The Shape of Stories

When I teach students and clients about narrative architecture and how it applies to creating engaging digital things like key flows, landing pages, apps, even entire concepts for products or services, I sometimes get this question: are there different shapes for different types of stories? After going on a little journey to find the answer to this question, I have come full circle back to my original answer: not really. The architecture of the narrative arc (see Figure 1), as it relates to crafting and experiencing pretty much anything that we engage with, is pretty much structurally universal.

Figure 1: The narrative arc.

Figure 1: The narrative arc.

That said, while the general framework for the arc keeps the same shape, the shape can vary slightly and get more detailed and complex, depending on the context. And there are some different ways to diagram the arc. For example, if you close the arc and add a few flourishes, it becomes a loop, as in Joseph Campbell's model for "The Hero's Journey" (see Figure 2). Flatten out that loop, however, and you still have an arc. Same essential structure.

A diagram depicting the "hero's journey."

A diagram depicting the "hero's journey."

As Aristotle illustrated a long time ago and many have identified since, the general structure is universal for most narrative work like fiction, film, and TV shows, as well as the non-narrative things that engage audiences as mentioned above.

And as neuroscientists and cognitive phycologists have taught us, it's not structure for the sake or structure. Narrative architecture is mapped onto how our brain works. And likewise, our brain is built and adapts to consume this universal structure – another topic I will expand on more in the future, fear not. 

In other words, narrative architecture is both an outcome and a tool – it's how we make sense of the world while we consume; it's how we ensure that what we communicate makes sense to others as *they* consume. 

Don't believe me? Fine. I know never to say never. It turns out that if you change the Y-axis from interestingness or action to something else and let Kurt Vonnegut have his way, you *do* have different shapes for different stories, go figure. And yes, for those of you who know Vonnegut, that semi-colon in the previous paragraph is for him :) 

Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of stories: