Beyond Story Mountains & Arcs: The Many Shapes of Stories

The Shape of Stories

Infographic representation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the Shape of Stories by Maya Eilam

I love working at summer institutes where teachers have enough time and space in their heads to devote themselves to learning. And I love them, too, because they give me a chance to try out new thinking and learning. This happened not only in California, which I wrote about last week, but in Paramus, New Jersey, where one of my educational heroes Tom Marshall runs summer institutes on the teaching of reading and writing that bring both new and seasoned educators together from across the state and beyond.

This summer Tom invited me to lead an advance session on teaching realistic fiction, which I’d spent a chunk of time on this year in another New Jersey district. And one of the things I was still struggling with was how to help students plan their stories in a deep and meaningful way. As it was, many of the teachers I worked with had given their students story mountain graphic organizers as a planning tool, but these came with the same problem I wrote about in an earlier post: Students saw the organizer as a task to complete, not as a tool to think, which meant they were fine for students who were already thinking deeply but not for those who weren’t. And in an age appropriate way, I wanted the students to experience what fiction writer Elizabeth Poliner Alice Munrodescribed in her lovely piece “How Mapping Alice Munro Stories Helped Me as a Writer.”

As Poliner writes, she began mapping out Munro stories because “they [didn’t] seem constructed at all as much as breathed into life,” and she “wondered, on a structural level, what was really going on. How did she do it?” The first story she mapped was “The Progress of Love,” which, like many Munro stories, makes several shifts between a character’s childhood and adult life. And what she learned as a writer from doing that was “that when you move around a lot in time it can be useful to have one part of the story move linearly, like the backstory of the narrator’s youth.” You can see how she arrived at that from her map below, where the backstory’s represented in the boxes at the bottom, with the three scenes from the narrator’s adult life (which happen at different times) in the boxes above where the shifts happen. Mapping Alice Munro story

Of course, this is a quite complex story and Poliner is a serious writer, but the combination of stumbling on this article and preparing for the institute made me recall a seventh grade teacher I’d worked with, Sarah Whitman, who was using the TC Unit of Study, which referred to some comments Kurt Vonnegut had made about the shape of stories. The unit recommended using those comments to introduce story arcs, which in the unit look like story mountains minus the boxes and academic language, not like the variety of shapes in the first image. But Sarah took this one step further. Looking for KurtVonnegut 2Vonnegut’s original comments, she discovered a video in which he talked more about story shapes, and she brought that more complex vision to her classroom.

I urge you to click through to the video, which is definitely worth watching, as Vonnegut is hysterical and explains much more than the TC unit captures. He maps a story’s shape on an axis-chart with the horizontal line representing the span of the story, from the beginning to the end, and the vertical charting the character’s experiences, ranging from ill to good fortune. And below you’ll see a variation that maps Cinderella as she moves across the story from misery to ecstasy, with the specific events of the story identified for each dip and rise.

Mapping Cinderella

I shared both the video and the Cinderella map with my group in Paramus then asked them in groups to try mapping one of the mentor texts I’d shared, which included Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. The book tells the story of Maria who, longing to look and act more grown up on Christmas Eve, slips on her mother’s diamond ring while making the batter for the tamales, only to realize with horror later that she no longer has the ring. She thinks it fell off as she mixed the batter and is now inside one of the tamale, but when she enlists her cousins in eating the tamales to find the ring, it’s still missing.

As the groups started mapping, I walked around the room where I heard teachers and coaches engaged in the kind of meaningful conversations, happy grappling and problem solving I wrote about last week, as they debated where to put events on their maps. And in doing so, I suddenly realized they were also engaged in the work of interpretation and analysis, as can be seen in these two slight different maps of Too Many Tamales: 

Too Many Tamales Chart 1

Too Many Tamales Chart 2

Once they’d finished and had done a gallery walk to see the range of thinking, we talked about the classroom implications. They all thought that this form of mapping better captured the actual movement of stories than one-size fits all arcs or mountains, which compress all the ups and downs characters face through the abstract terms rising and falling action. And they definitely saw the potential of mapping as a planning tool. They thought, though, that students would benefit from mapping a story they’d heard or read before, just as they’d done, before trying to plan their own, and they imagined one done interactively as a whole class collaboration and another done in small groups. And to make sure students saw the map as a thinking tool versus a task to complete, they envisioned letting students work with a buddy, with some questions they could collaborative wrestle with, such as:

  • Where, on the line between bad and good fortune (or a sad and happy faces) might my story begin?
  • If my character begins on a high note, do I want something to happen to indicate a possible problem or trouble? What could that be?
  • How many setbacks do I want my character to have before—or as—things get better? What kind of events could show that?
  • And where on the spectrum should my story end?

I’m eager to hear what the teachers and coaches who attended my session do with this work as school starts up, and I’d be happy to hear from blog readers as well who try this out with students. More than anything, though, I think this shows the importance of giving teachers the time to actually do and think through the work they’re asking of students to do and to question accepted practices.

22 thoughts on “Beyond Story Mountains & Arcs: The Many Shapes of Stories

  1. Vicki,
    I also love summer institutes because they give me “time and space in my head” and it’s a good thing when my head hurts but my heart is full from learning. And this too. . .”More than anything, though, I think this shows the importance of giving teachers the time to actually do and think through the work they’re asking of students to do and to question accepted practices.”

    And now, off to consider some books and the possibilities . . .


    • It’s all about imagining possibilities, isn’t it? And we can’t always do that with there’s too much stuff in our heads. Clearly, though, you had a great learning summer. Hope it continues through the year!

      • Vicki, so true because I had a couple of days at TCRWP where my head hurt because it was new and different and I literally could not wrap my brain around what I was hearing. It took more than one “go” before it made sense. That’s why I appreciate the lengthy sessions for deep learning! ❤

  2. I first encountered Vonnegut’s story shape in Austin Kleon’s book SHOW YOUR WORK! There’s a couple others in there (p.96-103), and I love this quote at the beginning of the chapter, “In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act, you get him down.” I’ve used Vonnegut’s story shape with great success with my fifth graders. As you point out, their thinking is so much deeper than with a simple story mountain. Thanks for the video. I’ll probably show it to my students in spite of the one bit of juicy language!!

  3. Vicki, this post validates everything I believe about teaching writing. This is just one – of many, many ways – we can approach the teaching of writing in a more authentic way. I just love it.

    I am happy to say that in my former district where the literacy coaches wrote our curriculum (!), we had two short story units. One was in 4th or 5th grade, where we introduced the ‘classic’ story map. We returned to that unit in 7th or 8th grade, where we introduced a variety of story maps. In this unit, we will allow kids to choose the arc of their story knowing there is almost an infinite amount of ways to approach a story.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Thanks so much, Dana! Having spent so much time the last few years focusing on reading, it was fantastic to spend some time this past year working with teachers on writing. And the 7th teacher, Sarah Whitman, I mention in the post did exactly what you’re suggesting: she let her kids choose how plan their stories & the results were amazing!

  4. People are always stunned that I give up precious Summer Break time for PD. But it’s hard for me to participate in the kind of intense thinking that occurs during my summer learning either at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Writing Institute or at Boothbay Literacy Retreat. That’s what makes it hard for me to attend NCTE, much as I would love to. You said it perfectly: summer PD gives me time and space in my head. I’m glad you get that because I thought maybe I was the only one.
    Thank you for another great, thoughtful, reflective post

  5. Speaking of educational heroes…Vicki has it all wrong! She’s one of mine!
    Anyway, I got to peer in on this section which was so thought-provoking. Yes, story mountains are good tools, but like most organizers that tempt us to use them, we also have to know when to let them go, or they’ll hold us back. Look at some of the graphics these teachers discovered. It’s amazing how our stories can really take shape…and it’s like that with our real life stories, isn’t it? Things go up and down and all around across long spans of time sometimes, and the best writing reflects real life, doesn’t it?
    Thank you, Vicki, for yet another post that messes up our thinking, pushing it beyond where it has been.

    • How about we be reciprocal heroes? I’ll be yours and you can be mine! And let’s also give lots of credit to the teachers you bring together. They were so open & receptive to having their thinking messed up, which I think is another way of being heroic.

      • I’ll jump in here as one of those teachers! It was an amazing session. Teachers were pondering out loud and out growing their thinking on the spot. That’s the gift of an advanced session where participants are dedicated to the topic. Language and emotion are the keys to a well crafted story – hard to convey on a traditional story mountain. Once students can think about the emotional arc (taken from a session with Sarah Weeks), and the “high and low” actions across an emotional timeline (from your session), then we will have armed them with more effective tools to get them started. Vicki – I think you need to propose Phase 2 – Drafting Scenes!! The work I did this summer in Paramus became fodder for the rest of the graduate papers I wrote in the course! Thanks to two of my educational heroes!!

  6. What fascinating work! Sophisticated and clarifying. We learn so much by doing this. For my 5th graders, doing this with picture books is a great way to experience the many ways stories can go. It supports them as they venture into both reading and writing narratives. The visual nature of each plot line that they create gets them closer to the story. It amazes me how your thinking always strengthens and supports my next day in the classroom!

    • I agree with your observation about how much Vicki’s thinking helps in the classroom. She ALWAYS takes the thinking of adults and kids seriously. I also want to say that your writing, too, helps me tackle the next steps I need to take as a learner and teacher.

    • While I didn’t get much blogging done the last two years, I did get the chance to work in places that really pushed my thinking, which is always such a gift. And I’m so glad that I now have time in my life to share some of that work. Also love that I have time to catch up on other’s blogs–and I loved your first A-Z first week of school post! That moment when you clarify something that’s seems so obvious to us but perhaps they hadn’t heard, that they need to read something they want to read, was brilliant!

  7. Pingback: Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction | To Make a Prairie

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