Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis in anthropology was rejected by the University of Chicago. “It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut writes. “One must not be too playful.” This excerpt from PALM SUNDAY, is the gist of his argument:

Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict:

“G” stands for good fortune. “I” stands for ill fortune. “B” stands for the beginning of a story. “E” stands for its end.

A much beloved story in our society is about a person who is leading a bearable life, who experiences misfortune, who overcomes misfortune, and who is happier afterward for having demonstrated resourcefulness and strength. As a graph, that story looks like this:

Another story of which Americans never seem to tire is about a person who becomes happier upon finding something he or she likes a lot. The person loses whatever it is, and then gets it back forever. As a graph, it looks like this:

An American Indian creation myth, in which a god of some sort gives the people the sun and then the moon and then the bow and arrow and then the corn and so on, is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation:

Almost all creation myths are staircases like that. Our own creation myth, taken from the Old Testament, is unique, so far as I could discover, in looking like this:

The sudden drop in fortune, of course, is the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this:

Have a look [at “Cinderella”]:

The steps you see, are all the presents the fairy godmother gave to Cinderella….The sudden drop is the stroke of midnight at the ball….But then the prince finds her and marries her, and she is infinitely happy ever after. She gets all the stuff back, and then some. A lot of people think the story is trash, and, on graph paper, it certainly looks like trash.

But then I said to myself, Wait a minute–those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.

The tales were identical.

UPDATE: Vonnegut goes over this again in A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, which I’m currently listening to on audiotape (so no diagrams…but never fear: Gerry over at Backwards City has posted the chalkboard graph of “The Metamorphosis.”)

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  1. says

    Forgot about this excerpt from the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five:

    As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

    I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.

    The end, where all the lines stopped, was a beetfield on the Elbe, outside of Halle.

  2. says

    I followed a link to this article from a forum posting at the Open College of the Arts in England.

    It’s not the first time I’ve come across the idea of stories having standard patterns and the practice of depicting story plots graphically. However, reading this article has prompted me to reconsider how this can be applied when crafting a story. I like the idea of working on a large sheet of paper and using chunky crayons with bold colours.

    Mm… food for thought.


  1. […] For a while now, I’ve been interested in the idea of bringing a mathematical method to storytelling: charting stories as graphs, using patterns, symmetry, proportion, and number sequences to build and analyze structure, etc. I want to make writing fun for me again: I want to think of writing as building or shaping–something you do with your hands, something concrete. […]