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The Six Basic Arcs in Storytelling

Dylan Nikol

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As screenwriters, we often find ourselves grappling with the age-old question: What makes a story compelling? While there are countless variations and subplots, it turns out that most narratives can be boiled down to a handful of basic story arcs. In fact, the renowned author Kurt Vonnegut once proposed that there are only six fundamental story shapes. Although his master's thesis on this topic was rejected, Vonnegut considered it his most important contribution to the world of storytelling. Remarkably, his theory has since been tested on over 1,300 books, demonstrating its validity and universal applicability. Let's dive into these six story arcs and explore how they can help shape your screenwriting journey.

1. Rags to Riches

The "Rags to Riches" story arc is a classic tale of transformation and triumph. The protagonist starts in a lowly position, facing numerous challenges and obstacles. Through hard work, determination, and often a bit of luck, they gradually climb the ladder of success, ultimately achieving their goals and finding happiness. This arc is prevalent in movies like "Cinderella Man" and "The Pursuit of Happyness."

2. Tragedy

In the "Tragedy" arc, the protagonist begins in a position of power or success, but their own flaws or external circumstances lead to a downfall. This descent is often gradual, with the character making a series of poor decisions that ultimately result in their demise. Think of films like "Requiem for a Dream" or "The Godfather" trilogy, where the characters' actions and choices seal their tragic fate.

3. Cinderella

Similar to "Rags to Riches," the "Cinderella" story arc features a protagonist who starts in a low position but eventually achieves success and happiness. However, the key difference is that the transformation is often sudden and driven by external factors, such as a fairy godmother or a chance encounter. "Pretty Woman" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are excellent examples of this arc.

4. Man in the Hole

In the "Man in the Hole" story arc, the protagonist begins in a state of normalcy, then falls into a "hole" of challenges and struggles. The character must fight their way out of this metaphorical hole, learning valuable lessons and growing as an individual along the way. Once they overcome their obstacles, they emerge stronger and wiser. Movies like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Martian" exemplify this arc.

5. Icarus

The "Icarus" arc is named after the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the sun. In this story structure, the protagonist starts in a low position and gradually rises to success. However, their hubris or overconfidence leads to a sudden fall from grace. The character must then confront the consequences of their actions and learn humility. "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Scarface" are prime examples of the Icarus arc.

6. Oedipus

Named after the Greek tragic hero, the "Oedipus" story arc involves a protagonist who tries to avoid a terrible fate, but their actions inadvertently lead them directly to it. This arc often features elements of prophecy, fate, and irony. The character's attempts to escape their destiny ultimately seal it. Films like "Minority Report" and "Memento" showcase this complex and compelling story structure.

Identifying Your Story Arc with Prescene

Understanding these six basic story arcs can help you craft a more compelling and structured narrative in your screenwriting. But how do you know which arc your script follows? This is where Prescene comes in. Prescene is an AI-powered script coverage tool that analyzes your screenplay and identifies which of the six story arcs it most closely resembles. By gaining insight into your script's structure, you can refine your story, ensure it stays on track, and create a more engaging experience for your audience.

Kurt Vonnegut's rejected master's thesis has become a cornerstone of storytelling theory, and its principles have been proven time and time again. By leveraging the power of AI and Vonnegut's timeless wisdom, Prescene helps screenwriters take their scripts to the next level. Sign up for a free trial today to elevate your screenwriting game and create stories that captivate audiences.