The trunk of the tree —
We know that people connect with a story. The best stories connect with people around the world.
How does that happen? Why are some stories universal?
Universal stories offer branches of metaphor that we adorn with our own meanings. They are are allegories which echo through our lives, and the lives of others. Because they reflect pieces of us, they invite us to perceive, engage, and consider.
The branches of metaphor in these stories extend out from a timeless trunk at the center of the story—that is the story’s plot.
The power of plot
In an interview with The Paris Review, Kurt Vonnegut said “I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
As a student at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut’s master’s thesis argued that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
His thesis was rejected.
But designer Maya Eilam has turned it into a excellent visual that helps us see how the shapes of story plots echo through time:
Why are these shapes so important to us, and so timeless? In an interview with Granta, Nicole Krauss said “The ancient stories we tell, as beautiful as they may be, also serve to shape our conventions about who we think we are or should be…”
The shapes we love
These familiar shapes are ways that we’ve come to understand life. Whether they’re right or wrong, we feel engaged when we recognize them in a story. In the Paris Review interview, Vonnegut explained, “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”
But a plot isn’t enough. A trunk with no branches is hardly a tree. And a plot is not where a writer begins. You should not start writing by picking a plot, unless you’re ready to bury your story.
A plot is the trunk beneath the branches of any great story. But the place to start writing is elsewhere… that’s for my next post.