The 6 Emotional Arcs of Storytelling, Why You Should Use Them, and Which One is Best
Art and Experience:A new study reveals what Kurt Vonnegut’s rejected master’s thesis already knew: Every story can be lumped into one of six categories.
Throughout his artistic career, Kurt Vonnegut made a vast number of contributions to the art of storytelling. But did you know that the work he considered his most important was rejected outright?
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his master’s thesis for anthropology on the notion that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
Essentially, what these graphs reveal is that every story has a certain shape; many stories, in fact, share the same shape. These shapes can be found by tracing the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey—or “the emotional arc” of the story. Vonnegut’s rejected masters thesis defines the emotional arc of a story as a line plotted on the ‘Beginning-End’ and ‘Ill Fortune-Great Fortune’ axes. The “GI” axis, mathematically similar to the y-axis, places Ill Fortune, defined by Vonnegut as “sickness and poverty,” at the bottom, and Good Fortune, “wealth and boisterous good health,” at the top. The “BE” axis, the equivalent of the mathematical x-axis, represents the beginning and end of the story. The line flows somewhere in between.
All stories fall into six emotional arcs—or, rather, three arcs and their inverses.
Back in 1995, Vonnegut gave a simple demonstration as to how his thesis works.
Vonnegut provides us with three examples of emotional arcs: the “Man in Hole” arc, the “Boy Meets Girl” arc, and the “Cinderella” arc. In addition to these arcs, he was also said to define the “From Bad To Worse,” “Which Way is Up,” “Creation Story,” “Old Testament,” and “New Testament” arcs.
Below, graphic designer Maya Eilam put together a handy infographic illustrating the emotional arcs which Vonnegut believed could match with every story in written language.