Tuesday, March 17

Kurt Vonnegut On The Relationship Between Plot And Literature


“When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

By now you’ve likely heard about Matthew L. Jockers and his program (Syuzhet) designed to reveal the underlying plot structure of stories by analyzing sentiment. Jockers writes that he got this idea from Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Propp:

“After seeing the video and hearing Vonnegut’s opening challenge (“There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers”), I set out to develop a systematic way of extracting plot arcs from fiction. I felt this might help me to better understand and visualize how narrative is constructed. The fundamental idea, of course, was nothing new. What I was after is what the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp had defined as the narrative’s syuzhet (the organization of the narrative) as opposed to its fabula (raw elements of the story).” (Revealing Sentiment and Plot Arcs with the Syuzhet Package)

Well! That combines two of my favorite things: storytelling and programming. I spent some time yesterday reading about MJ’s program as well as the lively debate between himself and Annie Swafford. (If you’d like to read more about this I recommend: A Fabula of Syuzhet.)

But I’m not going to talk about any of that today, at least not directly. After I finished reading “A Fabula of Syuzhet,” I decided it was time to re-read what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about plot. That’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Kurt Vonnegut On Story Structure


Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have been at all snobbish when it comes to admitting the need for some sort of plot, some sort of story structure. For instance, during an interview, published in The Paris Review, he said:

“VONNEGUT: 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. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

“INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

“VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64, The Paris Review)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Plot Shapes





(Click to enlarge.)



1. Boy In Hole


Here someone gets into trouble and then gets out of it. The protagonist starts out just above average. They aren’t depressed about life. Not yet. 

KV says: “You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.” (From: A Man Without A Country)

2. Boy Meets Girl


This plot starts off with average people on a day like any other. There’s nothing exceptional here. Then something wonderful happens, followed shortly by a reversal of fortune. So this could be described as: The protagonist didn’t have much of anything, then got something, lost it and, finally, got it back.

3. Cinderella’s Story


KV remarks that this is the most popular story in western civilization. We love to hear this story. “Every time it’s retold someone makes a million dollars, you’re welcome to do it.”

A little girl is the protagonist. Her mother has died and her father has remarried. Her step-mother is a vile tempered ugly woman with two nasty daughters. 

There’s a party at the palace but she can’t go. “She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.

“And when she shows up she’s the belle of the ball [draws line upward]. She is so heavily made up that her relatives don’t even recognize her. Then the clock strikes twelve, as promised, and it’s all taken away again [draws line downward]. It doesn’t take long for a clock to strike twelve times, so she drops down. Does she drop down to the same level? Hell, no. No matter what happens after that she’ll remember when the prince was in love with her and she was the belle of the ball. So she poops along, at her considerably improved level, no matter what, and the shoe fits, and she becomes off-scale happy.”

4. Franz Kafka’s Story


Franz Kafka’s Story isn’t shown in the four minute clip, above. KV says:

“Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D towards bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.”

What Does Plot Have To Do With Literature?


Then KV asks the question, the question that, arguably, this has all been leading up to. KV asks: 

“The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature?”

And that is, indeed, the question. KV’s answer seems to be that it doesn’t. Why? Because these kinds of gains and ills aren’t what makes a story great literature. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having them, but they’re irrelevant. What makes Hamlet great isn’t that it has one of these structures, it’s that it told the truth. KV says:

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

So, what’s Kurt Vonnegut saying? He’s not saying throw away the plot, he’s saying use the plot to keep an audience’s attention—even if the plot is simply whether or not the protagonist will get an errant piece of dental floss out from between her teeth! Give the audience something that will keep them reading, keep them entertained, while you tell them your truth.

And that’s what storytelling, great storytelling, is all about.

At least, IMHO.

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

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