Kurt Vonnegut’s Guide To Story Structure
Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most celebrated writers and humorists of the 20th century.
In a famous 1994 speech he broke down the mechanics or storytelling using the graph below.
The graph is separated into two axes:
The vertical axis is called the “GI axis” (Good vs Ill Fortune). This axis charts the characters physical and psychological circumstances. As Vonnegut describes:
“Sickness and poverty are on the bottom. Wealth and boisterous good health are at the top.”
The Vertical Axis is called the “BE Axis” (Beginning vs End). This simply denotes where the character is at a given point in the narrative.
When put together, the two axes chart a character’s changing circumstances over the course of a story.
Vonnegut goes on to map three of the most common story structures using this chart.
Structure 1: Man In A Hole:
Simply put this is someone getting getting in and out of trouble. The character starts in a good place, but circumstances or malevolent forces push them below the dreaded “Ill Fortune” threshold. The better part of the story is the character digging themselves of this metaphorical hole.
As Vonnegut says:
“It needn’t be about a man and it needn’t be about a hole.” But the character must “get into trouble and get out of it again.
Structure 2: Boy Gets Girl:
In the “boy gets girl” someone is going about their normal business when they see something they really want. The person gets a taste of this thing, but they inevitably mess it up and lose it. The remainder of the story is them trying to regain what they lost.
This structure mirrors the plot of the traditional Romantic Comedy. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl.
Structure 3 Cinderella:
Vonnegut calls this the most “cherished story in civilization. Every time it gets told someone makes another million dollars.”
This is, of course, modeled after the plot of Cinderella... and the droves of stories with an orphan or widow as the hero.
The protagonists starts near the bottom of GI Axis. Over the course of the narrative they claw their way up the vertical axis, until some misfortune shoots them back down.
This momentary descent is a necessary part of the structure. Nothing bores an audience quicker than a character only moving one direction on the graph.
Of course in the end, “the shoe fits” and our lowly protagonist vaults back to the top of the chart and lives happily ever after. Our favorite ending!
Bonus Structure: The Kafka
For those puking in their mouths over the treacly Cinderella Structure, Vonnegut included a bonus structure called the Kafka.
Like the Cinderella, the Kafka starts on the low end of the GI axis. But unlike its cheerful counterpart, this structure plunges its poor character even further into the narrative inferno.
Unsurprisingly, this structure is not a fan favorite. But you’re one of the misfortunate few whose audience consists of cynics, psychopaths, and literary critics; It’s worth a shot.