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Kurt Vonnegut's Storytelling Shapes in Art, Pt. 2

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part I

Not long ago I was seated at a San Diego park, looking out at the scene before me. There were several tall trees with green, leafy limbs popping out of grey trunks. Behind them, the waves of a placid, blue lake gently lapped at the shore. The occasional brown duck or white goose would stroll by, not far from several tan, brick restroom facilities that nicely blended with the natural landscape.

Suddenly a man wearing bright, red shorts wandered into my view. "Jesus Christ!" I thought to myself. "Look at this douchebag!"

Why did I have such a negative reaction to this fellow and his loud pants? Letís consider the colors of everything else in the scene. Calm browns, greens and blues---all hues commonly found in nature. The park had clearly been designed to fit into a particular color scheme.

Red, however, does not fit into the natural color scheme*. There are red flowers and parts of animals, yes, but they seemed designed by evolution to attract attention. Red, in fact, seems to leap out of almost any environment, natural or not. (This is why we use it for stop signs, though that may be a poor choice.) And on this particular day at the park I was lost in a reverie with little interest in having my attention jolted.

In essence, there was a pattern of colors at the park, a pattern that allowed me to make certain assumptions about what I would expect to see. When something violated that pattern and its corresponding assumptions, I took note. And this is how art works.

Setting Expectations
In the first part of this article, I explored Kurt Vonnegut's idea that stories have shapes that can be diagramed on a standard line graph. When the protagonist's fortunes rise, the line of the chart rises and when the protagonistís fortunes fall so does the line. And I argued that other art forms---music and visual arts---can be thought of having shapes as well.

But thereís more to stories than simply following shapes; thereís an issue of expectations. When a story is too predictable, itís boring, no matter what its shape is. To illustrate, imagine you pick up a fantasy novel featuring a heroine known as Fall-Gar. In the first chapter, a wizard tells Fall-Gar that she will find a magical sword and then free the slaves of her world and the fight the dreaded Zarnoz and then capture a dragon that she will use to fly to another planet and be crowned queen of the universe. As you read, Fall-Gar finds a magical sword and then frees the slaves of her world and then fights the dreaded Zarnoz and you probably throw the book down in disgust before you get to the point where she captures a dragon.

What happened here? There were no surprises in the experience. Everything in the book happened exactly as you had been told it would. This was art with no surprises. And we know we like (some) surprises in our stories and, for that matter, in our lives. Why is this?

Well, nobody really knows for sure. But there is a theory, expounded upon by neuroscience writers Ray Kurzweil, Jeff Hawkins and others, that provides a possible answer. This theory argues that the brain is a prediction engine. Its main purpose is to gather information through our senses and use that to develop models of the world. As a baby, you realize that these larger humans---parents---can be depended on to feed and comfort you. You learn the family cat hisses when you pull its tail. You realize that the red fire engine makes a lot of noise when it goes by. You learn objects fall towards the earth and sunny days can make you hot. This process goes on and on and by adulthood you've developed a pretty good model of how the world works. For the most part, you can examine any situation and have a decent idea of how it's going to turn out*.

* Within reason that is. You may not be able to predict the results of a presidential election, but you can safely assume that one of the candidates is not going to attempt to bite off the nose off another candidate during the debates. Because that has never happened before.

Of course, sometimes real life defies prediction. Your neighbor wins the lottery, your perfectly healthy relative drops dead, a two-headed lion is born at the zoo, terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center. These events, whether good or bad, demand our attention. Our brain is wired to take notice when life surprises us.

Good writers, music composers and artists realize this. They know that they can capture our attention by defying our expectations, by breaking the rules.

But wait! What are "the rules" in art? In real life we know the rules. Gravity keeps things on the ground, people generally act a certain way, the electricity is usually on, etc.

Well, let's consider stories. To some degree the rules of stories are drawn from real life. We expect that gravity will work, that people will behave a certain way and most people will live to a certain age, etc. But authors can also set up their own rules. In the real world dragons don't exist but in a fantasy novel it's perfectly acceptable to have one stroll by. In a science fiction story time travel may be possible.

While writing a story, a good author sets up the rules of their world early on, thus allowing us to create expectations about what may happen. The author can then keep our interest by breaking some of these rules. But it's a delicate art. If we are halfway through a John Grisham style legal thriller and suddenly the main character discovers time travel, we feel cheated---we didn't know this was going to be a sci-fi novel. The rules have changed midway through the "game."

What about music? Unlike stories, music is much less bound to the "real world." But music does establish patterns---rhythmic patterns, pattern of notes, repetitions of chord progressions and such*. We find comfort in repeated patterns as it indicates that our predictions are panning out. But often music surprises us, violating our expectations. Most people don't mind a few surprises, but when the surprises come fast and furious, as they do in some jazz, classical, world music and other "sophisticated" genres, we can become confused. We can't figure out the rules of the game.

* For a deep analysis at the various types of patterns music can generate I recommend a read of Phillip Ball's book "The Music Instinct."

Visual arts---paintings and such---can also establish patterns and defy them. Works of representational art are usually set in the real world, like stories, so their rules can be inferred from our real world experience. For example, a picture of an apple on a table offers no surprises while a picture of an apple floating above a table does. Salvador Dali and the surrealists made careers out of showing average things behaving in extraordinary ways. They were breaking the rules that describe how the real world works.

With non-representational art, the game changes a bit. Consider this painting by Paul Klee. It's not a picture of something in the real world, it's a collection of various colored squares. Nonetheless, we can make some observations about it. There seems to be a basically equal balance between grey squares and colored squares. And there are some interesting distortions of space where the patterns seem to fold in or fold art. These observations can "tease" our mind as we attempt to divine some logic to the piece.

Patterns in story shapes
The idea that we want a balance of repeating patterns and diversions from these patterns cans intimate why some story shapes work and some don't. Consider this shape.

A story shape of an exciting story!

If this were a story, what would its plot be? Probably that we have a protagonist whose life is plodding along. Then something awful happens and the character must work to rise above circumstance. They make some headway, but about 60% of the way through the story there are some more setbacks, Eventually the protagonist succeeds and finds themselves better off than before.

How could we represent this musically? There are many ways and I will propose one. We start out with some calm, happy music. Suddenly it turns dark and dissonant. It proceeds from there and slowly starts to acquire a firm, serious flavor using a repetitive groove. At the 60% point that starts to flail and there is a back and forth nature to the music. Ultimately it arrives at music of a rising, triumphant nature.

Could this shape be expressed with visual art? As I mentioned in the first part of this article, visual arts don't have the same kind of temporal quality stories and music do (e.g. paintings are usually observed during a shorter time frame than it takes to read a novel.) Visual art might be better at representing a particular segment of this shape. Of course, several works of visual art presented in a sequence, like a comic book or mural, would have no problem with the entire shape. And there are doubtless ways non-representational visual artists could capture the flavor.

Let's look at another shape, one I would consider bad.

A lame-o story shape

If this was a story, what would it be? It looks like a story where the protagonist is suffering, then encounters a wild series of ups and downs, then a long period of nothing much at all. All the drama appears to happen in the first 40% of the tale. Not a template for a best seller.

You can imagine music or murals that use this shape, and understand how they would disappoint.

Of course, established story shapes become tired and cliche---see all the complaints about formulaic Hollywood movies. To maintain interest, the artworks that personify these shapes need to constantly vary, experimenting with new plot ideas, musical patterns and visual techniques to grab people's attention. But variations that are too wild will tend to scare of an audience. It's very difficult to get it right.


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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.