Story Shapes

Live storytelling, for me, is as close as we’ll get to the origins of story. Writing–the second oldest storytelling technology–is maybe 6,000 years old. Humans, however, are 150,000 (or so) years old. Meaning for the vast majority of our time as a species, we told stories around the cook-fire, to celebrate seasonal events and holy days.

So when I saw the “story shapes” assignment on DS106 Goes to Work, I knew I wanted to tie the assignment into the work I’ve been doing with theory and history of storytelling.

And listening to the Moth isn’t the exact same thing as listening to grandpa talk about the greatest generation on the front porch–or some similar, live, social storytelling moment–but it’s close.

The most recent Moth podcast is a rebroadcast of an early March Moth Radio Hour show, and features a bunch of great stories. Andy Borowitz’s “An Unexpected Twist” is a masterpiece, the perfect blend of compelling story and great crafting.

But I was most interested in Bradford Jordan’s “Father’s Day,” because it’s a kind of story that I think is hard to pull off, one where the situation at the end is essentially the same as the situation at the beginning.

First, go listen to the story, okay, because there are SPOILERS after this.

Here’s the shape of the story, which is essentially a three-peak structure with a comedy ending.

In section one, Jordan gives us the premise: he receives an email from a woman claiming to have made a child with him a long time ago.

In section two, Jordan considers whether the email is a Facebook scam and wrestles with whether he can stand to look at the picture the woman has sent.

In section three, Jordan begins to tell his girlfriend (he has a girlfriend?! Oh no!) about what happened–and gets the news that it’s all an April Fool’s prank.

Here’s the shape of it:


What’s impressive and fun about stories like these is they essentially go (almost) nowhere. The situation at the end is the same as at the beginning. Tragedies are worse at the end (despite Vonnegut’s cartoon, Hamlet ends way down at the bottom of the ill fortune part of the graph).

Comedies can either end higher–with a wedding, for example–or with a reinstatement of status quo. It’s a particular kind of comedy, right, one that sort of has an ain’t-that-the-way-it-goes kind of pessimism.

Here’s the legend to the above graph and, after, the Vonnegut lecture on story shapes:

legend moth