it, thus when he returns, he is miserable for the rest of his life. At the beginning of the story, he is fairly well-off and his wife is young, and pretty. He basically has everything a young Puritan could ever want (high point), but he falls into the depths of misery and suspicion by the end.

Man in a Hole

This one begins with the protagonist in an average place, but things start to go very poorly for him or her, until the protagonist reaches rock bottom. Then they fight their way back up to a point higher than where they began. This is one of the most popular emotional arcs.

Black Panther fits, I think. At the beginning of the film, he officially becomes King of Wakanda, but things aren’t quite right. He is challenged by M’baku, then verbally challenged/chastised by his friend who thinks they should kill Klaw, and then challenged and momentarily presumed killed by Killmonger, who, as it turns out, is his long-lost cousin. He has to fight against death and a near civil war in order to regain his throne, and when he does, the lessons he’s learned make him a better king.

Actually, several of the Avenger origin story movies fit this format. Thor, losing his hammer and having to become worthy again, for example.

Icarus

The Icarus shape goes in the opposite direction, with the Protagonist beginning in a negative or neutral place, going in a positive direction, and then plummeting to a tragic end, like Icarus as he flew too close to the sun.

Romeo and Juliet, for instance. At the beginning of the story, they are two young people from the two most respected houses. They fall in love rather quickly, moving from courtship to marriage as the high point of their story. But from there, it’s one tragedy after another until the inevitable tragic ending.

Cinderella

The Cinderella format, I believe, is the most common. It fits the best with Joseph Campbell’s Hero monomyth, anyhow. The protagonist starts low to middle, and moves up and up until some event at the climax knocks him/her down to rock bottom. Then, the hero struggles and trains until the final battle, where, after victory, the protagonist is now at the highest point and earns his/her happily ever after.

In the actual Cinderella story, the titular character doesn’t have a final battle, obviously, but the emotional arc is still the same. Cinderella’s mother is dead at the beginning of the story, and her stepmother is terribly wicked. In some versions of the story, Cinderella’s father passes away at the beginning as well. She moves up through the gifts from her fairy godmother until her dance with the prince brings her to a high point, but then midnight strikes, and it is all taken from her, dropping her to a lower point, albeit not as low as before. The prince searches for her, and once he finds her, it is the glass slipper that earns her a happily ever after.

It is the basic shape of all Romantic Comedies. We begin with the “Meet-Cute,” where the love-interests bump into each other (often literally) and initially hate each other. They grow to like each other, only for some horrible misunderstanding or revelation to break them up, and then they have to reconcile, earning their happily ever after.

Oedipus

The final shape is the Oedipus shape, in which the main character begins high or neutral, drops low, and then goes high again, only to plummet.

We already discussed how the original Oedipus story fits the shape, but lets look at something a little more modern. The John Wick movies are almost there. The first movie begins with the death of his wife, so we’re already at a pretty low point, but when his car gets stolen and the dog (a parting gift from the wife) is killed, we go further down the hole. John Wick gets back into the murder business, and mostly because of his reputation, seems to be on an up swing, but that final battle almost kills him. If we’d ended there, it would fit the Oedipus format. The new Netflix movie, Extraction, follows a similar arc with a more ambiguous ending that could fit the Oedipus format, but might not… we’ll see if they decide to give it a sequel (which, based on the numbers, they probably will).

Another example might be Tony Stark’s emotional arc in the combined Avenger’s Infinity War and End Game movies. At the beginning of Infinity War, Tony was at the high point of his life, about to marry Pepper Potts, dreaming of their future child, making millions, and on a high note with the Avengers. Obviously, they lost the War with Thanos, which brought him to a low point. Once he gets back at the beginning of End Game, he makes that dream he had with Pepper and their child a reality, moving back to an upswing. But we all know how it ended…

I’m not crying, you’re crying. *sniff*

So now go out there and look at the emotional arc of your story! What format does it take? Does it follow one of the really popular ones? Like Cinderella or the Man in a Hole? If not, how can you tweak the story to hit those emotional beats that resonate with reader… well, ALL people, actually.

One of the things I love about stories is that we can all connect on an emotional level, and that’s what makes reading good for teaching empathy.

But that’s a rant for another day.

About Elizabeth

First and foremost I am a teacher. What I teach is a blend of grammatical art, literary love, and a smidge of spiritual awareness. My blog tries to combine the best of all three over a cup of tea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s