Be formulaic: The basic story structure that Hollywood movies, literary novels and the best web content all have in common

How to structure your stories for online audiences

Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we look at Kurt Vonnegut's famous story shapes and see how they can help you write better.

The Shapes of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut was a sui generis American writer. His writing is unclassifiable. Vonnegut was a humorist, a moralist, a screwball dystopian. He was in Dresden when the Americans fire-bombed the city, and wrote one of the best postwar novels about the surreality of war.

He was also writing at a time when writers got paid by the word and could still scrape by writing for magazines.

What that meant is Vonnegut's stories needed to sell if he wanted to eat. Which means Vonnegut's stories needed to be readable. How did Vonnegut deal with it?

He wrote stories people wanted to read.

The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.
— Kurt Vonnegut

Being interested in science, and being a wise guy, Vonnegut once proposed that because most stories followed set formulas, there was no reason why, theoretically, a computer couldn't produce one. He called these formulas "shapes" and mapped them out on an X Y graph. X was beginning to end (time), Y was the sweep of a character's fortunes from good to bad or vice-versa. Characters' fates were maneuvered from the beginning of the story to the end as they fell and rose in their fortunes.

Vonnegut was so into the idea of story shapes that he actually submitted a Master's thesis to the University of Chicago in 1946. It was rejected. Vonnegut suspected it was because it was "so simple and looked like too much fun".

Here are three of Vonnegut's shapes. Look familiar?

The Shapes of Stories by Column Five

That's because most thrillers, action and horror movies fit the Man in Hole shape, while most romantic comedies fall into the Boy Meets Girl shape.

You can see the ups and downs look like waves. Those waves have peaks and troughs. This is the natural motion of a story. When the protagonist moves up or down the Y axis in pursuit of what he wants or needs but can't get, we get tension. When the tension peaks, we get a climax. When that climax dies down and we get a return to order, we get a resolution.

That's a story.

Listen to Vonnegut describe it here.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

• • •

No, formulas aren't always bad

Please don’t be a snob. The fact that most stories follow formulas should make you happy, not sad, angry or disillusioned. It doesn’t mean your stories need to read like Dan Brown, E.L. James or the latest debacle by James Paterson (and Bill Clinton). It doesn’t mean you have to consciously apply formulas to your writing while you’re writing. And it certainly doesn't mean that your stories will come out looking like they just rolled out of an Amazon fulfillment center (see more on this below).

What it means is this: It's not all that difficult to learn how to structure an engaging story.

Or relearn, as it were.

Because story structure is something we were very familiar with as kids, and something adults too often dismiss without fully understanding the implications of what they're dismissing. Einstein understood. When asked how teachers and parents could make their kids smart, he responded by saying that they should read them fairytales.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
— Albert Einstein

The fact is, story structure underpins most of our social communication in the adult world—from emails to happy hour conversations. Discursive narratives tend to put us to sleep.

Think of the friend who can never zero in on the actual point of a story, who highlights the wrong details and never ends up at the "aha" moment.

Or the colleague who sends mile-long emails with the important stuff jumbled in with the rest.

Posters for the New York International Latino Film Festival by Wing

What does this mean for your web writing?

A few things, but here are the essentials.

• • •

Story essentials

Astory, stripped down to its essence, is usually a character with some kind of a problem or conflict. As we've seen, how the character deals with the problem is what gives your story tension. Without that tension, your stories will have no momentum, and momentum is what pulls readers along. Simply put, a character with a conflict is the backbone of your story.

That story doesn't have to be literary. The same goes for a lawyer's website, an article about the latest MacBook Pro redesign or a blog post about how to consolidate your debt. That's because a problem doesn't have to involve a flesh-and-blood character. It could simply be something the reader wants to know more about and the text offers to tell us.

CHARACTER

Like every car that actually moves, every story that goes somewhere needs a main character. That character doesn't have to be you (first person) and it doesn't even have to be a person. But, whether you're writing about Google Map's latest UI overhaul or your experiences mowing the lawn as a kid in New Jersey, the key to holding on to an audience boils down to how much they can relate to your characters and their predicaments. At the same time you're answering the question "who am I writing this article for?", you should also be thinking about that.

PROBLEM

When we say problem, we don't necessarily mean a deadly disease or a collapsing marriage, though those can work too. A problem can simply be something to figure out or a situation to get out of. It could be how to prepare a salmon tartar the right way or how Amazon Prime wrecked your creding rating. Problems are an ancient trick talking apes have been using for millenia to captivate audiences. They're so much a part of how we've learned to relate to stories that a story without a problem is simply not a story.

TENSION

Ever have a muscle tighten up on you? A good story is like a knotted muscle. It absorbs the stress of the plot until it reaches a breaking point, and you get a release. Otherwise, reading would be painful. If you've ever seen the movie Open Water, where two abandoned scuba divers float around for days in shark-infested waters, one with a bleeding cut, you'd feel this point. Tension is good. It reels audiences in in every time. Just remember, when you're sustaining narratives over distances, consider that readers need tempo changes and little breaks to catch their breath.

PLOT TURNS

These are the turning points in the story. When something good happens, this would be an upward turn on Vonnegut’s graph. When something bad happens, a downward turn. The space in between—the valleys—are the resolutions, or returns to normality. Unless you're writing a 10,000-word think piece for Rolling Stone or the New Yorker, usually one major peak or trough per story is enough. Ideally, these turns should keep readers on their feet. When we blindside readers with a piece of information or a change in direction that was foreshadowed but still unexpected, we call that a twist.

CLIMAX

When the springs of a story get too wound up, you need a release. The climax is that release. It's usually the key moment in your story when everything comes to a head. It changes your perspective or awareness. It could have deep and residual meaning, or it could be the time you whipped up a bowl of pesto mayonnaise, ate it the second day and got salmonella and ended up in the hospital, (where you met your future husband, who was in for the very same thing.) Don't dismiss climaxes, and the next element, resolutions, as the stuff of literary stories. They're actually the stuff of any good barroom story you've ever heard or any email you've ever written that got a point across.

RESOLUTION

Not every story has a resolution. There are plenty of stories with ambiguous endings that leave you hanging. If you haven't read Raymond Carver's Neighbors, read it and see how powerful this technique can be. As a rule, though, web writing isn't going to leave you hanging. What you write for the web will usually have what we call a "payoff", and most readers, like you, will be looking for one. In many cases, the payoff will just be the information you promised to give your readers in the beginning. That's what they get in exchange for their time. Most web writing, in other words, will be resolved.

• • •

Coda

When you use all of these elements in a text, you get something they call story arc. If it sounds familiar, that's because story arc is just another way of saying story shape. Welcome to the Man in the Hole and Boy Meets Girl.

If you do that in a way that sneaks your story past our knowledge and experience bank—and our expectations and prejudices—and fills an empty spot on our bookshelf we didn't even know was there, that's what we call a good story.

While this isn't usually the goal of most web writing, it doesn't mean we can't aspire to it. And because I'd like to give you a little something for making it all the way to the end of this post, here's an offbeat tale by the storyteller Steve Zimmer where it all comes together.

Click on the visual to listen.

Lost in the Supermarket by Steve Zimmer

Lost in the Supermarket by Steve Zimmer


Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: max@storylinecreatives.com.


Storyline Longform: Website Narrative Series

These eight articles explore narrative approaches to website writing, covering everything from typography to story structure. You’ve just read one. Check out the rest.