Kurt Vonnegut used to say that there were only a few different kinds of stories and that the plots of each kind followed a similar pattern.
Specifically, as Maria Popova of Brainpickers.org explains, Vonnegut was fond of drawing charts of three different plots:
- “Man in a hole”
- “Boy meets girl,” and
The vertical axis of each of Vonnegut’s story charts measures the continuum from “good fortune” (riches, health, happiness, love) to “ill fortune” (poverty, sickness, depression, loneliness). The horizontal axis measures time, from beginning to end.
In each of the first two plots, the story starts with a person whose fortune is modestly above average. Then the person runs into trouble (falls into a hole) and loses the good fortune. Then the person overcomes this setback, climbs out of the hole (or wins back the girl), and achieves a level of fortune that is higher than the one where he or she started.
For example, here, from Brainpicker.org, is Vonnegut’s chart of “Man in a hole”:
These stories are inspiring and encouraging, Vonnegut points out, which is why we like them.
The most popular story of all, meanwhile, Vonnegut observes, is “Cinderella.” In “Cinderella,” the hero starts in a miserable state (poverty, dead mum, evil stepmother and stepsisters), encounters lots of good fortune (fairy godmother), suddenly loses everything (turns back into a pumpkin), and then gets everything back and more (marries the prince and lives happily ever after).
Storytellers have made millions on “Cinderella,” Vonnegut says, and they will continue to. Because the story offers hope (and delusion) to everyone.
These three stories are the most popular kinds of stories, Vonnegut says. But there are other kinds of stories, too.
For example, there are Franz Kafka stories:
Guy wakes up and finds he has transformed into a cockroach. Then everything gets worse. Then the guy dies.
Vonnegut (and Maria Popova) charted that story, too.
Here’s what it looks like:
Vonnegut didn’t say so, but there’s no mystery why Kafka’s stories met with critical, but not popular, acclaim. That chart is just plain depressing.
And then there’s “Hamlet,” which also doesn’t fit one of the three major plots. Head over to Brainpicker.org to see Vonnegut’s chart of that one…
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.