What did Kurt Vonnegut and Aristotle have in common when it comes to writing fiction?
Aristotle’s foundational logic and Vonnegut’s modern research both tell us that stories are simply imitations — retellings — of events that happen in real life. There is a natural way stories occur and there is a natural way we tell them.
It’s not a chicken and egg mystery. Life came before writing. Writing is meant to capture and relay life. If we keep that in mind, as writers of fiction, we can view plotting in a different light.
The first question that we have to ask is: What are stories?
Stories — writing, literature, and storytelling in general — fall under the umbrella of drama.
To dramatize something is to blow it out of proportion; to exaggerate it. We humans dramatize everything. David Mamet gives the example that we dramatize the weather every chance we get.
“Can you believe how bad it rained last night? My house almost floated away!”
“Yeah, Steve. We’ve all seen a Rainstorm before. They aren’t that crazy. Shut up.”
“Easy, Phill. You’re being a jerk.”
Stories are just a dramatized — exaggerated — imitation of real life.
Every story surrounds some dramatic event. These dramatic events are either tragic or comedic.
Not comedic as in funny. Think of comedic as the opposite of tragic. Fortunate might be a better word. Something lucky that happens where we say, “Life’s funny that way, isn’t it?”
Remember, whether the event is comedic or tragic, they should be dramatic. Drama is exaggeration. The stories we write are about something abnormal. They break the routine of everyday life.
Humans go through tragic and comic events all the time. Life is full of ups and downs — highs and lows. Often they happen in a pendulum-like motion. Good times follow bad times and vice versa. As you may have noticed, life is cyclical in that way.
If we graph life’s fortunes and misfortunes over time, we get a sine curve (It’s definitely not this smooth in reality, but bear with me). When someone starts at a fortunate peak and falls to the bottom, that’s tragic. When they start at the bottom and climb to a good life, that’s comedic. Fortunate.
This kind of curve really illustrates that characters are always coming off either a loss or a win. They have an imagined life that exists before and after the story begins and ends. They’re a victim or a conqueror based on the last event, and they carry that status into the next event.
So if you want to write a tragedy or a comedy, the real first question is: What section of the dramatic curve will this dramatic event occupy?
In other words, imagine your character’s dramatic curve. It may look like a graph of the stock market. One with large rising and falling trends riddled with smaller ups and downs throughout.
Where on this imagined dramatic curve will your story begin? At a peak or in a valley? During a rise or fall? When will it end? After a market downturn, so to speak? Or just before a large upswing? How many upswings and downturns will your story include?
Thinking of stories as snapshots of your characters’ imagined dramatic curves can help you make larger decisions like: is it a comedy or a tragedy? Should this be a short story or a six-book fantasy epic?
Vonnegut ran a few thousand plots of famous stories through a computer and found there are really six types of stories. He maps these on the same good and bad fortune line over time.
Every story illustrates rises and falls in fortune. They illustrate some snapshot of a character’s life along their dramatic curve.
A quick note: As I mentioned earlier, the dramatic curve of life is far from neat.
Life is hilariously complex. Little bouts of luck or stretches of difficulties accompany larger ones at every step of the way. We can often be both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time! People can have difficulties in one aspect of their life while having relief in another. A college student may struggle in school, but have a great relationship with her family.
So, these curves can be more simple with fewer reversals of fortune or they can contain a few twists along the way. Thinking about the example above of the college student, stories are about one thing. If the dramatic event we want to write about happens at school, the good or bad fortune we illustrate her having must relate to her time at college. We can mention her family life, sure. But if the story is about school, stick to school.
That said, Vonnegut’s six basic plots are:
Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags stories are simpler. They have one rise or one fall. There are tiny twists and little events along the ride. But no giant fortune-changing turn happens. No reversal of fate, as Aristotle would say.
When a character goes through a simple rise, they live out a pure comedy — a pure stroke of fortune. As writers, the implication here is we wouldn’t start a story such as this with a character of average or moderate fortune. No. Here, it helps to start with someone in the gutters; a man who’s been fired from every job and is scrounging for money like a cornered rat. When they win a sign-twirling competition (I don’t know), they become rich and all their immediate problems are solved.
This is a comedy in the fact that it leaves people saying, “Life’s funny that way, isn’t it?”
Characters who go through a simple fall live out pure tragedies. In these Riches to Rags stories, we, again, don’t want to start with a character of regular fortune. The beginning of the story should illustrate someone who stands proudly atop some peak in their life. Then we can show their steady downfall.
“They were doing so well — I mean, valedictorian, captain of the football team, loving family — until they got addicted to Xanax. Whew, tragic.”
These simpler stories start in a clear peak or a valley of fortune and go uninterrupted toward their opposite end. This helps us determine where we should start our story. Fortunate endings necessitate unfortunate beginnings and vice versa.
Though the more complex stories follow that same logic, there are more dramatic turns involved. In these simpler stories, fewer gasp-worthy events unfold. This brings us to think about the length of a piece. Simpler stories are straightforward and may not need as many words to get the point across. They may happen over a long time, but not as much unfolds. Thus, you may need fewer scenes to illustrate the story. They may be better suited for a short story rather than a novel.
Man in a Hole and Icarus plots are more complex and involve a larger section or scope of the dramatic curve. Stories here have a little more gravity to them. They also have a little more surprise. More gasp-worthy events unfold than in the simpler stories.
Man in a Hole stories are exactly as they sound. A character starts out fortunate, something unfortunate happens — they fall in a rut — and they climb back to good fortune.
For example, someone may start out dating the perfect woman. He finds out she’s cheating on him. After swearing off relationships altogether for a while, he finds love. They end up getting hitched. Happy, sad, happy.
The story of Icarus is a Greek myth. Icarus and his father were imprisoned in a tower. His father made him some wings out of wax, which Icarus used to fly free. The magic of flight enticed Icarus to fly too high. Flying higher and higher, the sun melted his wings (maybe wax wasn’t the best thing to make wings out of. But cut them some slack, they were locked in a tower). It’s then Icarus fell to his death. Sad, happy, sad.
Icarus plots start with someone in the tail-end of some unfortunate event. For Icarus, it was becoming a prisoner in a tower. They have some rise in fortune, often by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps — or wings. Some stroke of misfortune befalls them and sends them tumbling back down the dramatic curve.
Note that the curves of these stories don’t end as equally fortunate as they start. In Man in a Hole stories, characters will have learned from their experience, adding it to their wealth of knowledge moving forward. In Icarus stories, characters will have had their hopes dashed
Cinderella stories and Oedipus stories are the most complex stories. These types of plots follow the same comedic and tragic trends as the other basic plots — i.e. a character starts on a fortunate peak or at the bottom of an unfortunate valley. They are more epic in nature, and often encompass a wider scope of the dramatic curve.
Most everyone's heard the tale of Cinderella. But one more time, here it is.
In the wake of her mother’s death, Cinderella’s father marries an evil woman who has some evil kids. They all make Cinderella’s life a living Hell.
One day a fairy godmother shows up and magically dresses her up in sparkly rich-people clothes, then sends her off to a big fancy ball. There, she meets a dashing prince. It’s the best night ever, but when the clock strikes midnight — as per the magical agreement she struck previously — her fancy clothes wilt back into rags, and herself back into an unfortunate step-daughter. The prince, however, is smitten with Cinderella and stops at nothing to find her. Using her glass slipper she accidentally left behind (and that somehow didn’t change back into a muddy boot at midnight), the prince deciphers who had run away from him at the ball, i.e. Cinderella.
Once he finds her, an ultimate stroke of fortune happens. The prince asks for her hand in marriage. She says yes and ends the story as a princess.
People in these types of plots start in the dumps. They’ve just gone through some terrible tragedy such as a mother dying and then being forced to live with an evil step-mother and step-sisters.
The dramatic events in Cinderella stories are life changing in a big way; falling in love with a prince, winning a championship, landing a record deal.
A mark of these plots is there is a heavy loss — a dramatic turn — somewhere in the middle. Some clock striking midnight, making the opportunity seemingly disappear.
On top of that, these dramatic turns are typically brought on by the character’s previous doing. Midnight ruined Cinderella’s night because Cinderella made that deal in the first place.
A less fictional example may be of an impoverished rapper. Imagine they lose the prospect of a record deal because they have to miss a rehearsal due to an emergency with their daughter’s chronic illness. The kicker is, they’re only going to that rehearsal in the first place because they need the money to take care of their sick daughter.
These stories end with ultimate success. A grand life change that sends them up to a higher echelon of fortune. They end with some happily ever after.
To wrap up the example of the impoverished rapper, they may visit their daughter at the hospital and start rapping a hopeful verse to cheer her up. In the room over, a highly esteemed producer overhears them. They’re moved by what they hear and, in a stroke of fortune — though it wasn’t won without hard work — the producer cuts the rapper the record deal of a lifetime.
Oedipus was a fictional king. He starts the story high in fortune, both literally and figuratively.
A plague befell his land and when things seem most grim, some prophecy tells him that if he kills the old king, the plague will go away. So, Oedipus rises to the challenge and does just that. He battles to find and kill the old king. When he does, the plague disappears, and peace and prosperity spread over the land. Hooray.
Tragically, what Oedipus didn’t know was that the old king was actually his father. Ironically, Oedipus’s father had given him up as a baby because of a prophecy saying that he’d one day murder him.
Before Oedipus learns all that, though, for good measure, Oedipus has sex with the old king’s wife out of spite. Which, yeah… not great.
This is what Aristotle calls hamartia, which is Latin for missing the mark. Big time.
Oedipus stories are grander tragedies and start off with someone on top. Someone who’s very fortunate, like a king or someone who’s found true love. This good moral character is usually a direct result of their previous comedic/fortunate story — of their previous win. They may have just come from a Rags to Riches plot or a Cinderella story.
For example, Oedipus’s parents gave him up because of a prophecy foretelling that he would kill his father and have sex with his mother.
Following along the dramatic curve of life, Oedipus worked hard to change his fortune and become King. This hard work granted him the high fortune he starts the story with.
Oedipus stories start with a fall that forces them to work toward the dramatic event in question. In trying to solve the initial problem, they come up with a plan they believe is perfect. Save your kingdom from the plague by killing the old king. Reasonable.
Just as in Cinderella stories, the subsequent fall in fortune is directly due to the main character’s initial plan going awry. This is the missing the mark Aristotle was talking about. Oedipus’s heart was in the right place (maybe not when having sex with the old king’s wife out of spite). He just missed a few things when making his plan.
To give another, more real-world example, imagine a sailor in love with a woman. He’s worked hard to overcome the distant life of a man at sea and to show his wife he cares about her when he’s gone.
At the start of the story, his wife has just given birth and their relationship looks stronger than ever. When the child falls sick and dies, they battle with grief. Things go downhill. They go downhill further when they find that time has left his wife infertile.
To remedy this, the sailor adopts a son. They are happy for a while. The sailor thinks they might be headed toward that happily ever after they’ve been hoping for. When their adopted son takes an interest in sailing, the sailor thinks things couldn’t get any better.
In a bout of misfortune, his wife — still scarred from the opening tragedy — argues that boats are no place for young boys. It’s unsafe. This worry and badmouthing the man’s profession and passion drives a rift between the couple. Every time the sailor goes out to sea, his wife has time to bad mouth sailing, along with the man himself, until it drives a rift between the man and his adopted son.
In the end, the child who the sailor thinks would save their marriage leads them straight into divorce. He aims with good intentions, but misses the mark. That is an Oedipus plot.
Now let me end by adding an asterisk to this already vague set of formulae… Every story is unique. Because of that, most formulas in storytelling mean absolutely zilch.
But understanding — and more importantly internalizing — things such as the dramatic curve and the typical arcs of stories can help you feel out and discover your story’s natural beginning, dramatic turns, and ending.