The Shape of Stories

Have you ever considered the shape of a story? Perhaps it is a tale that undulates and dips, before rising to a finish. Or it is a story that is jagged, with stiff cliff faces. Within most of us, since childhood, is an individual wealth of stories from which we can form shapes and sense.

Over time, as we read, accumulating stories and memories, our sense of a story deepens like a coastal shelf. Our language and knowledge of the world becomes inextricably linked to those stories. They become – as Dan Willingham relates – “psychologically privileged” in our minds and hearts.

When I think about the label of ‘disadvantaged children’ I consider wealth and material basics first and foremost, but I quickly leap to the privilege of stories and the riches of knowledge, understanding and the nourishment that they offer us.


The importance of ‘mental models’

When our students read and write they draw upon their knowledge of stories – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. The language and words and patterns become known and understood, matched and linked together. Over time, students develop what we can term a ‘mental model‘. That is to say, the more we read, the more we understand, the more we develop a ‘model’ of different types of stories and their respective worlds.

We know that the earlier we read, and the greater the volume of our reading, the more fine grained and precise our ‘mental model’. For many children who join school, they are well on the way with being read to and the shape of stories – mental models – are already emerging in their minds. By secondary school, I can teach a gothic story, but most students could write a good attempt with little to no teaching. The shape of the story is already well formed in their minds.

For many students thought, they don’t have a wealth of reading that has helped them form rich, complex mental models. They tackle complex texts and language at GCSE and they flounder. As an English teacher, this matters great to their ability to succeed. Such children need to begin as early as possible, and if the shape of stories is not within their grasp, then we should make what is implicit explicit to them (to borrow Geoff Barton’s phrase).

I happened to recently pass by a wonderful design website by Maya Eilam, who has produced an excellent infographic, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories of archetypal stories, on the very topic of the ‘shape of stories‘. See here:



I think these are brilliant prompts to help our students see, consider and talk about the ‘shape of stories’. In doing so, it can bring to life sterile analysis of structure into something more meaningful. It prompts ideas around getting students to consider the shape of popular story genres. What would be the archetypal shape of a gothic novel? What would be the shape of Victorian detective fiction?

What we need to do, for every student, not just those who are not rich with stories, is to help them build their mental models of great stories, so that they can write and analyse structure and plot in a way that is purposeful and connects to the ‘big picture’ of our literacy traditions, past, present and future.

It makes me think of other ways to help students build their ‘mental models’ of literature, from devising literary timelines, using Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots‘ as a way to connect stories, or Propp’s ‘morphology of a folk tale‘, alongside his archetypal characters, and many more models, patterns and structures.

So what is the shape of the story you are reading?


Related reading:

In my blog on Planning for GCSE English Language and Literature Success I explore aspects of teaching the ‘big picture’ and ‘structure’.

Seeing the Big Picture’ moves from chess expertise to the Christopher Booker and pattern making.

5 thoughts on “The Shape of Stories”

  1. Hi Alex. Really enjoyed this. I use these regularly for all texts. Recently showed the Kurt Vonnegut video to bottom set year 9 as well, and they now apply the shapes independently to understand structure. One boy this week, did his own version with different characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He did the graph for Demetrius plummeting down at the end. I asked him about it, and he explained all his ideas to me about how Demetrius has lost his free will, and it isn’t a happy ending for him, and how he’s been totally manipulated into ‘loving’ Helena. (This chap has a target grade of a 1. Hmm.)

    1. Alex Quigley

      Fantastic example Lisa. It can be a great scaffold to cohere understanding – I like how it offers the chance for explanation; especially for a student who may express his ideas in sentences in a limited way in the first instance.

  2. I love this! I haven’t found the perfect planning tool for my pupils. I think this should be explored at Primary level as I’ve found planning options for students to be limited. The ‘shape’ of story needs to be explored as early as possible and this way is fun too.

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