Vonnegut: Narrative Arcs and Why We Love Drama

For mil­len­nia we have told and absorbed fant­ast­ic stor­ies with simple yet strong nar­rat­ive struc­tures, and the struc­ture of these stor­ies is in con­trast to the much less errat­ic “plots” of our own lives. This dis­crep­ancy between the dra­mas present in our stor­ies and our real lives causes many of us to cre­ate unne­ces­sary and non-exist­ent dra­mas in our lives.

That’s Kurt Von­negut’s the­ory for why some people “have a need for drama”, as described by Derek Sivers who atten­ded a talk where Von­negut explained this the­ory through a series of won­der­fully simple dia­grams show­ing the nar­rat­ive arcs of some of our favour­ite stor­ies and com­par­ing them to that of a “nor­mal” life.

Von­negut also dis­cusses and describes these nar­rat­ive arcs through dia­grams in the col­lec­tions Palm Sunday and A Man Without a Coun­try. Aus­tin Kle­on excerpts the former book, where Von­negut writes that this was the top­ic of his rejec­ted Mas­ter­’s thes­is. My favour­ite arc has to be that of Cinder­ella:

Kurt Vonnegut's Narrative Arc Diagram of Cinderella

On read­ing this I was curi­ous as to:

  • why the caus­a­tion must go from the stor­ies we read to our own lives: could it not be that we cre­ated stor­ies filled with drama and nar­rat­ive struc­tures like those described in order to fill a void that the fake dra­mas we cre­ated in real life wer­en’t?
  • how this could relate to the concept of Apol­lo­ni­an and Dionysi­an. Not for long, as a quick search led me to Red­dit user Ghost­s­For­Break­fast’s thoughts on the idea (basic­ally, what I would like to say, but much clear­er).

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