Researchers at the University of Adelaide recently analysed over 2,000 fictional story arcs, applying Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shapes of Stories” concept. What they uncovered is not just intriguing but also a testament to the enduring power of universal narratives.
From this extensive exploration, they identified six universal story archetypes, with modern examples:
- Rags to Riches (rise): A classic tale of ascending from humble beginnings to a prosperous life, embodying the age-old adage that hard work pays off.
- “The Pursuit of Happyness” (film): Chris Gardner’s journey from homelessness to a successful career in finance.
- “Slumdog Millionaire” (film): The protagonist, Jamal, rises from poverty to win a television game show.
- Riches to Rags (fall): A cautionary narrative of downfall, where a character’s fortune takes a tragic turn, emphasising the fragility of success.
- “Scarface” (film): Tony Montana’s rise to power and wealth in the criminal underworld is followed by a violent and dramatic fall.
- “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The story portrays Jay Gatsby’s life of wealth and extravagance that ultimately leads to a tragic downfall.
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise): This story type takes us through the rollercoaster of life’s ups and downs, showcasing resilience and the potential for redemption.
- “The Martian” by Andy Weir: Stranded on Mas, astronaut Mark Watney overcomes numerous challenges to survive and eventually return to Earth.
- “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn: The story follows a man whose life takes a downward spiral after his wife’s disappearance.
- “The Revenant” (film): Hugh Glass embarks on a survival and revenge journey after being severely injured in the wilderness.
- Icarus (rise then fall): A story of soaring to great heights only to experience a precipitous fall due to hubris or recklessness.
- “Breaking Bad” (TV series): Walter White goes from being a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a powerful drug lord, but his actions lead to a tragic downfall.
- “The Wolf of Wall Street” (film): Jordan Belfort’s meteoric rise on Wall Street is followed by a spectacular fall due to his illegal activities.
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise): A tale of transformation, adversity, and ultimate triumph, reminding us that even in the darkest moments, there’s room for hope.
- “The Devil Wears Prada” (film): Andy Sachs’s transformation from an assistant to a successful magazine writer, then experiencing a fall in her personal life.
- “Forrest Gump” (film): Forrest Gump experiences various life challenges but ultimately achieves success, love, and happiness.
- “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter’s life changes dramatically when he discovers he is a wizard and attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall): The complex narrative of achieving success, enduring a subsequent fall, and ultimately facing a tragic demise, often due to one’s own actions.
- “The Godfather” (film series): The Corleone family experiences moments of power, downfall, and further rise, but with tragic consequences.
- “Black Swan” (film): Nina Sayers’ rise as a talented ballet dancer, her brief success in winning the lead role, and her descent into madness.
What’s remarkable about these findings is how these story shapes resonate universally while still retaining their unique essence.
Shapes of Stories? What is it?
Renowned American author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut’s came up with “Shapes of Stories” for a thesis, which was rejected. He also discussed the concept during a lecture, using used simple graphs to represent different story arcs. He believed that most narratives could be categorised into a few basic shapes.
Vonnegut’s original Shapes of Stories had 8 examples, including Man in a Hole and Cinderella (as seen above). Here are the rest:
- Boy Meets Girl: Two characters get together, face obstacles, and ultimately come together in the end.
- “500 Days of Summer” (film): The film explores the non-linear relationship between Tom and Summer, from their first meeting to the eventual breakup.
- “La La Land” (film): The film follows the romantic relationship between a struggling jazz musician and an aspiring actress, with its ups and downs.
- From Bad to Worse: The situation continually worsens for the main character or characters throughout the story.
- “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood: The protagonist Offred’s life becomes increasingly oppressive in a dystopian society.
- “1984” by George Orwell: The protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in a dystopian world where his situation worsens as the story progresses.
- Which Way is Up: The ambiguity of the stories leaves us wondering if the story progression was a good or bad thing.
- “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin: A complex web of power struggles, political intrigue, and epic battles among noble families vying for control of Westeros.
- “The Sopranos” (TV series): Mob boss Tony Soprano juggles the challenges of leading a criminal organisation, the complexities of family life, and psychological struggles.
- Creation Story: This embodies the concept of emerging from disorder and progressing toward structure and happiness. It’s similar to the Rags to Riches story arc.
- “The Lion King” (Animation): An orphaned young lion named Simba overcomes adversity to reclaim his rightful place as king of the Pride Lands.
- Old Testament: The Old Testament is similar to Creation Story, albeit with a twist. It concludes with humanity experiencing an unexpected (down)turn of events. This is similar to the Icarus story arc.
- New Testament: The story arc shares similarities with Cinderella. A divine entity bestows blessings and then a calamity happens, but it ends happily ever after.
Understanding popular narratives
Vonnegut’s intention with these shapes wasn’t to suggest that all stories could be reduced to such simplicity. He used this concept to emphasise the power of certain narrative structures to resonate with audiences. It can be applied to various types of literature, from classic literature to contemporary works, and even to television series.
It’s worth noting that many stories do not neatly fit into any of these categories. Vonnegut’s idea was more of a commentary on the recurring themes and patterns that can be found in storytelling.
The most common shape, according to Vonnegut, is the “Man in a Hole.” It starts with a character leading a normal life, and then finds misfortune, overcomes it. It’s a classic happily ever after ending. “People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” said Vonnegut.
Of course, some similarities in the shapes are bound to occur. Here are some examples:
“Oedipus” and “From Bad to Worse”
The key difference between these shapes is in the starting point and the cause of the character’s downfall. In “Oedipus,” the character begins from a position of relative power and their own actions lead to their downfall. “From Bad to Worse” focuses on a character whose circumstances are already unfavourable, and external challenges deteriorates the situation.
“Oedipus” and “Riches to Rags”
In “Riches to Rags,” external factors or a mixture of external and internal factors contribute to the character’s fall. In the “Oedipus” archetype, the character’s actions and choices are a primary cause of their decline. While both archetypes involve a decline, the emphasis on personal agency and choices sets “Oedipus” apart from “Riches to Rags.”
These examples demonstrate the versatility and universality of these story archetypes across different genres and media, even in fan fiction. While each archetype carries its distinct elements, they continue to captivate audiences with their timeless themes and narratives.
Learning about the shapes of stories benefits aspiring writers by providing a foundational understanding of universal storytelling patterns and structural frameworks.
These archetypes help one create compelling narratives, guide character development, evoke emotional responses, and engage a diverse audience. Writers can leverage these archetypes as tools for problem-solving, innovation, and the critical analysis of existing literature. It can ultimately enhance their ability to craft captivating and memorable stories that resonate with readers or viewers.