How Kurt Vonnegut Taught Me to Create PowerPoint Decks

Posted on May 17, 2018

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Featured image graciously provided by the artist Maya Eilam at mayaeilam.com 

Narrative in Technical Writing 3

Story Crafting 8

Recently, I was working on a PowerPoint presentation for work, and despite creating if from an agreed upon outline, the customer wanted a total rewrite. That’s okay, the deck was about the Agile philosophy, one tenet of which is that we should frequently check with our customer and always refactor (redo) our work.

He wanted it broken down into Act1, Act2, and Act 3, and then drew the old sketch on the board first proposed by Archimedes as the shape of the story, refined later as Freytag’s Pyramid. I’ve even trotted this out myself, but it wasn’t until he drew it that I instantly and very viscerally took exception to it.

First, having the climax in the center like that is very misleading. That makes it look like it happens in the middle of Act 2, but it happens at the beginning of Act 3, almost at the very end of the story. Then it looks like there is a descent to the denouement, but in fact, it just levels out. Finally, the whole rise to the climax doesn’t make sense; that’s not how stories work.

Instead, I drew the following sketch.

Here we start with one status quo, get knocked out of it, things go to hell, you realize it’s all your fault and then you need to change so you can fix them. This nadir is often called “the dark night of the soul” and in most fiction, happens underground or in a dark, cavernous place. Like in the Hobbit where Bilbo finally decides to stop fighting being a burglar and burgles Gollum in the underground kingdom.

Finally, you end up better than you started. Here, I’ve embellished the curve with a series of parallel good and bad incidents taken from the My Story Can Beat Up Your Story beat sheet. For non-fiction, probably not necessary, but next time you watch a movie, notice how these show up.

In fact, in thinking about this just a tad, this is exactly Kurt Vonnegut’s Man-in-a-Hole Story shape from his Master’s thesis. And not coincidentally, my deck transformed pretty well into this shape.

Image graciously provided by the artist Maya Eilam at mayaeilam.com where you can see all of the story shapes laid out in a gorgeous infographic that is a perfect example of design excellence.

In the table below I used a more detailed view of the Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell, which follows this same arc. There are a ton of versions of this. Each guru has a spin or flavor, which is why I’ve already unapologetically played loose with the terms.


One interesting outcome is that I had this module, “Why Change is Hard,” that I just couldn’t figure out where to put. But when I held it up to the Great Universal Outline, there was a missing slot and I just put it there, problem solved.

It was a huge epiphany to me after writing more than a half-dozen blogs on story theory to take what I know about fiction and use that to create a non-fiction piece of technical writing. (Even though I’ve written about that, too here and here. Head injuries and all that….) Then I began to think about an essay I’ve been helping my friend Ellen with and I just pulled up a draft (and it is a draft) and mapped the Man-in-a-Hole outline to that, and, what-do-you-know? TaDa! Like magic there it is, including the reflected incidents. Whoa, how cool is that?

From Telluride to Blue Planet G:

By Ellen Goodman

To be published in Let’s Explore Magazine.

STATUS QUO

Telluride, 1996. Something special is happening in this exact spot, at this exact moment. I can feel it. I can’t describe exactly what “it” is but it’s there. I pull over on the side of the road. “Dear Prudence” muffles as I jump out of the Jeep and elbow the door shut. The pine air taste like dust and clouds are casting a soft light over evergreen studded foothills. A feeling of excitement hangs in the air. I look around to see if I can get a good shot. Just ahead are 14,000 foot snowcapped mountains, the notorious switchbacks of Black Bear Road, and Bridal Veil Falls; the tallest falls in Colorado. An approaching rumble breaks the silence. An old Ford Bronco is making its way my direction. I stay to the side of the road, wait until the Bronco is in front of me, snap the shutter then shimmy back into the Jeep. Proceeding, I see a 15 MPH and “Children Ahead” sign. I reflect on slowing down, escaping modern days and continue on into the heart of the mountains.

Traveling to remote areas, taking the backroads and capturing the magic and essence of a place via photographs is curative and liberating. You’re collecting pieces of a puzzle, gathering clues and discovering answers that help you understand what the world is about. I spent years looking for my answers; I looked in canyons, on banks of rivers, on the tops of mountains, in big cities and in small towns. I slept under stars and peered into oceans. I have had great experiences and learned great things. I photographed these things because it was my most expressive form of communication.

AHA MOMENT

I settled down, got married and had a child. I photographed the outdoors when I could, but those opportunities didn’t come as frequently. I no longer grabbed a backpack and took off on a whim to immerse myself in the depths of the Grand Canyon or on some remote trail far away. Parenthood has a way of keeping you grounded and off the road. However, the desire to make photographs still existed. If I stopped making photos, life would lose some its luster. I continued to shoot but something felt different and my photos lacked the specialness they once had. I’d take photos on weekend hikes, sometimes hesitantly; I was shooting because it’s what I did, not necessarily because I wanted to, it was more like muscle memory. A piece of me was disappearing. What I didn’t realize was another piece was slowly emerging.

DESCENDING INCIDENT 1 – DEATH OF THE SYMBOL

When I was pregnant with my daughter, two hawks began nesting in an oak in our yard. I’d see and hear them daily and found comfort in their presence. One spring evening a bad storm blew through. I woke the next morning, waddled to the sunporch, settled into a big wicker chair and sat there quietly waiting. But…there was no sign of the hawks; no song, no cry, no chocolate-and-cream colored wings soaring by. I glanced at the oak. As I peered up to check the nest, I noticed a wide black stripe running the length of the tree. It looked like a scar. Bark that was there yesterday had been blasted away, exposing a soft cushy layer beneath. The oak had been struck by lightning. I realized what happened and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.

DESCENDING INCIDENT 2 – SYMBOL RETURNS, MESSAGE IS MISINTERPRETED

It was over a year later when out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge hawk swoop down and dart past the family room window. I grabbed my daughter and camera and ran outside to get a photo. I slid out the door, finger on the shutter, but, I was too late, the lady hawk was gone. I missed capturing that special moment, the energy I habitually wanted to hold onto. I plopped down on the stairs of the deck, slumped over with head in hands; frustrated and angry. NADIR My attempt at capturing a sliver of an adventurous moment, albeit one in my suburban backyard, failed. As I sat there stewing, I turned and saw my daughter beside me. She was looking me with her piercing blue eyes, a look of wonder on her face. I don’t know what was going on in her head but I was suspended in her stare and wanted to stay there in that moment chock full of unspoken communication. CHANGE

ASCENDING INCIDENT 1 – SYMBOL RETURNS MESSAGE IS UNDERSTOOD

Just as the hawk sped by, so had the first two years of my daughter’s life. I had the most precious gift in front of me this whole time; one that wasn’t going to fly away, one I didn’t have to chase or climb mountains to find. In that moment, something shifted; my frustration disappeared, I felt foolish for feeling frustrated. I turned my camera toward her blue eyes and snapped the shutter.

ASCENDING INCIDENT 2 – REBIRTH

It was like a cartoon or superhero power where whatever she was thinking shot like electricity through her eyes and right to my heart. All the things I had been searching for and trying to hold onto had suddenly become less important. I realized that all the greatness that exists in mountains and streams also exist in humans. I felt like the oak that had been struck by lightning. My external experiences were being shed for internal ones. I was no longer drawn to finding answers “out there”, my answers were now in people and relationships. Thus began my journey into portrait photography.

CLIMAX

Sometimes perseverance is knowing what you’re drawn to is a gift and realizing what everyone else thinks doesn’t really matter. This idea is summed up in a line I saw at the end of a Poem “The Paradoxical Commandments” by Kent Keith. This line wasn’t written by Keith but it frequently associated with “The Paradoxical Commandments”. It reads like this: “in the final analysis it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.”

NEW STATUS QUO

I now do more listening than searching. One of my favorite listening moments came when my daughter was almost 3. It was a cold snowy day in March. I was on the sun porch shooting photos. My sister stopped by and stepped out on the porch unaware that my daughter was playing on the other side of the wicker chair. She spotted my daughter and said, “Natalie! Where did you come from?” Natalie’s response, “I came here from Blue Planet G. I traveled here on a rocket ship. It took me 3 weeks to get here.”

DENOUEMENT

As I was writing this, I sent it to a photographer friend. He told me to look up the American Indian story of the hawk. What I found was beautiful and reinforced the power of following your heart, listening and persevering:

“…The hawk comes to you indicating that you are now awakening to your soul purpose, your reason for being here. It soars with the power to overcome difficult situations. It soars in circles over the life of the earth, asking you to circle over your life and view it from a higher perspective. When you listen to the Wise Spirit that lives within, you are protected. The hawks cry signifies awareness. If you hear the cry of the hawk use your intuitive ability to discern the message and seek the truth.”

Everything I needed was right in front of me. I just needed to reframe my viewing and persevere in following my heart.

My desire to tell stories of places shifted to a desire to tell stories of people. But, maybe it’s not about the story I’m trying to tell in my photos. Maybe that’s for me. Maybe those images are seeds of possibility, a starting place on a journey where I listen but don’t respond until I hear the other person’s story. Maybe then, when I take their picture, I tell our story. Maybe for the moment, but maybe, just maybe, I can capture a story that everyone can share.

Conclusion

What’s cool about Ellen’s piece is that she is a newbie essayist who wrote this out on her own. I only did the editing on it, and the format emerged all by itself. Why does this work? Well, you probably need to brush up on Joseph Campbell and his ideas on universal myths. But however it happens, story is ingrained in us. We don’t just want to see the problem, we want to be engaged with the problem, we want to care about the problem, and then the solution is so much more satisfying, then we believe it.  Once you are aware of it, it seems almost unnatural to fight it.