Shape of Stories by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a transcript of the Kurt Vonnegut video here:

Now then, where the hell are we?

I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been speaking because I didn’t start my stopwatch.

I have had a technical education, and every time I’ve been on a faculty I’ve been in the English department, although I’ve never been an English major, and I have tried to bring scientific thinking to literary criticism, and there’s been very little gratitude for this.

All right, now stories have very simple shapes, ones that computers can understand.

This is the GI axis, good fortune, ill fortune, death, terrible disease, poverty, boisterous good health, happiness up here.

This is the BE axis, beginning entropy.

Now then, I’ll give you a marketing tip.

There are people who can afford educations and buying books and magazines and all that, who can read, don’t like to read about people who are poor or sick.

So, start your story up here.

Now, the simplest story, and if you stay home and watch this on television, it’ll be told again and again and again.

Nobody ever gets tired of this story.

I call it man in a hole, but it needn’t be about a man in a hole.

Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again.

The far end is a little higher than where we began, because the reader thinks, well, by God, I’m a human being too.

I must have that much in reserve if I get into trouble or whatever.

Now, another story that’s very popular, and none of these are copyrighted.

I call it boy meets girl, but it needn’t be about a boy or a girl.

It’s somebody on a day like any other day comes across something perfectly wonderful.

Oh boy, this is my lucky day.


And gets it back again.

As has been said, I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

So does Saul Bellow.

I don’t know what you want to make of that.

Anyway, it was a big mistake.

I can’t stand primitive people.

They’re so stupid.

Anyway, proof of their stupidity was I went to the library and dug up stories they told.

They’d been gathered by missionaries and ethnographers and imperialists of other sorts.

Boy, their stories stunk.

They were just dead level, like the B-E axis there.

We came to a river, we came to a mountain, little beaver died.

You can’t tell what the good news is and what the bad news is.

You look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories, and they deserve to lose.

Another story.

It’s very popular, and it breaks my rule.

Starts down here.

It’s a young girl, teenage, I guess, maybe 17, 18.

Why is she so low?

Well, her mother’s died.

It’s reading enough, right?

And her father has remarried almost immediately to a terrible battle axe with two mean daughters.

And there’s a party at the palace that night.

You’ve heard it.

All right, so she has to help her new mother and her sisters, her new sisters, get dressed for this party.

And she doesn’t get to go.

No, no, she’s not good enough to go, but they are.

So, did she get even sadder?


She’s a stout-hearted little girl, whose maximum grief is death of her mother.

So, everybody leaves for the party, and the fairy godmother shows up, and gives her pantyhose, mascara, perfume, everything, means of transportation, carriage with horses and everything.

Everything you need to go to a party and have a good time.

So, she goes, and the prince falls in love with her.

Now, you must realize, she is so heavily made up that her own relatives don’t recognize her.

Okay, so the clock strikes twelve, as promised.

And so, she loses all the stuff.

It’s all taken away, and the fairy godmother said that was going to happen.

There’s a very steep drop here.

It doesn’t take long for a clock to strike twelve.

Does she drop down to the same level?


For the rest of her life, she’ll remember the time she was the belle of the ball.

So, she poops along at this considerably improved level, until a shoe fits, and she becomes off-scale happy.

Now, there’s a Franz Kafka story.

Very pessimistic.

Starts down here.

There’s this rather unattractive, not particularly nice looking, not very personable young man, who has a really lousy job and disagreeable relatives.

And so, it’s time for him to go to work again.

And he is turned into a cockroach.

Alright, now, does this have any use in criticizing literature?

Well, I think perhaps it does.

I think this rise and fall is in fact artificial.

It pretends that we know more about life than we really do.

And, perhaps a true masterpiece cannot be crucified on the cross of this design.

Alright, let’s try Hamlet, okay?

Well, I don’t have to draw a new level.

The sexes are reversed, but he’s in the same situation as Cinderella, and a little older.

His father has died, and his mother has remarried his uncle.

And so, he is depressed as Cinderella.

So, he is feeling very unhappy and depressed and everything, and his friend Horatio comes in and says, Hey Hamlet, there’s this thing up on the parapet, I think you better go talk to it.

He says, it’s your father.

And so, Hamlet goes up there, and this thing, whatever it is, now we don’t know, is any of you who have horsed around with Ouija boards or with any sort of seances or anything, you know there are malicious spirits around, who are looking for saps like you.

Who are going to find ways to hurt you, give you very bad advice.

So, to this day, we do not know whether that thing up there on the parapet was really the ghost of his father, and whether it was telling him the truth.

But the thing said, I’m your father, I was murdered by the man who’s now the king, and you’ve got to avenge me.

Well, since we don’t know what it was, what it is, it’s neither good news nor bad news, because we don’t know.

And so, alright, Hamlet says, I know what I’ll do.

I’ll stage a play, I’ll get higher actors and get them to act out the way the murder was described to me, and I’ll have the murder suspect watch, and watch his reaction.

Well, okay, so he does that.

It’s a flop.

Nothing much happens.

And so Hamlet is up in his mother’s chamber, right after this flop and talking, and the curtains wave, or the arias wave, the drapes wave, and so he figures his uncle is back there, his new father, supposedly, and so he’s going to finally be decisive, and he pulls out his sword, sticks it through the drapes.

Who falls out?

This windbag, Polonius.

Shakespeare regards him as a total fool, and giving the kind of dumb advice parents give their kids when they go away, neither a borrower nor a lender be, thanks a lot, dad, what a swell time.

Anyway, is this terrible?

Is Hamlet going to get arrested or what?

No, it’s neither good nor bad news.

Just something had happened.

Alright, so finally, Hamlet gets in a duel, and is killed.

If he goes to heaven, he’s off scale, happy like Cinderella.

If he’s going to hell, he’s off scale, unhappy like Kafka’s cockroach.

But we don’t know.

I don’t think Hamlet believed in heaven and hell any more than I do.

I mean that Shakespeare didn’t.

So, I’ll just prove to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho, but I haven’t.

I have in fact told you why this is respected as a masterpiece.

We are so seldom told the truth, and in Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us.

We don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and the bad news is, and we respond to that.

Thank you, Bill.

Now, if you think, all we do is we pretend to know what the good news is and what the bad news is, and you think about our training in this matter, all we do is echo the feelings of people around us.

Imagine a little kid, three years old, maybe four, and the parents are so excited.

They have the most wonderful piece of news for this kid.

And this little kid, oh boy, what can this be and it’s nice.

Here’s the terrific news, the bombshell.

It’s your birthday.

What could be a more empty piece of information?

And so the kid goes, wah, wah, wah, wah.

And, you know, it goes on as our team one.

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.

Our candidate one.

Wah, wah, wah, wah.

So although I don’t believe in heaven, I would like to go up to such a place once just to ask somebody in charge, hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?

Because we can’t be sure.

Now, every lecture I’ve ever given has included my tribute to my Uncle Alex, my brother’s kid brother, who was a graduate of Harvard and a wise man, but just an insurance salesman in Indianapolis.

He was childless.

But what Uncle Alex found objectionable about so many human beings is that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy.

And so we would be sitting under an apple tree, for instance, on a July afternoon drinking lemonade and, you know, talking about this and that, practically buzzy like honeybees, and Uncle Alex would stop everything and say, wait a minute, stop.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

And so he would do that again and again, and it was very good advice, and I’ve taken it up, and I hope that you will take up this habit too of noticing when things are really awfully nice and say, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Now then, I don’t know how long have I talked.

I’ve lost track because I’m supposed to speak for 45 minutes.

Anybody know how long I’ve spoken?

About 45?


All right, well, I’m going to ask for a show of hands now, so get set for that.

And this is for everybody here.

Everybody, no matter what age.

How many of you have had a teacher at any point in your whole educational career, primary school, high school, college, grad school?

How many of you have had a teacher who made you prouder to be alive, happier to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Would you show up your hands, please?

Those of you who have.

All right.

Now then, would you please say the name of that teacher to someone sitting next to you?

All done?

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.