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The shape of a narrative guides the reader’s understanding

Understanding the narrative arc
Three narrative arcs that show three different shapes a narrative can take, as plotted against a graph
© FrankCapability Limited

A story simplifies the real world’s complexity into a linear structure with boundaries. This is a cultural mechanism we use to explain and narrate change; a framework we place over real events to help us understand them.

Once we know the purpose of our story, we need to be clear about the shape of our narrative. Every narrative follows a path – a narrative arc – the shape of which helps the reader understand the gist of the story.

The author Kurt Vonnegut proposed that stories have shapes which can be mapped to represent the progression of events over time, and that every culture generates story shapes which follow a cluster of classic patterns.

To explain this idea further, look at the diagram above. You can see three different narrative shapes.

1. ‘Rags to riches’ – the classic hero story of overcoming the odds.
Examples of this include: Aladdin, Oliver Twist, and The BFG.

2. ‘Icarus’ – a rise in fortunes followed by a fall.
Examples of this include: Icarus and Daedalus, The Great Gatsby, and Great Expectations.

3. ‘Man in a hole’ – the main character get into trouble and out again.
Examples of this include: Alice in Wonderland, Finding Nemo, and the Wizard of Oz.

Can you think of any more story examples for these shapes? Please share in the comments.

© FrankCapability Limited
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