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Over on my Tumblr thing, I periodically fish for questions for blog fodder and periodically get good stuff. A while ago, for example, I got this question from a reader (and writer) called Jesteram:

As a writer, how do you avoid telling the same stories over and over again with different words? Or is that the point?

My answer obsesses on the second half of the question, so I wanted to be sure to ask this question of you readers, too.

My answer is this: It’s not the point, exactly, but it’s inevitable, to a degree. While I think that exciting and ingenious new stories are certainly possible, I also think that most stories are only incrementally new, building on older tales in new ways, adding riffs to familiar chords, as it were. This isn’t even counting the number of times that, say, Shakespeare’s plays have been retold through direct or more circuitous adaptations.

I suppose it depends on how far down you boil the story. Boy Meets Girl, &c., is a pretty common story, with a lot of different words possible in the telling, right? The FX TV series, Sons of Anarchy, is about bikers, but it begins with essentially the same setup as Hamlet, told in a very different way and taking off in a new direction. The one-season series, Kings, taps the story of King David for its main through-line, but riffs on (and deviates from) the core story in lots of interesting ways.  (Goliath is an armored tank, for one.) Same stories, different words, if you dial your instrument down enough to read only a few stories.

Dial your instruments down enough, and every story is just its core narrative conflict (e.g., Man vs. Nature, Woman vs. Society, etc.), I guess. Dial your instruments back up to full resolution, though, and you might determine that the individual words make two similar stories very different.

But is that the point? To tell the same stories over and again with different words? I guess I’d say that we retell stories for a different, but similar, reason to why we tell stories in the first place. It’s the difference between teaching someone and reminding someone. So, yes, sometimes the whole reason we tell a story is to retell it with different words, to rejuvenate it — or our interest in it — or to recapture the experience of hearing the story for the first time.

As to how I avoid telling the same story over and over, I just follow my ideas around and write them down as best I can. I say an oeuvre could do worse than to tell the same core story two or three times, with different language, and call that a theme.

What do you think?