“My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”
By then, he said, the thesis had long since vanished. (“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut explained.) But he continued to carry the idea with him for many years after that, and spoke publicly about it more than once. It was, essentially, this: “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.”
That explanation comes from a lecture he gave, and which you can still watch on YouTube, that involves Vonnegut mapping the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune. “This is an exercise in relativity, really,” Vonnegut explains. “The shape of the curve is what matters.”
The most interesting shape to him, it turned out, was the one that reflected the tale of Cinderella, of all stories. Vonnegut visualizes its arc as a staircase-like climb in good fortune representing the arrival of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, leading all the way to a high point at the ball, followed by a sudden plummet back to ill fortune at the stroke of midnight. Before too long, though, the Cinderella graph is marked by a sharp leap back to good fortune, what with the whole business of (spoiler alert) the glass slipper fitting and the happily ever after.