Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories

In the Cornelsen coursebook I’m writing, and in my classes, I warn my students against turning their presentations into straight pitches. Robert McKee, the Hollywood scriptwriter, has pointed out that the audience doesn’t really engage with and is not convinced by a presentation that tries to sell only strong points. People aren’t dumb. They’ll instinctively know that the presenter is giving them only half of the story. Instead, McGee says, presenters should use the typical shape of stories for their talks, and take their audience through all of the highs and lows.

According to McKee, all stories follow a basic pattern: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance.” But then an event occurs that introduces a complication. The plot thickens as the protagonist tries to restore balance, working with whatever means are available and taking action in the face of risks.

KVstoriesNow, that may be true for the basic pattern, but there are clearly variations. In this lecture, novelist Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr Rosewater) presents three such variations along a line from B for Beginning to E for… Electricity.

Also see below one of the last interviews with Vonnegut. It showcases his full life and his signature phrase: “And so it goes.”

Interview with an old potato

A few years ago when I was teaching English students at the LMU Munich, my students told me how in a creative writing class, Gill Woodman, head of Sprachpraxis there, had given them a bag of potatoes and told them to select one and imagine its personality, and then write its biography. Such a great idea. Imagination + humor.

Remember Mr. Potato Head? My dad bought me the game when I got my tonsils out, at about the age of 5.  He would have giggled with me about this silly video – could be a take on Gill’s assignment for Very Young Learners: interview a potato.

Herbie Hancock: Watermellon Man

I love, love, love how Herbie Hancock tells the story of how he composed Watermellon Man.

Hello Kitty arrested

  • Hello Kitty ArrestedWhat’s going on here?
  • Where is this scene taking place?
  • What time of day is it?
  • Who’s being arrested?
  • How much do you know about ‘her’?
  • What else do you imagine about ‘her’?
  • What do you think ‘she’s’ being arrested for?
  • What exactly do you think happened? How? Why?
  • What could the officers be thinking?
  • What could ‘she’ be thinking?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • What would you like to ask the three people in the picture?
  • Could this happen in your town? Why or why not? If so, would anything be different?

“Hello, Kitty.” “Hello, officer.” (…)

© seymour templar 2009

  • Thank you for this great picture, Barbara, and for the Japanese sweets below, including the Hello Kitty sticks. My husband wants the green tea chocolates!
  • Hello Kitty home
  • Also see Hello Kitty Hell

Barbara's package of Japanese sweets 2Barbara's package of Japanese sweets

What’s the story, cupcake?


Sweet Dreams by Kirsten Lepore, Special Jury Award at SXSW 2009

Images and laughter help you learn, says Jo Westcombe, who sent this video and knows a thing or two about story telling. A fun assignment in a writing class could be to write this up in different genres: separate groups write a fairytale, a romance, a newsflash and report, a report in a scientific journal…

So over to you: What’s Cupcake’s story? Start watching, then stop the film. What’s going to happen next? At the end: Did you expect the story to end differently? What decisions does Cupcake make, and why? What’s your favorite scene in this story, and why?

Did you know that you can call someone you love “cupcake”? Here are more terms of endearment for your summer flirt.

He loves Brazil

I saw a dear friend today who travelled to Brazil with her 10-year old son late last summer. One of the stories she told has added a bounce to my step all day:

When they landed and wanted to go through customs, there wasn’t a guard in sight anywhere. So they settled down for a long wait at the airport terminal, and she told her son to play with his football. After maybe 20 minutes or so a man in uniform came round and walked up to her son – and started playing football with him. Everyone else just had to wait to have their passports checked until they were finished. – Do I need to tell you that her son simply loves Brazil?

But I’m also thinking very hard about Germany. Just think what would happen if a ten year-old boy started playing football inside Munich Airport. And what would people standing in line say if the customs officer spent half an hour playing ball instead of checking passports? There’s this phrase in German “irgendwo hört der Spaß auf.” Maybe we have to stretch our tolerance for “Spaß” just a little over here…

Elisabeth Gilbert, storyteller

How to deal with the pressure of being expected to repeat an inspired performance? Elisabeth Gilbert, author of the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love and the lesser known, but delightful Stern Men (my review and podcast), says divine inspiration may or may not come again, but that shouldn’t trouble you. “Just continue to show up for your part of the job.” Fits in with what I was saying a few days ago: It’s not about you.