The Shapes of Stories & AI

December 3, 2021
"There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can't be fed into computers, they are beautiful shapes."

This was one of the fundamental ideas that led me to start Pencil and work on creative AI. We believed that:

  1. Machines could be creative
  2. Machine creativity could be net additive to creativity in general
  3. Creativity in general is a powerful positive force in society

It was Kurt Vonnegut's idea. 👇

Years before Player Piano, Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five became world famous stories, Kurt Vonnegut submitted a Master's thesis in anthropology to the University of Chicago. It was about the shapes of stories. It was rejected.

He said it “was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” So simple in fact, you could sum it up in one sentence: “Stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads."

This has since become commonly known as the "6 shapes of stories." The same stories are told again in again in many cultures. In fact, Vonnegut said "each time one of these stories is told again, someone makes a million dollars ... anyone can do it."

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Bonus: Nearly a decade after Vonnegut's death, researchers at the Universities of Adelaide and Vermont set out to show that the data supported his hypotheses.

It did! Check out the results in this Atlantic article. Below you'll see the Cinderella story arc.


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