Just read a fantastic lecture (linked from Improbable Research) by Kurt Vonnegut in which he explains stories through simple graphs of “fortune” against time. E.g. the following, a generic storyline called “man in hole” (it’s kind of elegant that the graph itself serves as an illustration of the man’s predicament):

The graphs are pretty neat – intuitive and kind of informative – but the genius of the lecture is how he upends it in the final third with a discussion of Hamlet (quote: “How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say.”). He goes on to explain how Hamlet upsets our expectations of literature (in fact, of stories more generally) because we can’t be sure at any stage whether what is happening is “good news” or “bad news.” For example, Hamlet kills Polonius: it’s dramatic, it shows us that Hamlet is impetuous, violence is commonplace, and so on: but there are no consequences for Hamlet. The story just continues. Vonnegut’s conclusion is that Shakespeare was telling us the truth, because in reality, we usually don’t know what the good and bad news is: stuff just happens.

That might seem like an absurdly relativistic conclusion: surely, there are things that happen to ourselves and others that we instinctively know are “good” and “bad.” It’s easy to turn on the news and find examples of hurricanes, murders, torture, wars, etc. But maybe those things are in the news because they are unambiguously good or bad: that which is notable is that which we can say for sure tilts the overall balance toward the good or the bad. Having said that… if you look at the howling rage that surrounds the news media here in the States, you might be persuaded back towards Vonnegut’s point of view: if everyone disagrees vehemently about whether a certain outcome was good or bad (e.g., a judge striking down California’s Prop 8), it goes to show that events are inescapably ambiguous.

Anyway: go read the lecture, it’s better than my blog post about it.

Update: I had forgotten about the glorious illustration of fortune vs. time in Kafka’s Metamorphosis (which I only got round to reading a month or so ago; I liked it):