Late one night, deep into our bedtime routine, my four-year-old daughter started stalling for time. She asked me to tell her a story and I realized that I didn’t know how.
It’s no simple task to put together a narrative that’s compelling to a four-year-old, a narrative that wraps together all of the lessons you as a parent want to convey: the importance of compassion and hard work and not making your parents miserable.
So that night I improvised. I told my daughter a story about a girl, just like her, who dreamed of opening a Chinese restaurant. I described years of hard work: learning Mandarin, going to culinary school, renting a store front.
Ok, the story wasn’t subtle. What’s worse, it wasn’t any good. It turns out that good bedtime stories for four-year-olds do not involve descriptions of small-business loans.
Later that night, once my daughter was finally asleep, I thought through my failed attempt at a story. The problem was that I chose the wrong shape.
In 1947, Kurt Vonnegut handed in a masters thesis to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Vonnegut argued that all human stories take only a handful of fundamental shapes, and that one can graph those shapes the way one would graph a mathematical function.
My story about a Chinese restaurant is a rags-to-riches story. Its shape is a simple upward-sloping curve, a rise in good fortune over time.
The rags-to-riches shape was just one of eight shapes that Vonnegut cataloged in his thesis. His favorite shape, one that he argued made for the most compelling stories, was the shape of Cindarella.
Cindarella is a rise-fall-rise story. The story first finds its hero in dire straights, mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters. Her fortunes reverse when her fairy godmother helps her go to the ball at the palace—the first rise. Then the ball ends, she loses a glass slipper, and falls from good fortune—the fall. Finally, her fortunes reverse again once the slipper fits. The happily-ever-after ending is the story’s final rise.
Vonnegut thought he had discovered a kind of universal grammar with these simple graphs—he thought the thesis was his best work. The anthropologists at the University of Chicago thought otherwise. Vonnegut never got his masters degree.
Vonnegut’s work, however, suggests a kind of prescription for men trying to tell their four-year-old daughters decent bedtime stories: put together a story with a complex, Cindarella arc.
After a couple of short-lived attempts, my daughter added two other requirements: there has to be a princess and there has to be a witch.
And so, I came up with the The Case of the Wednesday Witch. It’s a story that I will spare readers of this blog. I will only note that the story follows the Cindarella arc to a T. My daughter enjoyed it so much that after I told it to her, she demanded that I tell it to her again.