117 The Shape of Stories

Stories have structures, or arcs as authors like to call them. When we think of stories in this way, we can begin to see story-types.

The simplest stories

There are two very simple structures. They’re so basic they don’t really qualify as satisfying stories.

simplest stories

In Rags to Riches, everything gets better. In Riches to Rags, everything gets worse. Though few self-respecting authors would tell such a naïve tale, politicians tell them all the time.

The simplest viable story


This is the Freytag triangle. It follows Aristotle’s injunction that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end (the Three-Act structure).

The beginning comprises the exposition and the inciting incident. The exposition phase introduces essential information about the characters and setting, while the inciting incident launches the action.

Tension rises in the middle as the protagonist struggles to achieve something. There is a turning point. And tension falls towards the resolution.

In the ending, the problem is resolved and there is a denouement where all the loose ends are tied up.

There are many ways of structuring a story, but the Freytag triangle is a classic on which a lot of others are built.

The W Diagram

This is essentially a Freytag triangle with a high point where everything appears to be resolved before the rug is pulled out from under the protagonist and a new trial begins.

W Diagram

A complex story like a novel may have several hills and valleys. There may also be subplots with arcs of their own.



multiple arcs


Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories

In a humorous talk, the writer Kurt Vonnegut outlined the shape of stories, based on his rejected Master’s thesis. The diagrams and text from Vonnegut’s talk here are from Mcclure.

Vonnegut Man in a Hole

Vonnegut Boy Meets Girl

Vonnegut Cinderella.jpg

Machine intelligence analysis of story shapes

Researchers from the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide tried to test Vonnegut’s idea using machine analysis of sentiment in 1,327 Western stories. They found the stories grouped into 6 basic types. The diagrams here are from Munson Missions.

six story arcs

For those of you who like to understand method, read on. For those of you who don’t care, skip to the Hero’s Journey. These shapes were generated by analysing the words in the stories and scoring them for the degree of happiness they convey. Words like love and laughter score high, while words like terrorist and death score low. You can check this out yourself at the authors’ Hedonometer site.

Before you get too excited about this, consider the following sentence:

“Trekking through the vale of tears, dark, clammy and terrifying, we were ambushed by the monster and killed it for all of you.”

Almost every word here in unhappy, but the overall sense is one of hope. The meaning of a set of words depends on context and not just the words by themselves.

The shape generated by a machine intelligence, of course, depends on the method used. Compare these two shapes for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This comparison was done by Kirsten Menger-Anderson.

Hamlet plot Hedonometer

Hamlet plot sentiment

The first was generated by the Hedonometer. The second by another machine intelligence routine that rates sentiment (positive or negative). They don’t look much alike.

The Hero’s Journey or Quest

Heros journey linear

The Hero’s Journey is among the most commonly used story templates. It derives from the work of Joseph Campbell, who believed all stories, at root, followed the same archetype. George Lucas used it to structure the first Star Wars movie.  In Act 1 the protagonist receives the call to adventure and is assisted by a mentor to accept the challenge and move into the “special world”.  In Act 2, the protagonist is subjected to a road of trials, before winning the reward and starting back to the everyday world. Act 3 follows the road back where the protagonist delivers the reward.

For those who don’t like straight lines

The quest structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, can be represented by a “there and back” circle.

Heros journey circular

Stories that loop back on themselves are very satisfying. Though, since a circle contains no change, a spiral may be a more appropriate shape. The diagram below was made by John McPhee to illustrate the structure of his Travels in Georgia

McPhee Spiral

And finally

Tears of Boabdil structure 3

This was the structure diagram I constructed while writing my novel The Tears of Boabdil to try to capture the layering.

Are there any major story arc devices I’ve missed out? Let me know.

8 thoughts on “117 The Shape of Stories

  1. This is really helpful – the more I learn about writing stories, the more complex and interesting the structure seems to become (something I had never really thought about in depth as a reader).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think maybe readers only notice the structure if it gets bumpy. The same way you only notice the road surface when you go off-road. But without the structure, the reader is lost in the wildernss

      Liked by 1 person

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