This is part three of an ongoing blog series I’m dedicating to the Shapes of Stories, as theorized by sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut. If you need to catch up, Shapes of Stories is the introductory post, followed by A Man, Woman (or Brand) in a Hole in which I discuss the “man in a hole” story shape and how it can be applied across varying mediums.
This post will discuss another of Vonnegut’s story shapes that he calls “Boy Meets Girl.” The story doesn’t have to be about a sweet young man meeting the girl or boy of his dreams but it’s an easy way to remember the shape.
The story starts with a perfectly average moment, neither bad or good, when suddenly everything is changed for the better (boy meets girl). Just when the apex of happiness is reached, everything changes for the worst (boy loses girl). But fear not, fortunes quickly reverse and all is good in the world (boy gets girl back, for good).
Visually it looks like this, remembering that the X axis is time chronologically from beginning to end and the Y axis is relative happiness from happiness upward to sadness downward.
This shape has been used in almost every rom-com, but it’s about more than our need to find a star-crossed lover — it’s about the ups, the downs, and the inherent fragility of human life. When things are blah and ordinary, we hope something great comes along. When something great comes along, we are terrified of losing it. And once we lose whatever “it” may be, we want it back.
A great example of this story trajectory can be found in the celebrity and political gossip rags that line cashier counters. How a culture tells stories about its most known individuals says much about what that culture values in a story.
This probably sounds familiar:
- Person A is just an average joe or jane.
- Person A accomplishes something incredible.
- Person A loses it all due to some fatal human flaw.
- Person A finds redemption and comes back better than ever.
As a society, we love to build our popular figures up, only to tear them down, before ultimately allowing them to win their way back into our good graces. It’s a vastly different story than the rom-com, but the same shape.
So what does this have to do with you as a marketer, creative, or doer of any sort of business?
As always, start by recognizing this shape in the wild. I guarantee you will find it used in news stories, podcasts, documentaries, books, TED talks, and throughout any media intended to educate, persuade, or entertain.
Next, try to use it yourself. People remember stories, not stats. If we want to be better communicators, we must shape our messages along the story arcs people love to consume.
You can fault Hollywood for being formulaic, but “boy meets girl” will be used in countless nausea inducing rom-coms next year for a very good reason, it still sells — use it to your advantage.