Shapes of Stories

As I watched Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of stories, all I could think of was my favorite TV series of all time: South Park. Almost all South Park episodes are broken up into three separate acts and/or plots; all of which converging at the end to create a comedic masterpiece. While it is literally impossible for me to pick my favorite South Park episode, the first one I thought of was “Hell On Earth 2006.” In this the first act of this episode, Satan wants to throw himself a “super sweet sixteen”-style Halloween party. He is super excited about it so at the beginning of the episode, everything is great. He wants to surprise everyone with a Ferrari-shaped cake, and enlists the help of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy to go retrieve it from the baker. This, however, is where everything starts to go downhill. The three serial killers are portrayed as parodies of the Three Stooges, messing up left and right, and end up not getting the cake. As a result, Satan is stuck with an Acura cake, rather than a Ferrari cake. In the second act, Satan has said he will not invite members of the Church clergy so the Church tries to think of ways to either get in to the party or to sabotage it. In the final act, the kids of South Park accidentally summon Biggie Smalls in an homage to Beetlejuice (saying his name three times in a row). In the chart below, you can see the progression of the story. It starts off great, since Satan is excited about the party. Then, however, everything goes downhill. The squiggly lines at the bottom show all three storylines struggling, but by the end of the episode, Satan realizes he is being too childish and lets everyone in to the party. Thus, the story ends happily.

kv_south park

As far as one of the rules Pixar uses, I think number 13 always applies to South Park. The rule states:

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

In “Hell On Earth 2006,” Satan is really good at being a diva. He has an opinion on literally everything, and when things don’t go his way, he freaks out like a teenager. Similarly, all other main characters have strong opinions.

When it comes to a story spine, South Park also fits in nicely. For example:

Once upon a time, Satan wanted to throw an enormous Halloween party.

Every day, he thought of more and more ideas for the party, enlististing three serial killers to help him gather supplies.

But one day, Satan realized the three serial killers were incompetent and could not complete their assigned tasks.

Because of that, he became upset and turned into a diva teenager.

Because of that, he disinvited members of the churge clergy from the party.

Because of that, members of the church clergy plotted to sabotage the party.

Until finally, Satan realized that his party should be open to all people.

And ever since then, he was loved by all threw the best Halloween party ever.

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5 thoughts on “Shapes of Stories”

  1. Finally, somebody talks about South Park!

    Nice thoughtful post. It’s funny how this structure, that everything gets awful and then turns out basically fine, is sort of a backbone of comedy structure, right?

    If it didn’t end well, it’d be a tragedy, sure. But also, I think that having things seem really dire and then turn out perfectly alright–an almost arbitrary reinstatement of the status quo, like in most South Park episodes (and a lot of silent comedies, come to think of it), seems a fairly common occurrence. Not sure I can call it universal, but.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. I like that you used South Park as your example. I have to admit, I am not a fan of South Park but it was referenced often in a film class I took in college. I don’t love it but I think the writers certainly deserve some street cred when it comes to storytelling (and utilizing common film techniques).

  3. Satan fits the formula! I have to agree with Brian on how well you treated the shape and spine of something I never expected to be done. The beauty of working with a story like this is also the tangential referential elements- how can serial killers be funny? Relate them to stooges? A slap at the automobile industry?

    What some may dismiss as simple because of its perceived low brow humor turns out to have a complex narrative structure.

    Really good work here- I do like to know (twas not explicitly assigned) what doing this dissection of the story reveals to you. Would you expect cartoons to have a pretty simple shape?

    Also, for a blogging standpoint, I will want to see you use hyperlinks in your writing, to provide contextual references for the show, episode, maybe the historical figures mentioned, as well as the references to the Vonnegut video and pixar list– if someone finds only this post on your blog, will they understand all that you are writing about?

    But great work again for week 1, you are well on your way.

  4. I thought the Pixar rule you mentioned was very applicable.

    #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

    As an audience member, I always find it interesting when authors incorporate new viewpoints to old characters. The character of “Satan” is as old as time, but giving him the personality of someone on “My Super Sweet Sixteen” gives him unique and unexpected opinions and takes a character that the audience thinks they know and give him a strong voice. They were definitely not going for a “likable” character in this case…

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