“My prettiest contribution to the culture” was how the novelist Kurt Vonnegut described his old master’s thesis in anthropology, “which was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun”. The thesis sank without a trace, but Vonnegut continued throughout his life to promote the big idea behind it, which was: “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.
In a 1995 lecture, Vonnegut chalked out various story arcs on a blackboard, plotting how the protagonist’s fortunes change over the course of the narrative on an axis stretching from ‘good’ to ‘ill’. The arcs include ‘man in hole’, in which the main character gets into trouble then gets out again (“people love that story, they never get sick of it!”) and ‘boy gets girl’, in which the protagonist finds something wonderful, loses it, then gets it back again at the end. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”, he remarked. “They are beautiful shapes.”