Content Strategy

The Shapes of Our Stories

I recently watched the 1988 Joseph Campbell-Bill Moyers PBS series, The Power of Myth. Campbell explores the themes that have shaped our human narrative — and how the same stories seem to pop up in vastly different corners of the world.

In the month since finishing the six-episode series (conveniently available at the local library!), I’ve been chewing on the ideas. Each of the archetypes resonates with the very things that make us human, which is why they’re so widely appealing.

Beyond the themes, stories take on several different shapes. And that’s where Melissa Fay Greene’s Atlantic piece, How Will We Remember the Pandemic? The Science of How Our Memories Form — and How They Shape Our Future, comes in.

Greene explores how we create memories, embroidering them with dribs and drabs from others in our circle until they don’t necessarily reflect reality. After a trauma, like COVID, this is especially true, as we all share our collective experience in search of commonalities and learning.

But she also digs into the very shape of those stories. And that’s where my writer brain perked up.

In the 1940s, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his anthropology master’s thesis on “story shapes,” noting in his autobiography, “The shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.” Alas, the University of Chicago faculty disagreed, and rejected his thesis. (I didn’t know they could do that!) Vonnegut said, “It was so simple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too playful.” (As a fellow alum of the school that sold t-shirts proclaiming, “Where Fun Comes to Die,” he has a point.)

By the early 80s, Vonnegut was still talking about this theory, outlining some of the shapes in this 4-minute clip. He wondered, what if a computer could analyze story structure?

And in 2016, they did. Researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide fed 1,327 English-language stories into a sentiment analysis engine. The result? Six key story shapes.

Rags to Riches
Starts miserable, winds up good

Riches to Rags
A fall from grace

Man in a Hole
Fall, then rise as triumph is snatched from defeat

Icarus
Best-laid plans implode; misery ensues

Cinderella
Two opposing inflection points (good, then bad), ending with happily ever after

Oedipus
The inverse of the Cinderella: A fall from grace followed by triumph, only to lose it all

Source: The Atlantic

Without knowing it, these story shapes are ingrained in the work I do, whether it’s writing bad fiction as part of my Morning Pages habit or crafting customer success stories. Researchers found that the most popular stories tend to be the “man in the hole” and Icarus varieties, as it’s easiest to handle a single inflection point. (And as Americans, we tend to like the redemption of the “man in the hole” tale. Indeed, it’s the structure of case studies: company is puttering along, has major crisis, is saved by other company, lives happily ever after.)

For humans, stories are currency. They’re how we relate to each other. So it’s not all that surprising that we’ve evolved into an accepted set of themes and structures.

The key is how we frame the story — and when we tell it. Greene interviews Northwestern psychology professor David McAdams about how we’re all in the midst of shaping our COVID stories. McAdams warns that for many, we’re still too close to the trauma to truly know how it ends – – and which arc the tale will ultimately take:

Not everyone will be able to tell a redemptive narrative. The suffering is too great. It might be a year where more people are inspired to take the path of Albert Camus’ protagonist in The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux. He wasn’t able to save many people, and he couldn’t begin to say what it all meant, and the loss of thousands of people didn’t appear to be pointing to a better way of life for the survivors. By the end of The Plague, you come to believe, with Rieux, that at least it meant something for him to bear witness; he bore witness to suffering. Not every story is redemptive — there are other kinds of great stories in the world, and bearing witness is an important one. It’s possible that’s the best most of us can do this year. Sometimes you just have to come to terms with the world as it is, and to human beings as they are, rather than how we wish the world and people were.

This explains why we feel unsettled or uneasy with some stories (like The Plague), when the ending isn’t tidily wrapped and redeemed. But it’s all too realistic and, we must admit, human.

I’ll certainly keep these story shapes in mind going forward. After all, they may help me realize why a narrative isn’t working, or help me push back to ask if we’re trying to tell a story too soon.

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