This writing activity is based on a very funny Kurt Vonnegut lecture on the shape of stories. In this project, students learn to develop compelling narratives by graphing the plots.

Kurt Vonnegut lecture on the shape of stories.

American author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is best known for his book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).  In this very funny, very brilliant talk on the fundamentals of the narrative arc, Vonnegut explains through a chalk-board lecture how to graph the ins and outs of a story. Using the example of Cinderella, Vonnegut proposes a universal story structure that can be plotted with an X/Y axis. Only partly tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that most stories can be understood (and plotted) as moving from happy/sad on the Y axis (the vertical in a graph) and in time with the X axis (the horizontal in a graph) moving from the story beginning to story end.

The X axis (happy/unhappy) could also be re-thought as good/bad, calm/scary, good fortune/bad fortune and any number of other dynamic pairs to shape story lines and characters.

This talk is appropriate for young writers and can easily be adapted to concrete classroom writing projects.

Project: Plot a story on a graph.

Follow Vonnegut’s general concept of plotting a story on an X/Y axis. Have your students actually write on the graph’s curve the major plot points as the story moves from its beginning through its middle to its end. While Vonnegut’s model is for plot, this same structure can be used for character development to show how a character’s personality might change over the course of the story.

About the Author

In 1973, I was twenty years old, teaching children's art classes at my college, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with the idea that the best way to encourage children to write was to introduce them to the best writing by their peers. Stone Soup grew out of that idea, and I have continued to publish Stone Soup for all these years.
I am also a culinary historian. I write about traditional foodways. My book, "The Magic of Fire," is about hearth cooking. My book, "Bread, a global history," speaks for itself. I am currently writing a bread history for a University Press. I publish articles on gardening and traditional foodways at Mother Earth News. I also publish on wild mushrooms and other food-related subjects.

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