Story as a Graph

Story as a graphCan you draw your story as a graph? From Freytag to Vonnegut, writers and coaches will tell you stories have a shape you can draw. With a little analysis, you can visualise whether or not your story ‘works.’

Kurt Vonnegut defined a simple and playful set of diagrams back in the 1960’s: “the fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.” Vonnegut defined five basic types of story structures: Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, From Bad to Worse, and Good News/Bad News. The X-axis represents good or bad fortune, the Y-axis the progress of the story (time).

Later, we see Freytag’s Pyramid. This a five-stage map of dramatic structure originally applied to Greek tragedy. Freytag’s academic interpretation of action and structure produces a lop-sided pyramid applied to more contemporary fiction; more of a cheese-wedge. But it provides some key stages in story structure:

  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution

The Shape of Water

You can argue every story has a standard shape. The beginning (exposition) introduces character, setting, and conflict. The middle (rising action) escalates the conflicts and stakes to a high point (climax). The ending tells what happens afterward (falling action and resolution).

You can make a basic ‘plot-diagram’ using a three-act structure or Beginning, Middle and End, something like this:

  • Beginning
    • Exposition
    • Conflict
  • Middle
    • Rising Action
    • Climax
  • End
    • Falling Action
    • Resolution

So what does all that have to do with diagrams and graphs? And how does it ‘prove’ that a story works?

Value Judgement

Having spoken about rising and falling action, try-fail cycles, characters arcs and three-act structures, how do we use Vonnegut’s shapes and Freytag’s pyramid to draw the shape of a story?

It’s all about subjective value judgements. Can you rate the conflict and the stakes at each stage of the story? This is what I did for City of Vipers, which is the third book of my fantasy series. This is a solid fantasy action-adventure with a conventional plot.

Structured in twenty-six chapters after Derek Murphy’s excellent outlining tool, I gave a highly subjective score for each chapter on the Catling Tension-o-Meter (TM, patent pending). Ranking each chapter from one to ten for conflict, stakes and risk, I then plotted a line on a graph to get the gratifying shape in the illustration.

City of Vipers Tension Graph
City of Vipers Tension Graph (opens in new window)

The line shows the escalating tension as the plot moves through the three acts, plot points and turning points. You can clearly see the Action-Sequel combinations that gives the reader a little respite and recovery.

According to the graph, the story hits the right notes in the right places across the three acts.

You won’t know if my ranking is good until you read the book. But you can try this for yourself. Take any movie or novel you know well, list the key scenes or chapters and give each a rating for stakes and conflict. Create the grid on a piece of paper, stakes down the left, scenes or chapters along the bottom. Then plot each point on the grid and join up the dots. What shape do you get?

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