How Kurt Vonnegut's Failed Thesis Can Make You a Better Storyteller

Photo by  Jason Wong  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

Kurt Vonnegut, the eclectic and prolific author of literary classics like Slaughterhouse-Five, believed his "prettiest" contribution to writing was in his rejected master's thesis in anthropology

In his thesis, Vonnegut argued that all stories can be charted visually on paper, and that the "shapes" of the stories a culture tells are as interesting as the shapes of its physical artifacts.

Story Shapes

Vonnegut's visual representations are based on the idea that stories have a beginning and an end, and in the middle, the characters vacillate between good fortune (health, wealth, and love) and ill fortune (lack thereof).

His empty story graph looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 3.42.07 PM.png

Vonnegut created graphs for several archetypal story lines. 

"Man in Hole"

For example, the "Man in Hole" shape describes stories where a likable character falls into a "hole" of ill fortune. The character must work to climb back out and ultimately ends better than when s/he began. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.40.31 PM.png

The Wizard of Oz falls into this category. 

Dorothy enjoys a good life with a loving family on the farm, but she's not satisfied. She "falls" into Munchkinland and spends the bulk of the story trying to get home. When she finally arrives, she is better for the journey—grateful for rather than dissatisfied with her home and family. She experiences relief and now carries wisdom from the lessons learned.

"Boy Meets Girl"

Another classic story shape is "Boy Meets Girl."

Boy meets girl and fortune rises as he falls head over heels in love. Then boy loses girl and falls into despair. The rest of the story, boy works to get girl back until she falls in love with him, and they start their "happily ever after" life." The story ends higher—perhaps even happier than when he fell in love at first—because of the struggle.

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.42.42 PM.png

Most romantic comedies fall into this "Boy Meets Girl" category.

What does this Have to Do with bible stories?

Applying Vonnegut's story graphs to biblical stories gives us a quick visual arc of the story.

In particular, preachers can use the shape to follow the emotional tone of the story and thus better engage listeners in the tensions of the story.

For example, looking at next Sunday's Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51), I saw a graph with two possible shapes based on two types of responses to Jesus's words.

One graph maps the tone of those who heard Jesus's words but weren't sure what to make of them. 

The other, the ones who heard and believed.

For Jesus' listeners who weren't sure, I mapped the story this way.


Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.58.42 PM.png

Good Fortune: The tone rises quickly with joy when Jesus starts off with great news-- (no more hunger), then gets even better (no more thirst)!

Ill Fortune: The mood plummets though because you have have to "eat" Jesus to get said good fortune. Confusion! Disgust! Grumbling!

End: If listeners remain in this grumbling mindset, the story arc ends in ill fortune, on an emotional down note, though the trajectory suggests hope for eventual good fortune.

But for those who continue to listen, Jesus offers the emphatic, "Very truly I tell you." This means he's not kidding. He's sincere. He means it, by God, because in so saying Jesus is claiming that God is his witness.

In Jesus' day, one didn't claim God as witness casually, so some were willing to entertain the idea that there was more to Jesus' story. Maybe, even if they didn't understand it yet, there were willing to consider something new might be happening.

This is the graph I mapped for those who "got it" and believed. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 4.52.24 PM.png

The low point of the graph moves upward as confusion gives way to understanding. The tone moves from frustration to joy because of their new relationship with God.

Harnessing A Story's Emotion for Impact

Sermons can mimic the emotional contours of the story's graph to demonstrate the real life complexities—the ups and downs—of our life of faith.

For the passage above, we could write two different sermons depending on which story shape we choose to follow.

For example, a sermon based on the first graph might be:

Good Fortune: A new understanding about God led to elation, a change of heart, and new directions.

Ill Fortune: Our new understanding that we thought would pave the way with certainty doesn't go the way we thought it would! Elation and certainty plummets into doubt and confusion. We lose our faith.

End: The graph line climbs but—just as in the story—the sermon's tone might not end above the baseline. On the one hand, we are believers in the resurrection so the "tone" of the liturgy always ends sky-high above the baseline. At the same time, the sermon might leave us with "unresolved chords." The sermon might ask the listener to work out what "never going hungry again" means while many go hungry routinely. This sermon might end with questions, lament, or longing.

A sermon based on the second graph will feel entirely different at the end because it's following a different emotional trajectory.

Good Fortune: A new understanding about God led to elation, a change of heart, and new directions.

Ill Fortune: Our new understanding that we thought would pave the way with certainty doesn't go the way we thought it would! Elation and certainty plummets into doubt and confusion. We lose our faith.

End: We stay the course and discover something new. The sermon might end emotionally above the baseline because of the quiet joy of true wisdom that can only be born from real struggle. This narrative arc mirrors the journeys we often look back on to say, "I wouldn't want to go through that again, but I'm glad I did. If I hadn't, I would never have come to this understanding about my faith."

Preach the Shape Honestly, Wherever it May Take You—Or LEave you

Why do we care about the shape? If Christ has redeemed all, ensuring every story ends above baseline, what is the purpose of exploring what comes before?

Let's consider the story of Job—a story line that will last several weeks beginning in October—to understand the depth we can achieve when we take a story seriously and preach it honestly..

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 5.26.17 PM.png

Poor Job! A man who had it all, lost it all, but remained faithful—refusing to curse God.

This first Sunday's section of the story tells of Job's beginnings as wealthy, healthy, and respected and then notes his plummet when he loses it all after God hands him over to Satan.

Though not yet resolved, it ends with a slight rise in the graph line due to the story's foreshadowing of his faithfulness that we'll see throughout the weeks.

In this case, the sermon may end not with a promise that Job's fortune will be restored than with a way forward through the uncertainty: faithfulness.

How is Job able to remain faithful in the midst of crisis, suffering, and the terrible theology around him? 

How does he trust God when every circumstance seems to testify otherwise?

These are the questions we ask when we're honestly following the story's shape into every moment. There are times we must sit in ill fortune to feel its sharp jabs and dull aches rather than rushing to happily ever after. 

Job knows God, and this steady, inner knowing allows him to remain faithful. Faithfulness is his way forward, his path to survive the suffering and uncertainty of the middle. He cannot fix it, and he cannot understand what is happening to him, but he knows God and will remain faithful. 

Like Job's graph line, sometimes staying faithful to God in spite of life's curve balls is as much as we can manage. It's both honest and faithful not to patronize our listeners by making it sound as if everything will "turn out okay." At this point in the story, we don't know if it will turn out okay. It might not turn out OK—at least if "okay" is defined as healthy, wealthy, and respected.

Perhaps for our listeners, permission to suffer and struggle in the middle—without a happy ending—is a relief. Perhaps remembering (or learning) God's character is the lifeline they need so they can simply remain faithful in the murky middle of their own story. 

Play with the graph when you look at the Sunday texts. Plot the story line to understand the passage's emotional highs and lows. Then consider how our lives in God follow the same ups and downs.

What does it mean when we experience life below the line?

What changes when we know God? When we believe in our bones that we are forgiven and loved in Christ Jesus?

In light of that knowing, what defines life above the line? 

May we preach the full story shape so that our listeners begin to recognize the narrative arc—and trust the Author.

And so they learn how to ride the rise and fall in the middle.