Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Good News Bad News

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

As I’ve described in all the other posts, 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.

Good News Bad News

The Good News/Bad News story type is the one that Vonnegut always ended his lectures with. It was the one that he said is the most interesting because it was the one that mirrored real life. Why? Well, because we don’t really know what we’re looking at at any given time. Take our protagonist. His journey is going to start below the midpoint on the GI-Axis because life isn’t always the bowl of cherries people wish it was and more often than not is just the pits.

Then he’s going along, being faced with choices and making them. But he doesn’t know the results of those choices. And by the end of the story, he still doesn’t know.

The classic example of this plot type is Hamlet. The reason this is a Good News/Bad News story is because Hamlet goes through the entirety of the play not knowing whether any information he receives is good news or bad, nor does he know whether any decision he makes will result in a good or bad outcome.

He begins the story in the same place Cinderella did, well below the midpoint of the GI-Axis. He’s been summoned home because his father is dead, and his mother has remarried his uncle. When he arrives, his friend tells him to go to the roof, where he sees his father’s ghost and is told his uncle, Claudius, killed him for the throne. But there’s no way to prove this. So, Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put on a play reenacting the crime so he can study his uncle’s reaction. Surely seeing his transgressions on stage will cause his guilty conscience to manifest in some way. But it doesn’t. He doesn’t react at all. This confuses Hamlet, who goes to his mother’s chambers, agitated and confused. When he sees someone hiding behind her draperies, he believes it to be his uncle and takes decisive action, striking him dead through the curtain. But it’s Polonius (who Hamlet doesn’t like, anyway). But Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, whom Hamlet loves, kills herself upon hearing the news. These deaths result in a duel between Hamlet and Polonius’s son, Laertes. Claudius has it rigged so Hamlet will die either way—by poison sword-tip if he’s stabbed or by poisoned chalice if he wins. Unfortunately, he is winning the duel but he refuses the drink and his mother takes the cup, instead, and dies instantly. Laertes, who gets cut by his own poisoned blade, wounds Hamlet then reveals the plan to him. Hamlet runs his uncle through with the toxic sword, then (adding insult to injury) also makes him finish the poisoned wine. His father finally avenged, and now his mother avenged, too, Hamlet can die at peace with his choices, though he still doesn’t know whether any of his decisions made a difference.

In Summation:

Good News Bad News
  • His father is dead and his mother remarried his uncle.
  • The ghost of his father tells him to avenge him. (Do we know if this is true? No.)
  • Stage a play to test veracity of claim. (Does this work? No.)
  • In mother’s room, sees drapes wave. Thinks it’s his uncle. Stabs him. (Does this avenge his father? No. It’s Polonius.)
  • Ends up in a duel. Dies. Good news or bad? We still don’t know until we know if he ends up in Heaven, Hell, or if there’s no afterlife at all.
  • This is a masterpiece because Shakespeare told us a story that represents the truth of life. It’s all unknown.

Vonnegut gave several speeches over the years, and politics aside, he was an engaging and entertaining speaker. His talks on the five basic plots were particularly humorous. I’m including one such video here at the end of this post. It’s not too long, and I hope you take the time to watch it.

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

Staci Troilo Bio

55 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Good News Bad News

  1. Interesting. I have enjoyed a few Vonnegut novels but always thought him a tad behind the curve. No Pun Intended after the graphs. Many other speculative writers meant more to me and still do. I am still fond of a good dystopia. What caught your imagination (if you do not mind me asking) placing him above others that have dabbled in similar areas?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I caught his speech and found it enjoyable. I watch (and read) a lot of information on craft, and I found his presentation to be the most entertaining by far, so I opted to share his take on the subject. I’ve already shared Christopher Booker’s seven basic plot types a while ago (you can find them here: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/basic-plots-overcoming-the-monster/), and I shared the Nutshell method of plotting (you can find links to them here: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/10/23/nutshell-climactic-choice-final-step/). I just really like to share different techniques with our readers. You never know what will resonate with someone. And I’ll probably end up sharing other methods in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol- you never answered my question, not really, but I accept your comment. It is true that no matter ideas and ideals (not easy to read), form the basis of literary thought; format, genre and subject matter inform it. Some ideas, methods and thoughts will contextualize with both writers and readers and Vonnegut was a strange abhorrence repelling readers whilst fascinating them. I am off to read the links you added. Thank you.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t believe I “placed him above others.” I just chose to feature him because I found his presentation entertaining. I chose Booker first because his are very common and would resonate with the most people (I think). And I chose Chamberlain second because I found her method fascinating.

        I would never dare put one method above another because I don’t think there is an ultimate way to write a novel. I think a writer needs to find the method that speaks to him, then tweak it to make it his own.

        I hope that answers your question. I wasn’t trying to avoid it. I just wasn’t sure how else to answer it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. These have been so interesting, Staci. This one strikes a chord with me. But as I think about my stories, I don’t believe any of them fit this type of plot. Your example is perfect. I have enjoyed all of these and thank you so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if novels based on somebody’s biography qualify for good news/bad news. For example “Of Human Bondage” and “Cakes And Ale” by Somerset Maugham, “Burr” by Gore Vidal, “Swing Time” By Zadie Smith. There are no pre-set feeling of tragedy or comedy. It’s rather a description of life with good and bad times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Biographies are probably a different category. While we could plot them on these graphs, they aren’t made up, so we didn’t get to choose which line they’d follow. It would be interesting to see how many famous people fall on the good-news/bad-news plot, though (or any of the others). Then again, we really have no idea how much truth there is in those accounts.

      It all is interesting to think about, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t think of a story off the top of my head that mirrors good news/bad news (probably because I’m operating on slow ebb today), but I found your post most informative. I’m going to have to check out the vid later when I can engage my speakers. You always present these so well!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. I read Vonnegut’s Dead Eye Dick and Galapagos and love his sly humor. If I remember them enough, they might be Good News/Bad News, too. I always meant to get around to reading his mysteries but never made it. You’ve made me want to look them up. Hamlet was one of my Shakespeare favorites but never thought of it as a straight plot. This was a great series. Makes me realize a really good writer can make any type of plot work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right, Judi. A great writer can work magic with any type of plot.

      I, too, am a fan of Shakespeare. Macbeth is a favorite of mine. As is The Merchant of Venice. (Not many people ever mention that one.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, now I understand why Hamlet did not appeal to me when I read it in high school. GAH! Talk about depressing! But I do see the potential for making this plot line work, just maybe with fewer fatalities. 😉 This has been a very helpful series, Staci, and I expect to be referring back to it often in the future. Thanks so much. Will watch the video later today, as Mark is home and we’re working on house projects now. And I’ll definitely be sharing on TWS, as I know others will enjoy this as much as I did. 🙂 Another super post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. I enjoyed this series, very much, Staci. I think another important thing about good news / bad news is the way it influences our characters. Which are they looking for. Which do they see in a given situation. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kind of glad I watched the video. These always make me feel like a deer in the headlights. I can see how these might fit right in with the picaresque story structure I posted about. The only story I can come up with is Pulp Fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. We have some books in the house by Vonnegut because my husband loves science fiction. To my shame, I’d read nothing by him nor knew anything about him until this fascinating series of yours. I’ve now watched the video (loved it!) and am about to buy Slaughterhouse-five as a consequence. I’ve read factual accounts of the bombing of Dresden and now want to read his take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have enjoyed this series, Staci. I think most of us are faced with good news/bad news situations all the time. Good news – you have a promotion. Bad news – the position is in Alaska. Good news – toilet tissue is plentiful. Bad news – the line is five miles long. Anyway, thank you so much for your examples along with the lessons. The Hamlet example was outstanding. I have saved the video for later since I’m heading out to a day of health care provider interaction. 😁

    Liked by 2 people

    • My mind went straight to literary fiction, but you’re right; I can absolutely see the merits of applying it to children’s literature when used as teaching tools instead of pure entertainment. Great insight, Jill. Thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Excellent post, Staci. Centuries ago, I attended a lecture at Purdue University, at which a Zen monk explained that life is not fair. He further said that believing otherwise was the root cause of most of our problems. Reading about the Good News/Bad News plot type prompted this recall and as well, a quick visit of my own life. Hamlet’s choices are dramatic, and ours might seem bland in comparison, but I’m with Vonnegut in thinking that this last plot type mirrors life–the ups and downs, the everyday choices, the worries, and the celebrations. Life. Thank you, Staci, for putting this into perspective. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • If I’ve learned anything over the last year and a half, it’s that life most certainly is not fair. It’s riddled with ups and downs, and sometimes it feels like a lot of downs. And very often, we don’t know if our choices make a difference. Or maybe I should say we never really know if we made the right choice because we can’t know what would have happened had we made a different decision.

      In any event, this plot type does mirror life and does make for compelling stories, even if the endings aren’t always tied in a neat bow. Thanks, Gwen.

      Liked by 3 people

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  15. I can’t think of any good news bad news stories, but I sure enjoyed this post. Thanks for including the video, Staci. It was fun to hear him explain what I’ve been reading, but I think I’ll take away his wisdom of acknowledging the good moments.

    Liked by 3 people

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