Week 1 – Exploring the Shape of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut explains an approach to portraying the shape of stories along the G-I (good fortune/ill-fortune) and B-E (beginning – end) axis.  During the clip he provides examples of generic, sinusoidal (cosine or sine, depending on the character’s starting point) stories that dip into (or out of) good and ill fortune.

Vonnegut provides a more complex story, using Cinderella as an example.  Interestingly enough, it’s a combination of step-wise functions and exponential functions as opposed to the simple, sinusoidal examples he started with.  I believe the dramatic changes, and the perceived “flatness” of the step-wise function is more in line with reality, or at least the stories that engage us and keep us guessing.

A story that pops out of my head is the movie Rudy.  Now, admittedly, we know movies very often end on a more or less positive note, or on the ‘G’ side of Vonnegut’s axis model.  That said, the story’s ‘E’ is almost predetermined.  The story starts at the origin (0,0 for those who recall their geometry/trig days) and dips as the story highlights Rudy’s current situation and seemingly low position in society.  Then, through as series of story developments, he is given signs of hope in the form of admission to Notre Dame, finding a job on campus, making the practice squad, etc.  All of this leads up to a high point that is defined by the posting of the active football roster, each time resulting in Rudy plummeting from the ‘G’ to the ‘I’ on Vonnegut’s scale.  The last part of the movie, aligns with Vonnegut’s Cinderella story, which is a rapid rise from the depths of ‘I’ (where Rudy gets added to the active roster, only to ride the bench till the last minute of the game) to ‘G’ where Rudy gets the final sack of the game and gets carried off the field.

The rule I chose from Pixar’s list for creating appealing stories was #1, “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes”

I created an infographic that speaks to the total climb being greater than zero.  Rudy’s climb figure would be something HUGE because he tried repeatedly and worked against all odds and setbacks.  His success was relatively small (one sack and 19 seconds of playing time in a 4 year college career), but it was his effort that we appreciate.

Rudy's Story along Vonnegut's G-I/B-E axis

Rudy’s Story along Vonnegut’s G-I/B-E axis

Story spine for the movie Rudy

Story spine for the movie Rudy



10 thoughts on “Week 1 – Exploring the Shape of Stories

  1. You seem to be a kind of scientist, which is great!!!

    However, I am not. I am spoiled with looking all day to nice and bright and easy digital stories. Maybe you can add some items which can be a bridge to the certainly very interesting content of your post 🙂

    • I agree with Stefanie’s comment. Your analysis is VERY thorough and I love the use of the graphics! It definitely shows that you put a lot of thought and care into the analysis. To supplement the quantitative analysis, I would recommend adding some qualitative analysis and descriptions to bring the reader along on the journey to your scientific conclusion. Also, these blogs are supposed to be standalone and although you provide some details, as a whole you make the assumption that everyone knows the story of Rudy. Although it is one of my all-time favorites, you may want to think about incorporating a link to a Rudy synaposis, etc. This makes the blog more complete and standalone, especially as we get into analyzing content that might not be as familiar with the reader.

  2. There is truly something inside us that wants to see the underdog win and the person who strives against all odds to be rewarded in the end. In their storied journey, they take us with them and we have the opportunity to embody that struggle. No wonder that even their small victories deliver us. Insightful analysis…and great title for your blog!

    • Completely agree with Seth’s comment about the title of the blog! I was drawn in and wanted to read more just from the title and tagline.

  3. Very well mapped out for the shape, spline, and match– the idea of step wise shapes is interesting since the changes are in response to specific events in time, not continuous change. I am not quite sure what the total climb > 0 line means, is that just specifying that it is a passage of time with no change?

    Also I am curious if the fact that the amplitude of his negative fortune (“I) is less than the positive “G)- is that deliberate?

    Good work on the analysis; did this do anything for you to understand the movie or story i a different way than when watching it for entertainment?

    • I might have used the terminology here. I was trying to draw a comparison to cycling terms where the total elevation climb as a result of the ups and downs of hills during the course of a race. The “Gain” would have been more appropriate. In the case of Rudy, the total some of his ups and downs would have been high…definitely above zero, where zero would have been a stagnant story.

      I definitely appreciated the sinusoidal concept of a story…and like to think that any story, looked from high enough a view, would seem sinusoidal, however, when one takes a closer look, or zooms in, they would notice the irregularities and asymmetry. I would say that the stepwise functions are not pure stepwise functions in that there is an instantaneous “jump” from 0 to 1 or 1 to 2. I believe the climbs are definitely rapid such that they the perception of their rapid jump parallels the level shift in tone, be it disappointment, joy, love, etc.

  4. Based on your analysis, you have a lot of skill in processing and organizing data. You may want to consider adding a bit more structure to your blog post. All of your blogs are really interesting and insightful. However, it is a bit hard to understand how everything is organized because you have to scroll down the long page. It make be helpful for the reader to process things if you can bucket the content into categories. Overall, great job with the posts!

    • Thanks LRo! I’ll look into organizing the content so folks can jump to and from different blogs. Since I’ve been responding on a prompt by prompt basis, I’ve definitely noticed that the blogs are literally “piling” up.

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