Storytelling for Video: Kurt Vonnegut's story graphs


Introducing the first in a new series of blog posts exploring how storytelling can be applied to making documentary and promotional films. A film can look visually stunning, but if it doesn't have a strong narrative that creates an emotional connection with the viewer then it's not meeting its brief.


We start with an effective way to visualise the shape of stories and story structure developed by author Kurt Vonnegut in his rejected master’s dissertation in anthropology. His theory was simple: “the fundamental idea is 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”. It’s a popular concept: Austin Kleon (author of Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work), Maria Popova (curator of Brain Pickings) and numerous other online cultural commentators have written about it in recent years. user David Yang presents the three most common story shapes identified by Vonnegut below:

Image: David Yang

Marketers in particular have long recognised that storytelling can be a valuable and effective marketing tool. Humans are hardwired for stories - indeed, Vonnegut refers to this in his talk:

“Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. 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.” 

Of course, this holds as true for visual storytelling as it does for writing - whether that’s a promotional video, television advertisement or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Graphic designer Maya Eilam demonstrates this in the infographic below, which gives examples of novels, TV programmes and films that fit some of the different story shapes Vonnegut identified.

Image:  Maya Eilam

Image: Maya Eilam

As a filmmaker, it’s important to remember that you are the author of the story you’re telling. Whatever your subject, there will be many possible stories you can tell and, within certain limits, you can choose the shape your story takes through the people you interview, the footage you use, and the way you edit that footage. For example, here at Lintelfilm we recently worked with County Durham light artist Mick Stephenson to document the creation of Litre ofLight, a life-size replica of Durham Cathedral’s rose window made out of 2 litre plastic bottles for the biennial Lumiere Festival. Back in early November 2015 we released a short appeal video asking local people to donate bottles. At that point Mick was increasingly concerned he would not have enough bottles to finish the piece in time. Where might this event (which thankfully didn't come to pass!) have fallen within the overall narrative of the documentary we produced? There are several of Vonnegut's story graphs that we could have chosen to use: 'Man in Hole', the Cinderella story curve, or perhaps even the Kafka curve ('From Bad to Worse'). During both the filming and editing stages of the project we considered which narrative was the most effective, and which one would best help us to tell the story we wanted to present.


Further reading:

Vonnegut's tips on how to write a short story, equally applicable to crafting a short promotional or documentary video:

Do you think Vonnegut's ideas are still relevant? Is storytelling relevant to your work? Tell us below ...


 About the author:

Ellen Chapman is the storytelling specialist here at Lintelfilm. Watch out for more posts from her on storytelling and story structure as she explores how these concepts can be used to create compelling documentary and promotional online films.