The Three Story Shapes
Kurt Vonnegut had this idea that stories have shapes. Here’s how it would work: if you could map a story with the horizontal axis representing time and the vertical axis representing our characters’ fortunes, you could see how it’s structured over time. While it sounds like an interesting theory, nobody had put it to the test until the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont decided to take a look. So, they analyzed a number of great works of literature and found that there were 6 main types of story shapes: 3 happy endings and 3 tragic endings. Since we want to leave our audience motivated to make a change, the happy story shapes are of particularly useful to us as message makers.
So what are the three main shapes? First, there’s the “Rags to Riches” story, where a character starts low and steadily gets better. Then, there’s the “A Meets B” story where good things happen, bad things happen in the middle, but everything turns out OK. The third shape Vonnegut called, “The Cinderella Story,” and in it, things aren’t great to start, get better until suddenly they get really bad, but then something new happens that makes a happy ending possible.
If you’re using the Red Thread to build your message, then you’re already using these structures. The “Rags to Riches” shape is also a “How” type of talk: the Goal, Problem, and Idea are all at the beginning, and the story is how the audience can use that Idea through the Change and Actions to achieve their Goal.
The “Cinderella” story shape is a “Why” type of talk: they know their Problem and Goal, but all their attempts to solve it haven’t worked. Things seem to be looking up until you get the “Real” Problem, which drops the audience down until you introduce an Idea that bounces them back up through the Change and Actions until they can see how to get their Goal.
Finally, the “A Meets B” story shape is really similar to a “What Now” talk. Your audience starts pretty high— there’s a thing that they want and they’re excited to get it— until they hear about the “Real” Problem. Before they bottom out you introduce the Idea, and from there you bring them up to the Change and the Actions so they can understand how to get their Goal.
Story shapes are important because the more that we understand how our ideas interact with our audience, the better we understand how to make our message drive the action that we’re looking for. Combine them with the Red Thread and you’ll have everything you need for a powerful message.
- Find the Red Thread EP 030: The 3 Types of Messages
- The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I. – The Atlantic
- The Red Thread Worksheet
– What can Kurt Vonnegut and the University of Vermont teach you about raising the stakes in your message? I’m Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com and that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread.
Kurt Vonnegut had an idea about stories, and it was that they had shapes. He thought that if we could map them on a horizontal X-axis of time so that the beginning of the story was at the left, and the end of the story was at the right, if we map that against a vertical Y-axis of fortunes facing the main character, bad fortune at the bottom, good fortune at the top, that we could see certain shapes emerge.
It’s a wonderful theory, and until a couple of years ago, it was just a theory, but then the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont decided to put it to the test, and they found that that theory was true. They analyzed a number of great works of literature, and they found that those story shapes that Kurt Vonnegut had suggested played out. In fact, they found six main types of story shapes: three positive endings, three happy endings, and three bad or tragic endings.
Now, why does this matter to us and to you? Well, because those patterns, and in fact the three happy ending ones are very useful ways for us to look at and analyze our own messages and method structure. Now here’s what I mean. Now first: why is it only the happy ending things? Well remember, if we’re trying to persuade people to do something, what we are getting them to do is see how at the end they will achieve the Goal that they want. So, by definition, that’s always a happy ending. They start out wanting something, we’re going to show how they get that thing so it’s a happy ending.
Now from there, the question is, well, what are those three main shapes? Well, this is where we could use Vonnegut’s story-telling shapes to come into play, and you’ll see that they actually match up with the Why, What Now, How story-shapes that we’ve talked about before.
Now, what are those three types? Well, the three types that the University of Vermont came up with, and I’m going to show you this real quick, I’ll put it up on screen a little closer, where you see the three at the top that end with a happy ending and the three at the bottom that have a sad ending. Well, these three are the three that we’re talking about.
Quickly, and I’ll show these in more detail in just a second, you’ve got the “Rags to Riches” story, where emotionally, kind of the fortunes, or the, are low at the beginning and they steadily get better, the “A Meets B,” we’re going to call it, story, where something positive happens pretty soon right after they start, but then bad things happen, and then things get better again. Then, this one, which is a variation on what Vonnegut called the “Cinderella Story,” where things aren’t great to start, things seem to get really good, then they get really bad, and then they get much better, and then everything ends up all okay.
So think about, for instance, how Cinderella started out really bad, she met the prince, it was great, except she lost the slipper, so everything went to heck all of a sudden, and then once the slipper was restored, everything returned to normal. So these three shapes are real. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, well, can I use these to build a message? I’m going to say, actually, you already are, if you are using the Red Thread Method for figuring out how to frame a message for somebody else, because each of those major turning points is represented by one of the pieces of the Red Thread. The Goal is at the beginning, the Problem is the next thing, the Idea comes later, the Change that you want people to make, and then the Actions that they should take to get to the Goal.
Each of those pieces comes in that order, and if we start to plot where the fortunes are of our audience, we can start to see our own shapes emerge. So let me show you the same way, and same thing as those same stories as they apply to Red Thread message types.
Now, we’ve talked about three before: the Why, What Now, and How, and I’m going to talk about them in reverse because the How looks like that Rags to Riches story where the audience starts out with a Goal they want to solve, with a Problem that they’re aware of, with an Idea they’ve come to you to help with, so it’s all kind of low, but they want to understand how to put that Idea into place so that they can achieve their Goal. So you’ll see it’s a steady progression as you’re teaching them the Change and the Actions they need to take to get up to that Goal in the first place.
Now, at the other extreme is that Cinderella story. This, I think, maps the Why type talk, where in the beginning, they know that there’s a Goal that they want and a Problem they have, but they’re, all their attempts to solve it aren’t working. But, it’s, even then, as you’re describing it, it feels like everything is good and it feels like everything’s going to be fixed for them, until you introduce to them a real Problem that’s getting in the way.
Once they have that understanding that they’ve been looking at the situation either incompletely or backwards or insufficiently, all of a sudden that’s going to make them drop down until you introduce this Idea. Once you introduce the Idea, they’re ready to accept it, and all of a sudden, they bounce back up through the Change and actions fairly quickly so you can say this is how we achieve this action, we achieve this Idea to get to the Goal. So this is, this Cinderella story is very much the shape of a Why type talk.
Now the final story is that A Meets B, and this is, maps to that, What Now shape that we’ve talked about before. One other way to think about this Y-axis when we’re talking about business messages is that it’s, as much as it’s about emotional state or the fortunes of the main character, you can also think about it from the standpoint of how ready, how willing, how excited are they to move forward. Excited, if their readiness is high here on the Y-axis and low on the Y-axis, and you can see people go back and forth.
Now the What Now, people start pretty high. There’s a thing that they want and they’re excited to get it. But then fairly quickly, you’re introducing them to a real Problem. They’re ready to accept it, but they still need to understand a little bit more, and the more they understand, the kind of lower they get with it. But that’s when you introduce the Idea. Now, if they’re fairly willing to accept that Idea, but you still need to explain it to them, still need to spend some time there, that’s what you’re going to do there to bring them up to the Change.
Once you’ve got them at the Change, ah, now they realize this is all solvable, now they want to know, “What specifically do I need to do in order to achieve that Goal?” You explain that and explain how it gets the Goal, and there you’ve got them to the What Now.
So, I will admit that the geek-out level of this particular episode is very high, and yet I think it’s really interesting sometimes to look at our own messages in a different way, through a different lens, because the more that we understand what the pieces and the parts are of our ideas, how they flow back and forth, how our minds, how our audience’s mind flow back and forth between them, the better we’ll understand how to make that message drive the action that we’re looking for.
So next time you have a message put together, map it against the story shape. Say, “Hey, how is it doing for me? Does it look like one of these out of the gate?” If it doesn’t, what can you do to create more distance between the emotional state of let’s say the Problem and the Idea so that it’s even more emotionally powerful? That, my friends, is what Kurt Vonnegut, the University of Vermont, and hopefully I, have to contribute to driving your message into action. This is Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebstercom, and I hope you’ll sign up and subscribe to Find the Red Thread on YouTube or on iTunes, or at least leave a review.