Ciao, SEers. I’ve been talking about Vonnegut’s five basic plots. So far, I’ve discussed Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, and Cinderella, which you can find by clicking the links. Today, I’m going to talk about the fourth plot type, From Bad to Worse.
As I’ve described before, Vonnegut 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.
The From Bad to Worse story type is one that we don’t see often and is exactly as it sounds. Things start off bad and get progressively worse. In this case, our protagonist begins the story on the GI-Axis well below the midpoint and his arc goes down. There is no moment that trends toward the positive, and the endpoint tends toward infinite unhappiness.
The classic example of this plot type is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor, who is completely unhappy with his life and his job. He would quit, but his family depends on his salary. When he wakes, he finds he has transformed into a disgusting insect overnight. He is uncomfortable, but in his current form, he’s unable to roll off his back. He’s missed his train to work, and he’s unable to speak when his family and office manager call out to him. When he finally manages to open his door, they are horrified by his appearance, lash out at him, and close him in his room. The food they give him repulses him, but he finds he enjoys rotting scraps. No one visits, and while he spends all his days alone, listening to his family lament the difficult situation he’s put them in, he finds himself literally climbing the walls. His father throws an apple at him when he mistakes his concern for his mother as an attack. His sister grows to resent caring for him. His whole family ceases to acknowledge him at all, focusing only on what he’s cost them and not on what he’s going through or on what he’s given up or what he’d once done for them. When he overhears them wishing he was dead, he retreats to his room for a final time and dies, alone and unloved. His family moves to the country with the money they saved living meager lives while hiding him from the public, and he reaps none of this good fortune (as he’s dead and gone, and his family didn’t even bury him; the maid disposed of his body for them).
- Starts miserable
- Things get worse
- Ends at the pinnacle of badness
What about it, SEers? Do you have a favorite “From Bad to Worse” story—one you’ve read or written? Let’s talk about it.