What Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories Lecture Can Teach Us About Writing Music

Kurt Vonnegut believed most stories fit a few simple shapes.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing.” — Kurt Vonnegut

The Shape of Stories,” according to Kurt Vonnegut, was his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. In his 1981 autobiography “Palm Sunday,” he says it was rejected because it was just too simple and simply too much fun to be taken seriously.

Shape Theory

In his four minute lecture, Vonnegut draws a graph on which any story can be plotted. The vertical axis represents the good and ill fortune the characters experience over the horizontal axis which represents the time from the beginning to the end of a story.

Re-creation of Vonnegut’s graph with three common story arcs

Vonnegut began his lecture:

“Well, there’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.” — Kurt Vonnegut

In 2016, a group of researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide decided to put his theory to the test. They analyzed the shape of over two-thousand works of fiction and found the six main shapes of stories:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Scoring to the shape

As I watched him speak, I began to realize that this theory applied to making music for stories as well. Just imagine you are asked to compose music for the “Happily Ever After” shape (aka Cinderella). The characters begin with rather ill-fortune, but things are looking up. The music could begin rather somber while hinting at the joy to come. This “hint,” musically speaking, is the introduction of a bright motif or melody.

While we’re only at the beginning of the story we have begun to map out a structure to the whole score — The somber theme opening could return in the middle of the story after the clock strikes and Cinderella retreats to her dreadful life, while the joyful theme hinted at in the opening (exposition) can bombastically ring out in full once Cinderella’s good fortune returns in the end.

Cinderella, although simplistic, provides a straightforward example for mapping out your score even before you lay down your first note. Take a look at your story. And try to plot it out using a graph. Then walk your way through the score. There will probably be many more twists and turns to the plot. Use each change in direction as an opportunity to inform you music.

Every story has a shape

Knowing the story arc can simplify your approach to designing music for film. It can also kick start creative collaboration and help guide the visual and sound design so that the story is more effectively told and emotion more fully realized.

Now here’s Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories…

Jared Kinsler is a founding member of Soundnoodle music in Austin, Texas. For more tips on how to design with sound and music, check out Sound Advice 🎩👌