Ciao, SEers. I’m back again to talk about story structure (admittedly an obsession of mine).
Love him or hate him, one of the twentieth centuries most influential and prolific authors was Kurt Vonnegut. Though he studied at some of our nation’s finest institutions (including my alma mater), he never studied writing. And when he wrote his thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, it was initially rejected.
Why am I telling you this?
One, to tell you to keep at it. Because years later, his thesis was accepted. Eventually, hard work pays off.
And two, because even though Vonnegut didn’t study writing, he was a master of the craft because he studied people. And you can’t write good fiction without knowing people.
Vonnegut posited there are five basic types of story structures: Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, From Bad to Worse, and Good News/Bad News. He plotted all stories on a grid. The vertical axis was the GI-Axis, and it ran from good fortune to ill fortune. The horizontal axis was the BE-Axis, and it ran from the beginning to the end of the story.
Today, we’re going to talk about the first of his plots—Man in Hole.
The Man in Hole is a story we’re all familiar with and is maybe the most common story type. It starts above the midpoint of the GI-Axis, as Vonnegut says readers don’t want to read about a hero who doesn’t start out happy. Then the “man falls in a hole,” or in other words, something devastating happens to the protagonist. The rest of the story is spent with the hero trying to get out of the hole, until eventually he does, and he ends up in a place that is even better than where he started. He notes this on his graph by the line being higher on the GI-Axis when the hero is out of the hole (farther on the BE-Axis, closer to the end of the story) than in the beginning.
A classic example of this plot type is The Wizard of Oz. In the beginning of the story, Dorothy’s life is above the midpoint on the GI-Axis. Yes, Kansas is monochromatic and dull. But she is loved and well cared for by Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. The three farm hands are quite fond of her and entertain her as they work. She and Toto play all day. Her life might be a bit boring, but it’s above zero on the GI-Axis. When Miss Gulch takes Toto away, she dips down. When Toto returns but she has to run away to protect him, she dips further. When she’s told her aunt is sick because she left, she dips more. Then the tornado, then the Wicked Witch chasing her, then being given an impossible task, then being captured. Even once she’s beaten the witch, has given the wizard the broomstick, and has discovered his ruse, her problems never seem to end—he promises to take her home in his balloon, but Toto chases a cat and he floats away without her. She’s out of options. A true low point. Until Glenda teaches her the final lesson and she goes home, happier to be there than she was before. (Higher on the GI-Axis than she was at the beginning of the story.)
- Starts well cared for but discontent
- Forced to leave
- Is terrorized
- Wants to go home but can’t get there
- Finally gets home
- Ends both well cared for and content
What about it, SEers? Do you have a favorite “man in hole” story—one you’ve read or written? Let’s talk about it.