Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Man in Hole

Ciao, SEers. I’m back again to talk about story structure (admittedly an obsession of mine).

Love him or hate him, one of the twentieth centuries most influential and prolific authors was Kurt Vonnegut. Though he studied at some of our nation’s finest institutions (including my alma mater), he never studied writing. And when he wrote his thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, it was initially rejected.

Why am I telling you this?

One, to tell you to keep at it. Because years later, his thesis was accepted. Eventually, hard work pays off. 

And two, because even though Vonnegut didn’t study writing, he was a master of the craft because he studied people. And you can’t write good fiction without knowing people.

Vonnegut posited there are five basic types of story structures: Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, From Bad to Worse, and Good News/Bad News. He plotted all stories on a grid. The vertical axis was the GI-Axis, and it ran from good fortune to ill fortune. The horizontal axis was the BE-Axis, and it ran from the beginning to the end of the story.

Today, we’re going to talk about the first of his plots—Man in Hole.

Man in Hole

The Man in Hole is a story we’re all familiar with and is maybe the most common story type. It starts above the midpoint of the GI-Axis, as Vonnegut says readers don’t want to read about a hero who doesn’t start out happy. Then the “man falls in a hole,” or in other words, something devastating happens to the protagonist. The rest of the story is spent with the hero trying to get out of the hole, until eventually he does, and he ends up in a place that is even better than where he started. He notes this on his graph by the line being higher on the GI-Axis when the hero is out of the hole (farther on the BE-Axis, closer to the end of the story) than in the beginning.

A classic example of this plot type is The Wizard of Oz. In the beginning of the story, Dorothy’s life is above the midpoint on the GI-Axis. Yes, Kansas is monochromatic and dull. But she is loved and well cared for by Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. The three farm hands are quite fond of her and entertain her as they work. She and Toto play all day. Her life might be a bit boring, but it’s above zero on the GI-Axis. When Miss Gulch takes Toto away, she dips down. When Toto returns but she has to run away to protect him, she dips further. When she’s told her aunt is sick because she left, she dips more. Then the tornado, then the Wicked Witch chasing her, then being given an impossible task, then being captured. Even once she’s beaten the witch, has given the wizard the broomstick, and has discovered his ruse, her problems never seem to end—he promises to take her home in his balloon, but Toto chases a cat and he floats away without her. She’s out of options. A true low point. Until Glenda teaches her the final lesson and she goes home, happier to be there than she was before. (Higher on the GI-Axis than she was at the beginning of the story.)

In Summation:

Man in Hole
  • Starts well cared for but discontent
  • Forced to leave
  • Is terrorized
  • Wants to go home but can’t get there
  • Finally gets home
  • Ends both well cared for and content

What about it, SEers? Do you have a favorite “man in hole” story—one you’ve read or written? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo Bio

70 thoughts on “Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Man in Hole

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  4. This is incredible, Staci. I’m an outliner. But Vonnegut had his own routine that just makes so much sense. I’m not just a people watcher, I often overhear comments that have given rise to a short story or two. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Good News Bad News | Story Empire

  6. Pingback: Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s From Bad to Worse | Story Empire

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  9. A great post, and I’m happy you chose a colorful model to work with. Many years ago, I had the pure pleasure of seeing Kurt Vonnegut live in Hartford, CT as he explained the shape of stories, among other things. The most interesting thing to me about his writing, is that it never appears that he’s following any rules. I think that’s what I like most about him.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This reminds me of a history teacher I once had who gave each of us a similar timeline, except we had to plot events from our own lives on the timeline. Then, we had to explain how each of those events shaped our lives. He then led us into a lesson about how history shapes each country in its own way. I’m looking forward to each of these segments, Staci. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Kurt Vonnegut actually came to our main library and gave a lecture about writing and used his graphs as part of his talk. He was really interesting and funny. A new writer asked him for his best advice on starting out in a writing career and he said, “Marry rich.”:) Not bad advice if you could manage it:) I really enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. First of all, I have to comment about Vonnegut studying people. People watching is absolutely one of my favorite pastimes. It’s also a great way to get ideas for characters.

    I’m coming up blank with a favorite man in hole story, but unconsciously I’ve probably used that many times in my writing. I’m really looking forward to this series.!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love to people-watch, too, Joan. He studied anthropology, among many other things, so he took it to the next level, for sure.

      Man-in-hole is pretty popular. Now that you have a name for it, you’ll start noting it more and more, I bet.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. So interesting, Staci. I have a feeling that my current WIP is a Cinderella structure. It’s certainly not starting out at a high point unless I add a prolog. Hmmm. I really do enjoy these posts. They provide such interesting lenses to view our work. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This is such a fantastic post, Staci! I look forward to everything you have to share going forward from Vonnegut. You make some points here that are so critical to any good story. And the terminology is relatable. Thank you for sharing! This is a post I’ll pin for future reference!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m looking forward to the rest of the grids, Staci. Man in the hole is an element that we are all familiar with for sure. The others look fascinating. I can’t think of a book right now but the movie It’s a Wonderful Life comes to mind as a perfect example. Thanks for this information.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great post, Staci! Had several “a-ha” moments as I realized one of my characters fell completely in-line with the man-in-hole structure! I’m Vonnegut-inspired and didn’t even know it! 😀 😀

    Looking forward to more of this series. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This should be a fascinating series, Staci. I, too, am obsessed with story structure. No matter how different the angle, the similarities pop right out. It’s oddly comforting. I also find it fascinating to study how different writers approach plotting, especially someone as talented as Vonnegut.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought you’d told me you’re a structure junkie. You probably will like the rest of this series, then. It is comforting to find we’re following structures even when we don’t know it. (Especially if they line up with one Vonnegut mapped out.)

      Thanks, Sue.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I’d have to name The Count of Monte Cristo as a favorite man in the hole story. It treads a lot of different lines and concepts. I seem to remember the book ending differently, but I love the beautiful conclusion of the movie version.

    This was a fascinating post, Staci. Looks like another great series of writing posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Great post. As I read this the thought occurred to me that my series of detective novels are mostly man in hole stories, especially when I look at the series arc in its entirety. My character started off in a good place, had a devastating event, and then gradually claws his way out of the hole with each novel only to be pushed partway back into the hole within each. He hopefully learns a lesson in each story, however, that puts him in a better place than where he started. I didn’t consciously construct them this way, but that is the plot line I think they fall in. It will be interesting to read the rest of the posts in this series. I’m going to share this one with my followers. Nice job!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like a little “day in the life” too. I want to know who I’m rooting for and why I should care, or I won’t care.

      Thanks for the kind words, Craig. I hope you do find the series interesting. Vonnegut was very political, especially near the end. (Many artists of his era were.) But love him or not, his work was fascinating. And he was an engaging speaker, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  20. Even though I’m more of a pantser … or, at the least, a plantser, I can relate to Vonnegut’s graph and theory. Without meaning to (or maybe my muse did, lols), I’ve started my trilogy out with the normal life of the MC, who is sitting and eating her breakfast, albeit in an awfully overcroweded house, as that sets the scene for what follows.

    Great post, Staci. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reblogged this on:

    Liked by 2 people

    • I prefer stories that let us get to know the hero for a brief second before her world explodes rather than starting in ground zero. It’s hard to care about what happens to a character if I don’t know her. The fact that you intuitively wrote your trilogy that way just says you (or your muse) knows story structure organically, and that’s a good thing. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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  22. Not sure I have a favorite. Though I can see how stories have be seen this way. Makes me think of tv episodes where a character runs into trouble and is out with a lesson within 30 minutes. Seems natural too since we can find ourselves stumbling even a little every day.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s funny you bring up television. I’ve been watching a lot more classic shows lately (modern shows are leaving a lot to be desired, and nothing new is on now, anyway), and while the quality might not be up to our standards production-wise, or even complexity-wise, I have to give (some of them) props for clever writing and knowing how to craft a plot. You can easily see the story structure in the shows, and the moral lesson, but I don’t even care because the writing is so tight and the comedy so strong. (MASH and Barney Miller are two that come to mind.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sitcoms are really good at this type of story. It was a simple formula too. Characters say hi, problem appears, comedy, problem solved, and lesson learned. Modern series seem to go more seasonal than episodic with this. I just finished Cobra Kai, which had the problems last for the season. This seemed to work out only because I could binge things. There wasn’t a week break between episodes where tension could wane.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I plan on bingeing season three this weekend, now that I don’t have The Mandalorian to watch on Fridays. It does stretch its problems out longer than necessary. TV certainly has changed over the years. Though the half-hour comedy (which seems to be going away) still follows the same formula.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good to hear season three of Cobra Kai is available. Loved the first two seasons and I’m looking forward to a binge!

        I agree that a lot of older shows portrayed the concept much better, too. They’re mostly all I watch these days with a few excursions to Netflix and Disney+

        Liked by 1 person

  23. Pingback: Basic Plots: Vonnegut’s Man in Hole | Legends of Windemere

  24. Fascinating, Staci. I was unaware of Vonnegut’s plot distinctions. When you begin a story, do you conceptualize your plot development in this way? The graphic and your explanation give me plenty to ponder today. Excellent!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Since the pandemic made television selections worse than usual (and let’s face it, they were pretty bad before), I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos. Many of them are on writing craft. (Yes, I’m that big a dork.) Last year, pretty early on, I stumbled on the Nutshell Method videos ( Later in the year, I stumbled on some talks by Vonnegut and found his plotting talks. I’m already pretty set in my ways, plotting-wise, so I can’t say he taught me to think like this, but I find I inherently think this way as I plot because I dig my characters into a pretty deep pit then have them claw out. I wouldn’t mind trying some of the other plots. I always said I’d like to try a tragedy, which one of his plots lends itself to (or the inverse of this one would work).

      I’d also like to try to plot a book using the Nutshell method. But I’m booked pretty solid for the next year, and I kind of don’t have time to experiment at the moment. Maybe someday when things calm down a little. It’s on my wishlist to try, for sure. Do you have a preferred way to plot?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Gosh, that’s a hard question to answer. I believe I’m a plantser and usually build the plot with a basic outline, but more often than not, the characters take the story where I did not intend. I learn a lot through the process of stumbling around with them, but it can be unnerving for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s kind of nice when the characters lead us. I like to take charge of the plot, but if my characters insist on doing something, I let them. If they’re adamant about something, I assume they know better than I do, and it’s usually with good reason.


    • I’m wary of “rules” because there are always exceptions. In general, it’s a good idea to start a mystery/thriller/suspense with the crime element so readers know what problem will be driving the book. But that doesn’t necessarily break Vonnegut’s rule. Rather than opening on the gun or the corpse or the robbery or whatever, which would be in media res and I could argue against it, but I already said it works well enough in the comments section of Craig’s post on the topic, you could introduce your heroes first. I don’t know if you ever watched Bones or Castle, but the titular heroes were almost always seen having an ordinary day before being called to the scene of the crime.

      The other way to look at it is to have that opening scene be from the villain’s POV (which I LOVE to do), then break to the heroes having their regular old day until they’re called to action. That, to me is the best of both worlds. You get that gripping first scene that draws in the reader, then you get Vonnegut’s premise—the hero’s journey beginning with him happy, then falling in a hole. Remember, his graph only plots the protagonist. If you have multiple POVs, you can start with anybody. And I like to start with someone other than the hero in this case. Readers are smart. They know better than to bond with the wrong character.

      I hope that helps.

      Liked by 3 people

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