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.