How To Shape A Story

Every story has a shape.

You can find it by plotting the emotional high points and low points that the story takes as it unfolds.


When you’re done you’ll end up with the shape of that story.

That’s what Kurt Vonnegut did to show that classic stories have common basic shapes.

He used Cinderella as the leading example.

But the University of Chicago was not amused

They rejected his thesis.

Years later he speculated that they gave it the boot because,

“it was so simple and looked like too much fun.”

Undeterred, he then went on to prove his point by actually diagramming three types of stories.

We can learn a lot about plots and story structure from these shapes.

So here they are. Man In Hole. Boy Gets Girl / Girl Gets Boy. And, of course, the ever popular Cinderella.

Shaping your story

As Mr. Vonnegut suggests, you have three components that you can play with to shape a story. Context that helps us understand the hero’s intention or goal. An obstacle that must be overcome to get to the goal. And a not-so-obvious set of actions that tackle the obstacle.

All three work together.

Change one of these elements and the interpretation of the others will change automatically. And if any element doesn’t change it is superfluous to the core story.

The interplay between these elements is what makes stories more powerful than mere messages.

And it’s a good thing, too. Because messages don’t work anymore.

So what?

So what does that have to do with how you shape a story?

Four things come to mind.

One: Give your narrative context

Narrative is how we make sense of the world.

That’s why a real story can’t have only one or two of the three core elements.

Because a story like that makes no sense.

Tiger approaches bus stop” is not a story.

It needs information. It needs context for the story to be meaningful. It needs things like where, when, and who was there.

That said, don’t take context too literally.

There are endless, interesting ways to establish context. It doesn’t have sound like a bullet point list.  Anything is fine as long as context is not missing.

Two: Create conflict

All good stories have conflict.

Why? Because if there is no conflict in the story there’s no reason for anything to happen.

And if nothing is happening, there is no reason for us to tell anyone else about it.

Conflict comes from obstacles. Somebody wants something but something is standing in his or her way of getting it.

Here comes the tricky part

The trick is that the somebody of the story needs to want the something really bad. And the thing that’s in their way needs to be formidable.

Boy stands at bus stop is not a story. It is context.

It needs an obstacle, some kind of conflict, for the story to be of interest.

Need more conflict?

Well, then let me tell you that the boy waiting at the bus stop can’t see the tiger that is approaching. The little boy is blind.

Here’s Aaron Sorkin to explain why your story will have to have an intention and a formidable obstacle. And why you’ll need both of them before you can begin to shape a great story.

The bigger the intention, the bigger the story.

The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the story.

The bigger the conflict, the bigger the story.


Three: Use the viewer’s imagination

So check this out.

It’s a brief experimental film made in the 1920’s by Eisenstein and Kuleshov.

It shows how juxtaposed visuals create more meaning for people than one visual does.

Three unrelated clips are presented in sequence: a bowl of soup, a little girl in a coffin, and a young woman on a couch.

Kind of spooky, huh?

Never the less, most people try to make sense of the sequence by creating a story to explain how the first image led to the next. (the Kuleshov effect)

This helps shed light on why we care about the protagonist in a good story. Why every fiber of our body wants to know what happens next.

So we project ourselves onto the story and into the characters in it.

Dream on

In that sense, the story acts like a dream.

It allows us to experience something hypothetical. It reminds us through emotions and imagery that the world and how we move through it could be different.

Great stories push us to the forefront as individuals. They make our world larger and richer.

Most often, it is the absence of information in the story that creates personal meaning.

Fill in

We fill in the blanks. We create our own personal version of the story to tie together the pieces of the narrative.

That’s why we invest so much in what comes next. And that’s what provides the real reward.

And the real reward is not answers. Or information. Or data. Or a message.

The real reward is emotions.

Four: Make it simple

A story is an imprecise and slippery embrace of complexity and shared humanity.

We invest in stories through the emotions and experiences that we share as members of the tribe.

So we can simplify stories when we understand two things. The worldview and the passions that tribe members share.

That’s when we can leave out the things we know that they will fill in for themselves.

In fact, great stories are more about what you leave out than what you put in.

One more experiment before you go

Here is an infinitely complex six-word story by Ernest Hemingway.

Does it have the elements of context, obstacle, and actions to overcome the obstacle?

Is it based on a strong intention and a big obstacle?

I believe it does

It’s just that the absence of information and the author’s understanding of you as a human being force you to fill in the missing information.

Even more important, it invites you to tell your story.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?