The importance of narrative arc

In this article, Professor Rinehart reflects on the concept of narrative arc, with reference to one of his favorite writers.

“Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most famous authors of the last century, and certainly one of my favorites. He is best-known for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969 and went to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. But while Vonnegut is now a famous writer, he didn’t start out that way.

Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1947. Here he describes the concept underpinning his thesis proposal:

The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper …

In other words, every story has some kind of narrative arc. Unfortunately, the academics at the University of Chicago didn’t like Vonnegut’s idea, and they unanimously rejected it as a thesis proposal. Vonnegut ended up leaving the University of Chicago and becoming the great writer we all know today. (The University may have realized its mistake, as it issued him an honorary doctorate years later.)

I love Vonnegut’s idea that ‘stories have shapes’. As we discussed in the previous video, narrative arcs are important things to consider in all of your presentations. You are taking your audience on a journey with you, and you need to be thoughtful about how that journey unfolds. Where do you start? How much context should you provide? When do you unveil your proposals?

A few years ago, a terrific designer named Maya Eilam created the infographic below, which brings Vonnegut’s original thesis proposal to life. I think it’s a great visualization of some of the journeys audiences go on with stories or presentations.”

Infographic showing different types of narrative arc, with examples of plays, novels, films and TV shows which follow these arcs Image copyright: Maya Eilam

What do you think about Vonnegut’s idea that all stories can be drawn on paper? Do you think narrative arcs are important things to consider when building business presentations? Add a comment to share your ideas with other learners.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Business Analytics: The Data Explosion

Kogod School of Business at American University

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: