Thanks to GalleyCat for pointing me towards this little Kurt Vonnegut gem, an oldie but a goody which sees the great man memorably pinning down the "shapes of stories" on graphs he's drawing.
Derek Sivers was at the talk the author gave and sums it up nicely here, but it's more fun to watch Vonnegut himself in action – and to long to have been there; he's brilliant.
He starts by sketching out his graph, with the Y axis moving up from agony to ecstasy, the X from beginning to end. Then he begins drawing on common plots.
"We'll start a little above average because why get a depressing person? We call this story 'Man in Hole' but it needn't be about a man and it needn't be about somebody getting into a hole. Somebody gets into trouble and gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get sick of it."
Then he moves on to "Boy Gets Girl". "Starts on an average day, average person not expecting anything to happen, a day like any other, finds something wonderful, just loves it. Oh goddamit ... [the line descends into misery, then moves up into positivity] ... Got it back again."
The best, though, is Vonnegut drily charting "the most popular story in our civilisation ... We love to hear this story, every time it's retold somebody makes another million dollars." He begins at the lowest point on the Y axis. "We're going to start way down here. Worse than that. Who is so low? It's a little girl. What's happened? Her mother has died, her father has remarried, a vile-tempered ugly woman with two nasty daughters." Laughter. "You've heard it?"
I won't go on because you're better off watching him yourself. He's wonderful, and I'd say the only thing which could possibly better the talk would be to have seen him trying to graph-ify Slaughterhouse-Five. Any takers?