It’s confirmed. Science has found six core shapes underlying all stories.
At the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Laboratory (CSL), Peter Dodds, Chris Danforth, and their team made the discovery.
The concept of a common story shape is not a new one. Aristotle, in his seminal work Poetics, first discussed the shape of stories in 335 BCE. He wrote about the importance of unity in the beginning, middle, and end of a story, and broke popular examples like Homer’s Odyssey down to their rudimentary parts, revealing a shape found in most Epics and Tragedies.
In 1985, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his master’s thesis on the subject, finding eight shapes that can be easily plotted and replicated. He gives a lecture on the graphs here and there is a friendly infographic here.
These scholars were challenged on their numbers and the simplicity of their theories. The author Georges Polti suggested there are 36 story shapes, and Vonnegut’s thesis was rejected by the University of Chicago.
CSL has now provided the proof. There are six basic shapes to all stories.
Using a selection of over 1,385 stories from the Project Gutenberg database (each of which had over 150 downloads), they applied what is known as sentiment analysis to each story.
Sentiment analysis looks for words that have positive or negative emotional impact. A small section of text is viewed and the language assessed to be positive or negative. The computer then slides to the next section of text, and so on until the end of the story.
The CSL team called these sections “word windows.” When the analysis has slid through the entire story, the overall story arc is plotted.
The CSL team combined all the arcs, and saw six common shapes that between them related to all 1,385 stories. Each shape was given a name that signifies its arc.
- Rags to Riches
- Tragedy or Riches to Rags
- Man in a Hole
What is more compelling is that these six story shapes are happening around us all the time. In real life.
You hear them all the time. Arnold Schwarzenegger arriving in America with only a gym bag becomes a millionaire and governor of California. Steve Jobs being fired from Apple, only to return to make it the behemoth that it is today. Not only do the six story shapes apply to the stories we create, but also to the stories that we live.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, well-known businesses wear the same six story shapes that the CSL team found in fiction. Let’s take a look at some real life examples and the shape of their stories.
The Rags to Riches Story Shape (Rise)
An all-time favorite amongst readers and storytellers alike. From poverty, the main character rises, and goes on to win the world.
How many times have you heard about someone who came from the bottom rising to the top? J.K. Rowling is a famous example. Once on welfare as a single mom, she went on to become the first author to reach billionaire status. Her story is one of overcoming adversity, dashing over obstacles as if they were shallow street puddles, and achieving incredible success.
We love these stories. They give us hope that we can change our situation, no matter how dire it may be.
That is what Larry Ellison of Oracle did. From the slums of Chicago to one of the world’s richest men.
Ellison was adopted by his aunt and uncle after he contracted pneumonia at the ripe age of nine months and his biological mother could no longer take care of him. His aunt and uncle lived on the South Side of Chicago, which he later recalls being described in Look Magazine as “the oldest and worst ghetto in the United States.” Ellison was born into rags and misfortune.
He loved his aunt, who he describes as loving and caring. His uncle was another story, constantly telling Larry that he was a good-for-nothing. In school, Ellison was a disgruntled student, disliking the traditional teaching methods. After high school, he attended the University of Illinois, then the University of Chicago, dropping out of each, and eventually moving to Northern California.
During the 1970s, Ellison taught himself programming as he worked for two corporations, predominantly the Ampex Corporation. Ampex was where it all began.
One of his projects was named “Oracle.” Sound familiar? In 1977 he strayed away from his corporate overlords to create a new company with two of his colleagues, using his Oracle database as the foundation.
In an interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Ellison shares his reasoning for venturing out on his own.
“When I started Oracle, what I wanted to do was to create an environment where I would enjoy working. That was my primary goal. Sure, I wanted to make a living. I certainly never expected to become rich, certainly not this rich.”
What started as Software Development Labs became Relational Software in 1979, and finally Oracle in 1982. They started with Oracle Version 2.0 because, as Ellison put it, nobody wants to gamble on the first version of a product. The idea worked, landing the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Air Force as their first clients.
Following Oracle Version 2.0 in 1977, Oracle has released a new version every two to three years. In 1990, however, the company did suffer a bit of a crisis as the sales reps became greedy and started to falsify sales numbers to increase bonuses.
Ellison made two key decisions that led to his continued rise: Oracle Version 7 was released and was a superior product in the market, and the company acquired Ray Lane from Booz Allen. Lane was able to sell Oracle to CEOs by providing a professional atmosphere that Ellison lacked.
Oracle grew into one of the largest corporations in the world, and made Ellison one of the richest men in America — second only to his rival, Bill Gates. Ellison took the rags he was born into, and turned them into riches.
Rags to riches is a story that repeats itself not just in literature, but often in real life. Not everyone is so fortunate. There are others among us who have done just the opposite, losing everything they had, and in some cases bringing down the ship they once captained.
The Tragedy or Riches to Rags Story Shape (Fall)
This story begins with everything seemingly OK.
OK can mean everything is amazing and your main character is at the top of the world. Or it can mean the main character is fine, maybe not happy, maybe not drowning in wealth, but content with how things are.
Wherever this story may begin, it only proceeds in one direction: down. The direct inverse of the “Rags to Riches” story, there is no happy ending here. Things get worse, and continue to get worse at an exponential rate.
Formed by merging two pipeline companies in 1985, Enron was off to a bold start. Their strategy centered around changing the architecture of the energy business game. Instead of focusing on working for assets, like Exxon and Shell were doing, Enron and its then CEO Ken Lay wanted the assets to work for the business. And it worked.
From the merger in 1985 to the peak of its success in 2000, Enron enjoyed enormous success and wealth.
In 2000, Enron was handling $335 billion in online commodity trading, with every transaction involving Enron itself as either a buyer or a seller. From such peaks, valleys seemed to not exist.
Yet they always exist, waiting with stolid patience.
Bad investments, to the order of billions of lost dollars, were sprouting all around them. $80 per share became $60 per share. Senior management foresaw doom as early as August 2000, selling off their stake in the company. After Ken Lay announced retirement in 2001, his protégé Jeff Skilling took over — then resigned in the same year. Lay returned to his CEO position, but the stock continued to fall. $40 per share. $30 per share.
Sherron Watkins, an Enron vice president, sounded the alarm. She sent a memo to Lay with concerns over third party investments. Lay contacted the company’s attorneys and audit agency. This was the spark that exploded the gas-filled zeppelin that was Enron.
October 2001 was scramble month for Enron’s senior management. They locked all pensions into the company’s stock so they couldn’t sell it. A merger agreement with Dynergy fell through, because Enron withheld their sketchy balance sheet debt. Fastow, the company’s CFO, was fired for his third-party investments. The stock continued to tumble down to less than $10 a share, burning through $5 billion in less than two months.
The Hindenburg blimp that was Enron exploded, revealing its empty guts, and making headlines across the country. Employees, locked into the company through pensions, lost everything they had. Houses, cars, boats: the luxurious lifestyle of the once-darling of Wall Street vanished into thin air.
In January 2002, the Justice Department began its investigation of Enron. Arthur Andersen, Enron’s private auditing firm, was convicted of obstruction of justice for destroying company documents. Lay, Skilling, Fastow, and many of the top executives were convicted and sentenced for various crimes, including conspiracy, fraud, and insider trading.
Enron’s collapse went down as one of the worst bankruptcies ever recorded. From their grand beginnings and popularity, they fell into an abyss of their own making.
Though recovery was impossible for Enron, there are others in similar situations who have found a way to bounce back after hitting bottom.
The Man in a Hole Story Shape (Fall – Rise)
Kurt Vonnegut described this story as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” You probably just remembered your favorite romcom, or maybe all of them. That’s because most romcoms follow this basic shape.
In its most basic form, the main character briefly rises, then falls into despair, then rises to happiness from despair. This is a story with a happy ending, though it may take the full length of the story to get there.
What happens when boy meets comic book? X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man. The Marvel universe is as vast as it is compelling. That universe nearly met its end during the mid-1990s. The boy lost his comic books, but got something back that has captured the world’s imagination.
Marvel, first named “Timely Comics,” was emperor of the comic book world for decades. From its first issue, the company put out success after success. With household names like The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Fantastic Four, Marvel seemingly could not be stopped.
DC Comics, Marvel’s rival, held a fair share of the market, but with the writing prowess of Stan Lee, along with top industry illustrators in Marvel’s stable in 1961, there was little else for Marvel to do besides dominate.
With characters like Nick Fury, Spider-Man, and The Avengers, Marvel continued to find the best talent, both in the storytelling department and in the illustrators who brought the work to life. This, of course, was all during an age when print editions were all the rage. There seemed to be no end in sight.
Then the end came.
Comic book sales from 1993 were a combined $1 billion across all agencies. By 1999, that number dropped to $270 million. The boy lost his interest in comic books, as seemingly did the rest of the world. Marvel, in particular, struggled with management issues, shuffling through executives every few weeks. Layoffs came.
In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Oh no! We’re done for! What’s a poor comic book company to do in these ever-so-harsh times? They had fallen deep into the hole and couldn’t find their way out.
Time for a reboot. In 2000, Marvel unleashed its characters into a new universe. No longer were the characters confined to the massive backstory that was the foundation of their previous works. They were offered a clean slate to create with.
The new storyline was named Ultimate Marvel, and with Ultimate X-Men leading the way, Marvel escaped oblivion. By 2002, The Ultimates, a reboot of The Avengers, was the best-selling comic book in the country. Bang! Pow! Marvel was back on top. But there’s more.
Comic books took their stories to the big screen. Fox and Sony produced X-Men and Spider-Man, respectively, to great acclaim. Marvel’s characters were coming to life! The company decided to try its own hand at the movie game, and in 2008 produced Iron Man. The end credits featured Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, prophesying what was to come for the Marvel movie universe.
In 2012 Marvel released The Avengers. Both Iron Man and Captain America are now trilogies, each boasting a multi-billion-dollar franchise all on their own.
The boy got his comic books back after falling in the hole, and they’ve never looked better.
If you flipped Marvel’s story to read about its rise from the man in the hole, to its multi-billion dollar peak, only to fall back into the hole, you would have our next story shape.
The Icarus Story Shape (Rise – Fall)
The story of Icarus is linked to the story of his father Daedalus.
In Greek mythology, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus, along with Icarus, inside a labyrinth of Daedalus’s own creation. The imprisonment served as a safeguard against Daedalus (or Icarus) revealing the secret of the labyrinth.
Over time, Icarus and his father gathered bird wings and hoarded wax. When they had enough, Daedalus created two massive human-sized wings that allowed them to escape. The wings came with a warning. If Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax would melt and the wings would come apart.
Thrilled by the freedom of flying, Icarus soon forgot the warning and flew too high. The wax melted and Icarus fell to his death.
This shape is the exact opposite of the “Man in the Hole.” The main character rises from despair, attains happiness, then falls back into despair. Icarus escapes, is able to fly, then falls to his death.
One rise and one fall. It resembles a mountain when graphed. Think rags-riches-rags. No one experienced this mountain greater than one of the wealthiest families of all time, the Vanderbilt family.
Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt started his career with a $100 loan from his mother. His first venture was as a sailboat captain in New York City. In the invention of the steam engine, Vanderbilt saw a grand opportunity. He mastered the technology and began to operate steamboats.
Transportation was his trade, and in the 1800s, transportation was as prolific as the tech industry is today. It did not take long for Vanderbilt to get into the railroad business and create his own line of steam-powered railroads. His empire was just beginning.
In 1869, with great foresight of New York City’s future growth, Vanderbilt decided to plant a train station where he assumed the center of the city would one day be. He named it New York Central — today it is known as Grand Central Station. You may have heard of it.
The Commodore expanded his railroad empire across the country, while expanding his wealth at the same time. By the time of his death in 1877, he turned his $100 loan into a $100 million fortune. Today that would be worth about $150 billion. This made him and his family wealthier than the U.S. treasury, and secured their spot as the richest self-made people on the planet.
The fortune did not end with the Commodore. His two sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William Henry Vanderbilt, inherited the massive fortune and took over the family railroad business. William did most of the legwork, turning the $100 million into $200 million in just eight years before his death. That’s $300 billion in today’s currency.
At this point in the story, the Vanderbilt family was Icarus, having flown so high they could reach out and touch the sun if they wanted to. The wax holding the Vanderbilts to their fortune melted, however, and the fall back to solid ground was short and decadent.
Having achieved such luxurious heights, there were certain luxuries and appearances that needed to be kept up. In the company of folks like the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and the Fords, the Vanderbilts worked hard to show that they still belonged in high society.
As the wealth trickled down to each generation, from the second to the fourth, there was less and less to be found. As the Commodore himself once said, “Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it.”
William K. Vanderbilt, a third generation Vanderbilt, responded, “Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.”
Needless to say, $200 million was spent in record time. With lavish mansions (such as the 10 mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), huge art collections of the old greats, and nearly every member of the family having a string of yachts and an expensive lifestyle of their own, it was only a matter of time before the money ran out.
Just under 50 years after the Commodore’s death, not one of his descendants could be named one of America’s richest. In 1973, 120 Vanderbilts attended a family reunion at a relic of past achievement, Vanderbilt University. None who attended could even call themselves a millionaire.
Like Icarus, given the gift of flight, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt gave his family ultimate wealth. In less than a century, one of the largest fortunes ever collected had disappeared.
The Cinderella Story Shape (Rise – Fall – Rise)
What better example of this type of story than Cinderella herself. The story begins with unhappiness. She is a maid for her cruel stepmother and two cruel stepsisters.
The king announces a ball, and with the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella gets to go. This is the rise to happiness. Cinderella gets to dance with the prince, but has to leave before midnight when the magic disappears. She leaves a shoe behind and returns to her dreary life.
From the climax of happiness, there is fall to despair. The prince finds the shoe and commands his servants to find its owner. They search all over the kingdom, finally arriving at Cinderella’s house, where they find it was she who left the shoe behind. The prince and Cinderella reunite and live happily ever after. The rise back to happiness is complete.
It was the similarities between Cinderella and the New Testament that first sparked Vonnegut’s interest in the subject. This story is one as old as time. The rise to happiness, the fall from happiness, and the return to eternal bliss.
Now let’s talk about those shoes. Cinderella would not have been found had it not been for her luck in having such a unique shoe size. Wide toes are my guess. But for those of us with normal feet, there is a brand of shoes that has lived a similar path to Cinderella’s: Converse.
From its beginnings in 1908, Converse has built itself into a globally recognized brand, but it was not a straight shot to the top. They began with the humble galosh.
Galosh? You ask. Yes, galosh. No, you can’t eat it.
Galoshes are waterproof shoes made entirely of rubber. Not until seven years after their grand opening did Converse begin making athletic tennis shoes, using the same galosh rubber for the soles. In 1917, they side-stepped into basketball shoes. This is analogous to Cinderella finding her fairy godmother.
Basketball shoes became their market, and in 1921, a basketball player walked in complaining of sore feet. His name was Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor. At this point, you might expect the clichéd “and the rest was history.” It was not. This was the first rise to happiness. Cinderella was going to the ball.
The company took off, with Chuck Taylor as their ambassador. In 1932, he added his signature, along with the high-top classic look we all know today. These shoes went on to become the official shoe of the NBA. Do you see? Cinderella’s dancing with the prince! But midnight still lurks; the story is not over.
In the 1970s, many new shoe brands were emerging onto the scene. The brothers at Puma and Adidas, Nike, and Reebok were all in the game. The competition was stiff and the market started to shift towards the newer brands with the newer designs. The belle of the ball had lost her cool. Chuck’s were no longer the official shoe of NBA.
During the 80s, Converse pivoted to become a countercultural icon. With rock stars like The Ramones and Kurt Cobain wearing them, the shoe was no longer marketed towards athletes. The focus became on fighting ‘the man,’ and Converse shoes were now accepted as casual footwear.
This happy period was brief. With a too-heavy focus on the All-Star brand and an untimely economic recession in the late 80s, the company continued to fade. In January 2001, the company declared bankruptcy.
But that’s not how Cinderella ends! You’re right, and that’s not how Converse ends either. The prince came in the form of the goliath shoe company, Nike. In 2003, Nike acquired Converse for an easy $309 million.
Nike went back to the countercultural rock star symbology. They relaunched the brand in 2005, changing up the message to focus on what the shoe represented in the 80s and 90s. Independence. Individuality. Creativity.
The campaign worked. Ever since, Converse has grown in revenue, bringing in $2 billion in 2016 alone. That’s about 19 percent growth every year, and they show no signs of stopping.
The Oedipus Story Shape (Fall – Rise – Fall)
Born into royalty, Oedipus had it made. If only his parents hadn’t consulted an Oracle, who prophesied doom. They mutilated his feet and left him to die in a field, but he was taken in and raised by adoptive royal parents on Corinth.
He heard rumors these were not his true parents, so he consulted another Oracle, who prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing this to mean his Corinthian parents, he fled to Thebes, where his true parents ruled. Along the way, he quarreled with and killed his father, without his knowing who the man was.
He also defeated a sphinx who terrorized Thebes. The reward for this was to marry the Queen of Thebes, his mother. Not until old age, and after further investigation, did Oedipus learn the truth about his birth parents. His mother (and wife… ew) hung herself, and Oedipus gouged out his eyes, then fled to Athens, where he died years later.
A story of doom that starts with bright beginnings, falls to despair, rises once more, then again plummets to despair forever. This story is less common than others, because who doesn’t like happy endings? Regardless of our preferences, it’s common enough that it repeats itself time and again, and not just in fiction.
Kmart was at the top of its game in late 1980s and early 1990s. They owned over 2000 profitable stores, including Borders, Sports Authority, and Payless Drug stores. They were the second biggest retailer in the U.S., trailing just behind Sears. In 1992, Kmart posted its most profitable year on record.
It had never looked better for Kmart. This would be the part when Oedipus lives in ignorant bliss with his adoptive parents, unaware of what was to come.
What Kmart forgot to do was upgrade alongside advancing technology. While Kmart was expanding its store empire, Target and Walmart were investing in supply chain technology and upgrading their stores. As the years went on, the old Kmart stores were left behind to rot. A prophecy is told.
Customers were turned off by the lack of a contemporary aesthetic and began to take their business elsewhere.
The Kmart brand was spread too thin across its many acquisitions and decaying stores. They shed many of their companies, like Borders and Sports Authority, but the downfall was inevitable. In 2002 Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While trying to fix the mess, the company’s senior management pulled some shady accounting, much like Enron, inflating profits and fooling shareholders. Kmart slipped further into despair. Many stores shut down across the nation. The end seemed to be within sight.
ESL Investments stepped in at the last moment, purchasing much of Kmart’s debt. Edward Lampert managed ESL Investments, and with his 53 percent stake in the company, he became chairman for Kmart. In 2003, he was able to pull it out of bankruptcy.
By late 2003, Kmart had its first profitable quarter in three years. Oedipus has defeated the sphinx, and now looks for his reward. What does Kmart do to celebrate its victories? That’s right, it buys other companies.
In 2004, Kmart purchased none other than the one retailer it trailed in the 70s and 80s, Sears. The merger pushed the collective stock price up to prices neither company had seen for a decade. Kmart stores were finally being renovated, using some of Sears’ techniques. Consumers took notice.
Brands came in, including Kenmore Appliances and Craftsman tools. In 2009, they had their first sales increase since 2001, before the bankruptcy. The company made a grand effort to restore Kmart to its former glory, and it fought tooth and nail for that sales increase.
But it wasn’t enough.
100 Sears and Kmart stores closed in 2011 after poor holiday sales. The decline set in deep. In 2014, Kmart suffered a massive data breach, losing customers’ credit card data. In 2015, they were sued for not offering a job to a person with kidney disease. As the years passed, more stores closed. In 2017, they announced 78 more store closures, one of which was the original Kmart store.
They have not closed their doors yet, but just as Oedipus fled to Athens, Kmart seems to be in a continuing downward spiral. Perhaps they will rebound and become Cinderella, and perhaps not. As it appears today, Kmart and Oedipus share a classic story shape of ultimate downfall.
We Live These Story Shapes as Much as We Tell Them
We repeat these story shapes in fiction because of how closely they resemble the stories we live. The names may change, the settings may be foreign or even alien, but the shapes remain the same.
Real life is certainly more complicated than the simple shapes laid out here, but I propose taking a step back from the details and viewing events from a broader angle. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, these stories repeat themselves as often as they do in fiction.
When looked at collectively, you can see the shapes that pervade all stories. You may be in one of these stories right now. You could be the man in the hole, trying to find out how to get the girl back. Or you could be Cinderella sweeping up after her stepsisters, wishing for a better life.
Why do we find these stories so fascinating? Because we live them. From Icarus to a tragedy to a Rags to Riches story, we find ourselves in them. We connect with them, and so the stories repeat.
These are but a few entrepreneurial tales illustrating how the six story shapes relate to the real world. While reading, I bet you recalled others that followed a similar path.
We are a pattern-seeking species, just as we are a pattern-repeating species. And we love learning from stories. What before was mere speculation and pattern recognition by greats such as Aristotle and Vonnegut is now backed by science, and the six story shapes can be seen to be the foundation of every story we create.
Photo credit: puhimec