The Same Old Story

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?

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comments ( 5 )

  • ReplyChuck 14 Apr 2010

    I was at Sundance, and one of the advisors (actually, I think one of the production advisors, not writing) said something interesting, and I’m paraphrasing the exact wording, but it speaks to this:

    The craft is in knowing which of those old stories you want to tell, but the art is in the choice and arrangements of the elements you bring to those stories.

    So, yes, these stories are old and retold.

    But how you tell it — what you put in, what you take out, the choices you make — is how you own it.

    — c.

  • ReplyRob Donoghue 14 Apr 2010

    As with lies, it is easier to come up with new words than it is to remember and faithfully recreate the old ones.

    -Rob D.

  • ReplyKyle Maxwell 14 Apr 2010

    It varies from author to author, and I don’t necessarily mind those that iterate on themes. And I certainly don’t mind taking classic stories (Hamlet) and processing them into new riffs (Lion King), both because the wrapping matters and because the fact that those stories still work is a meta-story on its own.

  • ReplyChuck 14 Apr 2010

    By the way, you’ve conditioned me to desire a new Lost recap.



    I’m desiring over here.

    — c.

  • ReplyJeff Tidball 15 Apr 2010

    On re-reading the question, it sounds a little bit like a how-to question: “How do I tell a story so that it actually feels like a new story, instead of a re-hashing of an old one?” And I think that it’s rough to do.

    I’d answer and say that you’ve got to find your own way into a story. You’ve got to figure out what part of your own experience can inform some element of a story that’s essentially been told before in order to put some new kind of spin on it—a spin that only you can impart.

    Unrelated to that advice, I think that this problem of re-hashing the old stories is more difficult for us than it was for writers even a generation or two ago. Read, for example, Paul Schrader’s Guardian article about narrative exhaustion.