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?


2 thoughts on “Story Shapes and Emotional Arcs

  1. Rosamund Clancy

    If a story is simple and follows the protagonist in either the first or third person, I can write an arc for the emotion of that character without close attention. It feels natural and bound to the plot. If my story is complicated with many viewpoints and characters, I have to keep close tabs. When one side is pitted against the other and there are ingroup disagreements, I stop to review what is happening to the protagonist. I have to keep her emotional responses and values as the backbone of the story and the other characters as challenging or supporting her. Her world views rule and she must not be overshadowed. This is hard work. Multiple arcs need to come together without confusing the emotional response of the reader or making them feel they are being told how to respond.

    1. Hi Rosamund

      An interesting observation.

      I think Kurt Vonnegut was doing something very simple. He was principally concerning with categorising a story by its particular story shape and that this shape could be determined by the emotional ark of the Protagonist. Thus to Vonnegut there are a limited number of story shapes. So in this sense it’s possible to refer to any story by its story shape. That is what type of story are you writing? Answer — a “man in the hole story’, or “a Cinderella story”.

      I think you are looking at different level of complexity to Vonnegut and you are making a different but very valid point. As you point out the emotional journey of the protagonist is the backbone of the story. But other characters may have have different viewpoints and go through different arcs and this can complicate matters.

      I like the point you make that make that your protagonist should not be overshadowed. But I would go further — the supporting characters are there to complement the Protagonist’s story. For example, take the the Anatgonists who may have exactly the opposite emotional arc to the Protgonists. When the Protagonist is furthest away from their desired outcome the Antagonist may well be closest to their desired outcome. Or take a different character that faces the same problem as the protagonist but who deals with it very differently and has very different consequences. This character maybe there to help emphasise the main theme of the story by showing what would have happened to the Protagonist if they had taken a different approach. In fact characters can be characterised by the role they play in the Protagonist’s story. But that’s a good topic for a different blog.

      Thank you for raising this issue.

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