Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s From Bad to Worse

Ciao, SEers. I’ve been talking about Vonnegut’s five basic plots. So far, I’ve discussed Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, and Cinderella, which you can find by clicking the links. Today, I’m going to talk about the fourth plot type, From Bad to Worse.

As I’ve described before, Vonnegut 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.

From Bad to Worse

The From Bad to Worse story type is one that we don’t see often and is exactly as it sounds. Things start off bad and get progressively worse. In this case, our protagonist begins the story on the GI-Axis well below the midpoint and his arc goes down. There is no moment that trends toward the positive, and the endpoint tends toward infinite unhappiness.

The classic example of this plot type is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor, who is completely unhappy with his life and his job. He would quit, but his family depends on his salary. When he wakes, he finds he has transformed into a disgusting insect overnight. He is uncomfortable, but in his current form, he’s unable to roll off his back. He’s missed his train to work, and he’s unable to speak when his family and office manager call out to him. When he finally manages to open his door, they are horrified by his appearance, lash out at him, and close him in his room. The food they give him repulses him, but he finds he enjoys rotting scraps. No one visits, and while he spends all his days alone, listening to his family lament the difficult situation he’s put them in, he finds himself literally climbing the walls. His father throws an apple at him when he mistakes his concern for his mother as an attack. His sister grows to resent caring for him. His whole family ceases to acknowledge him at all, focusing only on what he’s cost them and not on what he’s going through or on what he’s given up or what he’d once done for them. When he overhears them wishing he was dead, he retreats to his room for a final time and dies, alone and unloved. His family moves to the country with the money they saved living meager lives while hiding him from the public, and he reaps none of this good fortune (as he’s dead and gone, and his family didn’t even bury him; the maid disposed of his body for them).

In Summation:

From Bad to Worse
  • Starts miserable
  • Things get worse
  • Ends at the pinnacle of badness

What about it, SEers? Do you have a favorite “From Bad to Worse” story—one you’ve read or written? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo Bio

75 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s From Bad to Worse

  1. Pingback: Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Good News Bad News | Story Empire

  2. This is kind of a weird one, isn’t it? I can’t think of a book that I’ve read with this plot. Even the dark fantasies where the hero dies in the end seem to have an element of hope or normalcy at the end. Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions might be an example of this. I remember the character coming to the realization in the end that life was hopeless. It’s been decades since I read that book, so I don’t remember the details, but it was well done… it’s stuck with me. Another fascinating post, Staci. Thanks!

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  3. I’m not sure if there was a tiny upward blip in Midnight Cowboy but I do remember feeling pretty disheartened by the end. Despite the ending, the film was hugely successful. I wouldn’t watch it again, though. I like to feel some sense of positivity at the end of books and films and Metamorphosis is not for me!

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    • I didn’t watch Midnight Cowboy, so I can’t say if there was a tiny happiness blip, but you’re definitely in the majority in wanting some form of positivity at the end of a story. I’d recommend avoiding Metamorphosis, for sure. And probably many of the existentialists.

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  4. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – Two Great Posts For Ya! | The Write Stuff

    • With the pandemic, I’m guessing a lot of people feel like they’re living “bad to worse” and don’t need it for entertainment, too. But I’d never presume to speak for anyone. I’m sure there are still people who seek out this form of literature. Under the right circumstances, I would read a story like this. But there’s no question that most people do seek a happy ending. And even before COVID, that was the case.

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  5. Surely the from “bad to worse” novel is endemic. Poe, Vonnegut and Hardy are hardly the progenitors. Imagine, Homer, Virgil and Aeschylus. Worse (perhaps) “the lay of Gilgamesh” then The Arthurian legends and the Icelandic sagas. Tragedy was well established before the days of Shakespeare never mind Vonnegut.
    I enjoy dipping into these depths of misery. My favourite being “Gormenghast” by Mervyn Peake, though Stella Gemmell’s dystopian hell “The City” is worth a mention and drawing you further into the pits of hell “The Crow Girl” by Erick axl Sund. I love a dank and dire dystopia.

    But then read a history of “Alexander the Great”, “Genghis Khan” or “Gaius Julius” revered and famous historical figures who each killed millions to further their ambitions. Hannibal Lecter, Dexter and Moriarty are only fictional and very little daemons. True daemons are all real and human.

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    • There’s no doubt this plot type goes back to the days of the first storytellers. As long as people have been entertaining each other with tall tales, there have been sad stories as well as happy ones. It’s just that most people prefer to hear happy endings, so that’s what most authors write. But thank you for the list of bad-to-worse stories for people who might like to read them. Most of our readers don’t seem interested, but there are a few on there that I’ve enjoyed over the years and probably wouldn’t mind reading again.

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  6. Hmmm, I suppose All Quiet on the Western Front was like this but that is based on real experiences and circumstances. The protagonist is happy when he dies in the end though, so it’s not quite as depressing as this book sounds. I don’t think I would write a book like this, Staci. My people all die because I write ghost stories, but things always work out at the end. I am naturally a positive person and it reflects in my writing most of the time. Although, in saying this, I did write a short story like this recently, but that was also based on real events and you can’t change the truth.

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    • I was thinking about A Tale of Two Cities when I wrote this one Sydney Carton started the book as a miserable man, and he died in the end. On the surface, it looks bad to worse. But he chose to die, and doing so saved a good man, so it was actually a redemption arc. That doesn’t fit the bad-to-worse plot at all. I think All Quiet on the Western Front is the same. If he’s happy at the end, it’s not bad to worse. There’s an upward trajectory.

      The same with your fiction. If things work out at the end, dead or not, that’s a curve upward. And you can’t count nonfiction. We don’t have control over that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I knew there was a good reason I’d never read Kafka! OMG, what a horrible concept. I know for a fact that I can’t write a book like that, nor would I even want to. There are enough things in life to bring us down already. For me, writing is a chance to say that yes, bad things happen, but there are ways to turn them around, and with hope and love, you can overcome just about anything. If I can’t at least try to present that in my books, I don’t want to write at all. And if the only books I could find to read were built on this Bad to Worse scale, I’d have to quit reading, too.

    To each his own, I guess, but though this concept is very dramatic, it simply isn’t for me. Nope. Not gonna go there.

    Super interesting post, though, in a great series. Thanks, Staci!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. What a horribly depressing way to write or read. I don’t think I could ever pull it off. Some forms of horror end on those devastating endings. Think Alfred Hitchcock or Twilight Zone. It’s not my cup of tea, but then I’m just one small person in a big world. Thank you for sharing this plot form, Staci!

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  9. I’ve never read Metamorphosis but it sounds horribly depressing. I do recall a story that made an impact on me, but I don’t know the name of it. I think I read it in school. It was about an injured GI who had no arms or legs and couldn’t talk. It opened with him lying in a hospital bed, being able to think and reason, but not being able to move in any way or talk with anyone. It went through him remembering what happened to him and what he’d become.

    Then a fly landed on him. This small tiny insect we think nothing of, but because he couldn’t shoo it away or call for help, the feel of it moving on his skin became excruciating. Minute after minute of agony. It was such a horrible story. I think it might fit your bad to worse plot scenario.

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  10. Was the movie The Fly based on the story Metamorphosis? I watched it so long ago, I can’t really remember its plot. Would Tess of the d’Urbervilles be from bad to worse? It was an awfully depressing book. Hopelessness is hard to read.

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    • Ugh. I hated Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I’d say it does fit the pattern, or it comes really close. Tess starts impoverished, though there’s no guarantee she’s unhappy. Poor doesn’t necessarily equate to miserable. Her life is difficult, but she’s still a good, God-fearing girl. But then it all goes downhill from there. So I guess it’s just a matter of whether we consider her in a “bad” position at the beginning of the book or not. She certainly could have been in a better position. For my money, it fits the mold. I know I never want to read it again.

      I don’t know if The Fly is based on The Metamorphosis, but there are parallels, for sure. The main difference I can think of is that in The Metamorphosis, the main character wakes up one morning as an insect, already transformed and doesn’t know why. (That’s a subject worthy of another post.) In The Fly, the main character undergoes his transformation due to a scientific experiment gone awry, and it was an error of his own making. I’m not sure The Fly fits the bad-to-worse plot because the scientist didn’t start out in a bad situation. He was pretty happy to have developed a transportation device that was going to revolutionize the world. Then it all fell apart.

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  11. I read “The Metamorphosis” before. It’s as brilliant as it is known, but it’s just so hopelessly sad. Although I have his “The Trial”, I can’t bring myself to read it, for fear that it’s the same kind of sadness. Does “The Fall of the House of Usher” qualify for another bad to worse story? It’s not nearly as hopeless as “The Metamorphosis” since the hero is just witness rather than a sufferer.

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    • “Hopelessly sad” is the perfect description for it.

      You raise an interesting question about The Fall of the House of Usher. (And maybe gothic literature in general.) I’m inclined to say it doesn’t fit into this plot structure. Not neatly, anyway. Did the narrator start in a bad place? Yes, his friend was ill. But did he end in a worse place? Well, it depends on how you view it. Two people died, so on the surface, sure, that’s worse. But let’s look deeper. On one hand, an argument can be made that he and his “friend” weren’t really that close at all, so he wouldn’t grieve his passing very much. Status quo. Or, another way to look at it could be that, even if they were friends, the house consumed the twins, but the narrator escaped, which is definitely a good thing even in the face of the tragedies he left behind. So, it’s hard to say. I’m leaning toward no, The Fall of the House of Usher doesn’t fit this plot structure. Or if it does, it only does on the surface. But I think a case could be made either way.

      I doubt that helped very much. But I hope it gave you something to think about.

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      • Yes, I agree with you. It’s more gothic like than “bad from worse” type. How about Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”. It is very hopeless and very sad. The details are not as vivid as Kafka’s but the central theme is sad. The difference is that in “the stranger”, the main character doesn’t even bother to fight while in “The Metamorphosis”, the hero is keenly aware of his plight and it is heartbreaking.

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      • That was a hopeless and apathetic character, indeed. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember him to be emotionless throughout until an outburst at the end. I’d say it’s a classic bad-to-worse scenario.

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  12. Super description of bad to worse. I have read some disruptive fiction that fits this situation. The story generally involves an unhappy character who just gets unhappier until a no return disaster hits. These are difficult books to read, but, in the end, they do carry a message or two. Not my favorite genre. Thanks, Staci, for the explanation.

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    • I can only see it useful as a character study. To me, it’s not useful as a moral. What’s the lesson taught if you go from bad to worse? (Other than you shouldn’t do what that person did?) Well, I guess that is the moral of that tale.

      I suppose there are some fables like that. The Scorpion and the Frog fits this plot. The scorpion starts out in a bad place. He’s stuck on the wrong side of the river. He asks the frog to take him across. Has to plead because the frog is afraid the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion says that will kill them both. The frog realizes that’s true, so he agrees and tells him to climb on his back, assuming he’ll be safe. But half way across, the scorpion stings him. As they’re both drowning, the frog asks why. The scorpion says it’s his nature. Granted, it was a self-inflicted bad ending for the scorpion, but it was still a bad-to-worse story plot.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Like most of the others, I wouldn’t pick this type of story to read. I probably did in school but a title eludes me now. One movie I can think of that comes close is “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Although it didn’t start out bad, things certainly got worse for the couple.

    I had not thought about using this as a basic plot. Interesting to learn about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It probably takes a special personality or a special circumstance in life to seek out this type of story, at least with regularity. There are times when you just don’t want to read a happily-ever-after ending. But in general, consuming this type of literature in large doses would be a lot to take, I think. I never saw The Days of Wine and Roses, but The War of the Roses probably fits this model (at least loosely), and I enjoyed that movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve never read this type of story, Staci. With limited reading time, I can turn on the news for my dose of bad to worse. Although bad things happen or have happened to my characters, I have to give them their happy ending. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I don’t think I’ve ever read or seen this type of story. There’s usually some kind of uptick to give the audience hope. Sounds like this kind of story is mostly a delving into misery and human suffering. From the look of it, they can’t even have happy endings.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s From Bad to Worse | Story Empire | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  17. Thank you for explaining this Bad to Worse story form. I wonder if Vonnegut limits his scaling to fiction? Some non-fiction would fit this model. Offhand, I can’t think of a fictional story I’ve read that follows this plotline, but if I started such a book, I’d more likely put it down and move to something hopeful. Great post, Staci, I’m learning a lot!

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    • I remember reading this story in junior high and thinking it was a downer, but I didn’t understand the poignancy of it like I do now. I write a lot of dark fiction these days, but I don’t think my work is quite this hopeless. As to Vonnegut, I’m not sure whether he applied his models to nonfiction. I’d guess not, as truth is always stranger than fiction. Life never is as tidy as a plot graph. But I can’t speak for him on this subject.

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  18. These aren’t the type of stories I’d pick to read or write, but I’m sure I did in school. I’m drawing a blank right now on the titles. I have not read Metamorphosis and your summary made me sad for him. It is a place to dig deep into the dark side of humanity, though. Great post, Staci and information about a basic plot I hadn’t given much thought to. It would be good in a short story.

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    • I think you need to really prepare yourself to read a story like this. Or really detach yourself. (And what’s the point of reading if you divorce yourself from the story? That defeats the purpose of reading in the first place.) The experience is not for the faint of heart. It does make for an interesting character study, but it’s emotionally draining.

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