Ciao, SEers. I’ve been talking about Vonnegut’s five basic plots. So far, I’ve discussed Man in Hole, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, and From Bad to Worse, which you can find by clicking the links. Today, I’m going to talk about the fifth and final plot type, Good News/Bad News.
As I’ve described in all the other posts, 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 Good News/Bad News story type is the one that Vonnegut always ended his lectures with. It was the one that he said is the most interesting because it was the one that mirrored real life. Why? Well, because we don’t really know what we’re looking at at any given time. Take our protagonist. His journey is going to start below the midpoint on the GI-Axis because life isn’t always the bowl of cherries people wish it was and more often than not is just the pits.
Then he’s going along, being faced with choices and making them. But he doesn’t know the results of those choices. And by the end of the story, he still doesn’t know.
The classic example of this plot type is Hamlet. The reason this is a Good News/Bad News story is because Hamlet goes through the entirety of the play not knowing whether any information he receives is good news or bad, nor does he know whether any decision he makes will result in a good or bad outcome.
He begins the story in the same place Cinderella did, well below the midpoint of the GI-Axis. He’s been summoned home because his father is dead, and his mother has remarried his uncle. When he arrives, his friend tells him to go to the roof, where he sees his father’s ghost and is told his uncle, Claudius, killed him for the throne. But there’s no way to prove this. So, Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put on a play reenacting the crime so he can study his uncle’s reaction. Surely seeing his transgressions on stage will cause his guilty conscience to manifest in some way. But it doesn’t. He doesn’t react at all. This confuses Hamlet, who goes to his mother’s chambers, agitated and confused. When he sees someone hiding behind her draperies, he believes it to be his uncle and takes decisive action, striking him dead through the curtain. But it’s Polonius (who Hamlet doesn’t like, anyway). But Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, whom Hamlet loves, kills herself upon hearing the news. These deaths result in a duel between Hamlet and Polonius’s son, Laertes. Claudius has it rigged so Hamlet will die either way—by poison sword-tip if he’s stabbed or by poisoned chalice if he wins. Unfortunately, he is winning the duel but he refuses the drink and his mother takes the cup, instead, and dies instantly. Laertes, who gets cut by his own poisoned blade, wounds Hamlet then reveals the plan to him. Hamlet runs his uncle through with the toxic sword, then (adding insult to injury) also makes him finish the poisoned wine. His father finally avenged, and now his mother avenged, too, Hamlet can die at peace with his choices, though he still doesn’t know whether any of his decisions made a difference.
- His father is dead and his mother remarried his uncle.
- The ghost of his father tells him to avenge him. (Do we know if this is true? No.)
- Stage a play to test veracity of claim. (Does this work? No.)
- In mother’s room, sees drapes wave. Thinks it’s his uncle. Stabs him. (Does this avenge his father? No. It’s Polonius.)
- Ends up in a duel. Dies. Good news or bad? We still don’t know until we know if he ends up in Heaven, Hell, or if there’s no afterlife at all.
- This is a masterpiece because Shakespeare told us a story that represents the truth of life. It’s all unknown.
Vonnegut gave several speeches over the years, and politics aside, he was an engaging and entertaining speaker. His talks on the five basic plots were particularly humorous. I’m including one such video here at the end of this post. It’s not too long, and I hope you take the time to watch it.
What about it, SEers? Do you have a favorite “Good News/Bad News” story—one you’ve read or written? Let’s talk about it.