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.
The Dramatic Curve of 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?
The Six Basic Plots
Some stories, aristotle says, are more complex than others. There are more reversals as he puts it. This gets along well with Kurt Vonnegut's research on the six basic plots in literature.
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 over time.
Every story illustrates rises and falls in fortune. In other words, they illustrate some snapshot of a character's life along their dramatic curve.
Like I mentioned earlier, the dramatic curve of life is far from neat.
Life is hilariously complex. Little ups and downs accompany large ones at every step of the way. So, Vonnegut, in line with Aristotle, claims, as in life, there are more straightforward stories and there more complex ones.
The six plots are:
The Simpler Plots
The simpler stories—Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags--have one nice and easy rise or a fall. No crazy fortune-changing turn happens.
Dramatic events here are pretty far-removed from death, so to speak. They're lighter in nature.
A character at the start of a Rags to Riches story will likely have just come off some fixable tragic event like losing their job or getting addicted to drugs. Vise versa for characters at the beginning of a Riches to Rags plot.
The More-Complex Plots
Man in a Hole and Icarus plots are more complex and involve a larger section or scope of life's dramatic curve.
Stories here have a little more gravity to them. They also have a little more surprise. These dramatic events are larger, though not as ultimately life changing as they could be.
Of course, every story is unique and anything can happen always.
At the onset of a Man in a Hole story, a character will still be basking in the wake of a fortunate event like finding love or gaining fame. Some dramatic event takes it all away. But don't worry, through hard work, they get it back in the end.
Icarus tried to touch the sun but got burned!
Icarus plots start with someone in tail-end of some pretty tragic event; such as getting put in jail or having lost their father to cancer. They'll claw their way back to the top only to find that life's a bitch and knocks them right back down.
Cinderella stories and Oedipus plots are the most complex stories. They surround the most life-altering or life-ending dramatic events. They are more epic in nature and may involve a wider breath of the dramatic curve.
Just as in the story of Cinderella, people in these types of plots start off in the dumps. These characters have just gone through some terrible kind of tragedy like becoming an orphan and having to live with your asshole step-mother.
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 somewhere in the middle. Some clock striking midnight making the opportunity seemingly disappear. These events are brought on by the character's previous situation.
Midnight ruined Cinderella's night because she made that deal in the first place. An impoverished rapper might lose a record deal because they have to take care of their family instead of show up to a rehearsal. But don't worry, success is still just around the corner.
These stories end with ultimate success. A grand life change that sends them up to a higher echelon of fortune. They end with some happy ever after.
Oedipus starts as a king. The first fall is that plague befalls his land. Some prophecy tells him if he kills the old king, the plague will go away. So he rises to the challenge and kills the old king. Plague gone. Hooray.
The ultimate fall: Tragically, Oedipus doesn't know his dad was the old king. This is what Aristotle calls Hamartia, which is latin for Missing the Mark. Big time.
So... he accidentally kills his father.
Then, for good measure, he fucks the old king's wife out of spite.
Which, yeah... Not great.
These kinds of stories start off with someone one top. Someone of good moral character. This good moral character is usually a direct result of their previous rags to riches story.
For example, Oedipus's parents gave him up due to a prophecy that he'd kill and fuck them. Swimming along the dramatic curve of life, he worked hard to change his fortune, gifting him with great moral fortitude.
Oedipus stories always have a giant fall at first that force them to work toward the dramatic event in question. The result of the dramatic event--killing your dad and fucking your mom in Oedipus's case—sends the character into an ultimate and irreversible plummet.
Life is complicated. Unbelievably complicated. Yes, most stories fall into some classic plot structure, but what stories really are are an imitation of life.
The true takeaway is all stories just illustrations of some character moving along their dramatic curve. At any point on that curve, they have come off an upswing or a downswing. Often times they're coming off of BOTH an upswing AND a downswing.
People can be both completely stress and enjoying life at the same time.
Characters in fiction are the same way.
It's our job as writers to pick the right moment to jump in and view them. This moment is often when a character is doing difinitively well or difinitively poorly.
Again, writing is drama, and to dramatize is to exaggerate. Capturing a story is much easier when the character starts off in a clear position of fortune or misery.