Story Shapes and Emotional Arcs

Kurt Vonnegut was the author famous for his novels including Slaugherhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. But he was also famous for his for his concept of story shapes, which was the subject of his rejected Master’s Thesis in Anthropology. He called his story shapes his prettiest contribution to culture.

In simple terms, Vonnegut believed the shape of any story could be mapped on a diagram showing the protagonist’s change in fortune during the course of the story. On the vertical axis he mapped fortune (good-ill). And on the horizontal axis he measured the time-line from beginning to end.

Boy meets girlFor example, he described the classic Boy Meets Girl pattern as a rise-fall-rise pattern. It is not the only pattern that behaves this way, but it’s the easiest to remember.

Boy meets girl (fortune rises).

Something goes wrong — they quarrel or some external force keeps them apart (fortune declines).

Then eventually they reunite (fortune rises).


Man in holdAnother example is the Man a Hole pattern. This is a very common profile in action movies, where the protagonist encounters  a serious problem or threat to him/she or those he/she cares for. For example, Die Hard, Hunger Games etc.

The protagonists starts at a good point, but experiences a severe problem that sends them on a downward spiral (fortune declines).

Then gradually he finds the strength to turn the problem around and fortune rises.



CinderrelaYet another example is the classic Cinderella story pattern.

Here Cinderella starts from a low point (her father remarries and she is badly treated by her step mother and sisters).

With the help of her fairy godmother she goes to the ball and meets the prince (fortunes rise).

The bell tolls midnight and she returns to he low point (fortunes decline).

Finally she fits the glass shoe and marries the prince (fortunes rise).

In 2016, a study by a group of students at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont proved Vennegot’s premise that the emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

Using complex computerised analysis to measure the scale of happiness or pleasure in some 1327 stories from Project Gutenbergs collection they identified some six basic story arcs:

1. Rags to Riches (rise)

2. Tragedy or Riches to Rags (fall)

3. Man in a Hole (fall-rise)

4. Icarus (rise-fall)

5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)

6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

They also found that three patterns were more successful than the rest: Icarus, Oedipus and Man in a Hole.

Of course, at a detail scene level a character’s emotional state can change in an instance. If we mapped a scene at a micro level it will often show its own emotional arc (which could be any of the six arcs above). The nature of drama is about emotional change and if no emotional change is taking place then there is little or no drama.

Kurt Vonnegut’s contribution was to show that these story shapes or arcs also take place at the story level. And understanding these patterns gives us an insight into the nature of the underlying story.

So when you’re designing your story do you consciously think about the emotional story arc, or is it just something so natural that you don’t have to think about it?