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Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

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Kurt Vonnegut: the shape of stories

5 minutes

Are certain familiar narrative arcs inherently appealing?

Although his master’s thesis on the topic was rejected by the University of Chicago’s anthropology department, it’s hard to discount the acuity of the US writer Kurt Vonnegut’s theory of ‘story shapes’. This archival video features Vonnegut using a chalkboard and his famous deadpan wit to map out three highly familiar narrative arcs that seem to have lost none of their popularity despite countless iterations. He addressed story shapes at greater length in his essay collection A Man Without a Country (2005). The US graphic designer Maya Eilam later adapted his archetypes into a series of handy infographics, which can be viewed at her website.

Support Aeon

Ideas can change the world

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

No ads, no paywall, no clickbait – just thought-provoking ideas from the world’s leading thinkers, free to all. But we can’t do it without you.

Become a Friend for $5 a month or Make a one-off donation

Essay/
Anthropology
Infanticide

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Sandra Newman

Essay/
Rituals & Celebrations
Who first buried the dead?

Evidence of burial rites by the primitive, small-brained Homo naledi suggests that symbolic behaviour is very ancient indeed

Paige Madison