A Story Without Shape is a Story Without Life

Once your children have a good idea of how stories work (the concept of plot), they can begin to play around with the shape of their main character’s journey, which is the real meat of the story.

When using Story Mountain, we might be tempted to assume, since the mountain leads to greater heights, that our character’s journey takes them to better and better places.  If we examine some our favorite stories, though, we know this is not true.  In fact, it can’t be true because, as we have noted before, stories echo the realities we face in life.  Do you know anyone whose life has been a continual building of happiness and joy without trial or grief or hurt or disappointment until their death?

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and others, argues that in the west we basically use a few shapes over and over when telling our stories.

Take The Wizard of Oz, for example:


Dorothy is living a good life, but wants more.  There’s gotta be something better over the rainbow.  The twister comes, her house is uprooted, she lands on a witch,  and must find her way to Oz with seemingly nothing getting her closer to home.  All seems lost when good witch Glinda returns and gives her the secret to returning home.  Click, click, click, no place like home, and viola! She’s back in Kansas and has a changed perspective on what’s really important.  


Now look at the diagram below and see if you can find the shape of Dorothy’s journey?

Shapes of Stories.png

If you said “Man in a Hole” I would agree.

Think about the short story, The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant.  If you don’t know the story, you can read it here. Even though the shape of the journey is quite obviously “Bad to Worse”, the action still builds to a climax and the main character still learns a good lesson, grows, sees the world differently, etc. and we assume she is better for having learned it.

As you read stories and watch movies, see if you can identify the shape of the main character’s journey. For a challenge, see if you and your children can write a story using each of the shapes listed above.

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