Anyone who has been trapped with me in a converstation about writing or stories knows that I might be a little obsessed with shape, structure, and patterns.

“What has been my prettiest contribution to the culture?” asked Kurt Vonnegut in his autobiography Palm Sunday. His answer? His master’s thesis in anthropology for the University of Chicago, “which was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” The elegant simplicity and playfulness of Vonnegut’s idea is exactly its enduring appeal. The idea is so simple, in fact, that Vonnegut sums the whole thing up in one elegant sentence: “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”

Kurt Vonnegut,

The idea that writing and stories have shapes is fantastically captured by Kurt Vonnegut in this video:

I think Vonnegut’s ideas fit very well with technical writing as well as fiction.

A well written procedure would fit nicely into something like the Cinderella story.

  1. We start low on the GI scale because there is something that we dont’ have that we need.
  2. We follow a series of documented steps that bring us closer to our goal, and therefore the graph curves up.
  3. We might reach the end of the steps and have a happy ending, or something might go wrong and the graph starts to go down.
  4. Then we go into troubleshooting steps and hopefully the line curves up and we reach a suitable level of happiness.

Of course it’s possible that the troubleshooting steps don’t solve our problem. We don’t always have a happy ending … so we can always “To be continued … with tech support”.

Conceptual information also fits very well.

  1. Again we start low because we don’t understand something.
  2. Then we spike up sharply as a grand overall vision is revealed.
  3. Then we follow a slow upwards slope as the details are filled in.

I’m not sure how reference material fits in here.

So I guess the question to ask yourself now is what are the shapes of your writing, and what does that mean for you and your readers?