Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Kurt Vonnegut on 8 ‘shapes’ of stories (bigthink.com)
213 points by samclemens 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

Kurt Vonnegut is one of that rare academics to be able to entertain and teach at the same time. (Not that this attribute is any more common outside academia)

The shape of stories is a very good pedagogical tool to understand narrative, a nice complement to the Hero's Journey. It makes it more intuitive and easier to apply to other story structures, and even to see different approaches from different cultures.

If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.

I'd love to see a conversation between Vonnegut and Hofstadter with John Cleese as the MC.

There is this atomic purity when you come across someone who ruthlessly wants to drive at the truth. Not be right. Not have power. Not project their aesthetic. Nothing but the truth. That is the kind of person I aspire to be.

YES! These are pretty much exactly the methods I used when I developed my project http://prosecraft.io

You can see the emotional story arc -- the shapes of the stories -- for more than 16,000 books.

I train a Word2Vec model on the vocabulary of all those books (almost 1.5 billion words) and then I use a clustering algorithm to score all those words on a sentiment scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is the most negative and 10 is the most positive). Then I break the books into 50 equal-sized chunks and aggregate the positive and negative scores for each chunk.

You can click on any of the chart segments to see a word cloud of all the words that contributed to the positive and negative sentiment of that chunk. You can really see the ups and downs of the stories, as the protagonists struggle to overcome their obstacles, when you look at those charts!

Here are a few of my favorite example books to show people:

The Hobbit


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Animal Farm


I first encountered this method not through Vonnegut but through the "Hedonometer" project, at the University of Vermont Computational Story Lab. They use this technique on the twitter firehose, to measure the overall emotional arc of the world, as expressed in social media.


There's an excellent episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley where they discuss the hedonometer project, with the researchers at UVM who developed it...


I don't mean to be overly negative but browsing through some titles the "emotional story arc" is indistinguishable from a randomly generated line graph. Clicking on the bars reveals the way this was obtained... "bad, death, dark, danger" = less score, "good, great, love" = good. Of course such a trivial and simplistic analysis cannot ever produce any meaningful result.

The "most passive page" thing also does not seem to be working. Passive as in passive voice? If yes it's also pretty off the mark.

I respect your skepticism :)

It's easy to imagine exceptions to the idea of a simple numerical word-scoring algorithm...

Of course, a word like "bad" might be used ironically, or in some other slang-sense, with a different literal meaning on the page...

But that's totally fine. In principle, the word2vec algorithm is designed to cope with ambiguities like that.

When you analyze billions of words of prose, you can build a model of word-associativity that captures the superposition of all those different word-senses, and the contexts where they tend to appear on the page.

After a big crazy machine-learning process, each word is modeled as a vector in 300-dimensional space, with a vast network of associations and relationships between the other words in the vector-space, based on the way those words are used together in typical English grammar.

When we score the emotional valence of a particular word, we use a "word-vector" technique where those ambiguities are basically already priced into the scoring calculation. Words with a "less ambiguous" sentiment score (joy, paradise, ..., agony, depression) have their lack-of-ambiguity baked into the formula already.

Extreme scores are reserved for words with unambiguous intensity.

But the important thing is: we're not really as concerned about the numerical scores of individual words as we are with the shifting balance of those sentiment scores over the course of a long document.

It's not a perfect way of scoring sentiment of individual words, but it's REALLY reliable for estimating the basic structure of a narrative.

Wow! I've been a longtime lurker on HN, and I created an account to just tell you that prosecraft.io is beautifully designed! Would you mind sharing what visualization tools or libraries you used to render your graphs?

Awww thank you! I really appreciate it!

I'm not using any visualization libraries. It's all just hand-coded javascript... I've been meaning to learn D3 for a long time, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Oops, I almost forgot... The one viz component I'm using is the excellent WordCloud2 library by Timothy Guan-tin Chien...


Even more impressive! I immediately assumed D3 but wasn't entirely sure. Congrats again on this work corroborating Vonnegut's 'shapes' of stories.

Second this. Love the prose craft site! Beautiful!

Your site is very impressive!

Of the books you've analyzed, interesting - but not necessarily surprising - to see a Palahniuk book has the least "passive voice" usage (1).

1.) http://prosecraft.io/library/chuck-palahniuk/pygmy/

Nice site, it's fun to look around!

I threw a curveball at it: http://prosecraft.io/library/mark-z-danielewski/house-of-lea...

It would be interesting to see if Prosecraft would ever correlate "similar books" with Borges since Danielewski said that was an influence.

Right now the "similar books" thing is based on a "topic-model"...

So books are more likely to be similar if they're roughly in the same genre and discuss similar kinds of topics (dragons, computers, romance, spies, war, shopping, time-travel, magic, hunting, etc).

Someday I hope the "similar books" feature will be a bit more sophisticated, where other kinds of "similarity" will also be relevant, beyond just the topic-model... Other things like: story structure, narrative voice, irony, vocabulary, sense-of-humor, lyricisim, etc...

This is a beautiful site done in such an original way. I just tried it on my favorite Vonnegut book: http://prosecraft.io/library/kurt-vonnegut/mother-night/

Seems to me almost every Hollywood movie is a "man in the hole" / "boy meets girl", as in somebody leads a normal life, something happens (could be something not bad, like a new challenge) and the main character(s) come out victorious.

Maybe I'm simplifying and applying a template to the "happy ending" cliche.

Allow me to ruin all Hollywood movies for you: "Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need". https://www.amazon.com/Save-Last-Book-Screenwriting-Youll/dp...

Once you read this, you'll start seeing that every popular movie today follows this guide, almost precisely to-the-minute. Book says "by page X of screenplay, Y should happen" and you'll see that it does.

I think there's a parallel here to the "Shaman's Journey", which might be the oldest story pattern out there (see e.g. [1]).

The original pattern had the Shaman travel into the world of the supernatural to complete a kind of quest to solve a problem back home. In the Western world, the "supernatural realm" stopped catching on after a while, so we got first the Hero's Journey (vice Campbell) and the modern version of that myth, the MIH/BMG story where the protagonist gets into trouble and out again, possibly while staying in the same town all along.

[1] https://sites.google.com/a/bc.edu/healing-our-world-shaman-t...

Even in modern uses of the hero’s journey model the world of the story is usually thematically supernatural, even if it isn’t literally magical. The protagonist is leading a normal life, until they answer the call and next thing you know they’re surrounded by explosions, secret agents, treasure, gangsters, etc. The hero leaves the mundane world for the magical world of the story, which plays by a different set of rules.

Yes, The Hero's Journey seems a subset https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

The Man in the Hole structure is essentially Joseph Campbell's hero cycle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

I am not sure that the archetypical detective or mystery story would fit easily into this framework, as there are two concurrent stories: the misleading one that the author is stringing you along with, and the 'real' story as revealed in the denouement. The signature element of this style is that the 'facts' presented as part of the former are still there, but viewed differently, in the latter.

Talking about detective stories and unusual narrative structures, I've really liked the American series 'Columbo' with Peter Falk while growing up. It's very popular in my country (Hungary, there's even a statue of him in Budapest), not sure about elsewhere.

It turns the typical detective story to its head. You see the murder and who does it as the first thing in the episode. The rest is how the detective intuits it and then most importantly the psychological battle and clever tricks required to corner the murderer and prove it was him.

Columbo was pretty well-known in the nineties, so much so that it was referenced in contemporary hip hop songs as a byword for ‘cop’ or ‘detective.’

https://youtu.be/aaPQsYqNDnY (NSFW, language)

“Oh, just one more thing...”

Maybe Columbo has "From bad to worse" shape. The main protagonist isn't the detective, but the murderer. He starts badly - with a murder - and then it's downhill from there.

agreed, seems like there are story shapes yet to be discovered. i wonder what the graph of the hard-boiled detective story would look like given your description... the shape-shifter story shape?

The primary difference seems to be that a detective story does not have a protagonist: the reader does not know everything the main character knows.

The video lecture of Vonnegut himself explaining this is also worth watching:


Here’s the whole lecture (he had a fair bit to say before he got to the shape of stories) if you have ample time and enjoy Vonnegut’s speaking style: https://youtu.be/4_RUgnC1lm8

I really like Vonnegut and the 8 stories idea is nice, but I’m not convinced that he has covered all of the bases here, at least not according to the summary infographic. Two of the shapes (‘Man in Hole’ and ‘Boy meets Girl’) are actually the same. ‘New Testament’ and ‘Cinderalla’ also have the same shape (good-things-bad-things-good-things) but are step functions rather than smooth curves. The exception shape (‘which way is up’) I parse as ‘It’s complicated’ and is a repeated set of ups and downs.

Perhaps, at this level of shape, it’s a bit like saying that all software is just a variation on CRUD.

You should actually watch his lecture on this. It resembles a a comedy routine far more than something that would be ‘covering all the bases’. The stories that are similar, are in fact presented that way and the punch line to jokes. You are definitely right about the “it’s complicated” part and this ends up being the main thesis of the whole speech he is giving. Which is: that real life is complicated so which way is up?

The diagram is secondhand, but Man in Hole and Boy Meets Girl are not at all the same. BMG has a neutral status quo with a big lift at the beginning when they meet. MIH starts out living large, then loses it all.

BMG: Sleepless in Seattle

MIH: A Christmas Carol

BMG + MIH: Groundhog Day

The anime Naruto might be a millennial/gen-z example of the Creation Story archetype. Naruto starts out as the primordial void, formless chaos, but then is given gifts (Rasengan, Sage mode, etc...) in sequence.

I was surprised when I reviewed this page, I thought 'Rags to Riches' was one of his story shapes, but I don't see it there. I thought it was a vertical flip of 'From Bad to Worse'. Starting very low, and becoming wonderful eventually. Stories with Genies granting Wishes would fit this shape.

What shape would you use to graph the Monkey's Paw stories ? (where you think you are getting a great wish, but end up with a bad cause for the good thngs)

Rags to riches is Cinderella, which indeed is featured.

Monkey's Paw fits well with "From Bad to Worse" in my opinion. There's a couple of Twilight Zones that follow a similar pattern. Usually in these stories there is a brief blip of good but in soon the characters find themselves into a deeper hole as a trend.

And also, different characters have different desires and motivations. The story had its own arc, but it's oversimplifying to act like there aren't many mini arcs performed by the characters of every story.

So when plotted over time, the main character will trend toward good fortune or bad fortune. Is this almost too basic to be able to draw comparisons between similar shaped stories?

Eh, the Greeks just made tragedies like they were Disney making comic book movies. Never underestimate how formulaic storytellers have always been.

I am confused, there is only 7 shapes in the infographic. What is the 8th?

Time travel. The only plot structure that's truly unique to modernity.[1]


There are so many more possible shapes, I'm a bit dissatisfied with the lack of variation in the infographic

E.g. the Simpsons episode with the Monkey's Paw is a roller coaster of ups and downs

Maybe the 8th is an implied nested recursion. It's the story of Mr. Vonnegut telling the story of the other 7 shapes.

But his story has "New Testament" shape - he worked on his thesis, and then it was rejected by his fellow academics. Now, a successful author, he became vindicated by these popular articles.

How does this apply to the 4-part/3-part japanese structure?


Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact