72. How many stories are there?

It’s an old question. The basic idea is there are only a certain number of stories we can tell and everything is a retelling. The most common answer to the question, deriving from Arthur Quiller Couch and Christopher Booker, is seven basic stories. Aristotle argued there were only two  – comedy and tragedy.  George Polti found thirty-six. Joseph Campbell, with his idea of the Monomyth, famously plumped for one – the “Hero’s Quest” so beloved of Hollywood. Research I did into the narrower theme of stories about the future, suggested there were eight.

I was struck again by this question this week doing Friday Fictioneers. This is a community of over 100 writers who every week write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. The curious thing, reading the entries by other writers, was how many of them had written variations of the same story. Before I tell you what that the Ur-Tale is, here’s the photo prompt.

monsters-dmm

More than a quarter of all the 75 writers (at the time of writing this post) interpreted the prompt to create stories around a theme I call Scary Daddy. Basically, Daddy (or some other adult) puts on a diving helmet and mock-scares the kids. About a quarter of the tales have variants and twists. This one, by The Reclining Gentleman, is one of the more subtle, where the Scary Daddy motif is used as a device to explore loss.

Monster by The Reclining Gentleman

It’s always the same dream.

I am hiding behind the cushion sanctuary I have built in the conservatory; curled into a squealing nine-year-old ball, legs coiled inside my skirt. Dad, on leave from the sub, is searching for me, chasing me. He’s wearing that old diving helmet, the one that terrified me, and he’s a roaring sea monster. He finds me and as he lifts the helmet, I wake. Relief engulfs me.

For a moment.

Then I recall the day the commander came to the door. Mum, her voice strained and shaking, sending me upstairs.

And then, always, I remember.

Two explored the theme of abuse.

What could explain the recurrence of the Scary Daddy story? Perhaps a clue is in the fact that four of the nineteen stories on this theme have the word “monster” in the title. The image obviously suggested play and, of course, a frisson of fear is a good way to add edge to a story. Eight (non-Scary Daddy) writers also adopted monster-related horror and sci-fi themes. A creature without a face is always scary, even when the fear is playful and reassuring. One of the stories is titled “Mask”. Helmets and masks strip us of our individuality, though masks may also unite us through rituals with a world of spirits and imagination. Perhaps that’s where the archetype lies, drawn on by so many of this week’s Friday Fictioneers. One of the Scary Daddy writers commented that this is what fathers do.

There were, of course, other recurrent themes. Eight, including me, saw the prompt as an invitation to enter the world of children’s play and imagination.  (A ninth used it to explore adult fantasy play, but that’s another thing entirely). Eight, as I already mentioned, wrote sci-fi or horror stories. Nine used the diving helmet in thrillers, some quite grizzly. Seven wrote family tales. Five used the helmet as a device for character studies. This one by JWD is a great example.

The Voices by jwdwrites

It was after the fall the voices began. Not just English, so many languages it was hard to understand anything.  “It’s like this plate in my head is a damned antenna and I’m picking up long-wave!” Ray joked.

Before long, Ray had stopped joking, stopped playing with his kids and stopped talking to his wife. There was just so much damned noise!

Then he found the diving helmet. When he wore it, there was silence in his head.

He wore it everywhere.

Then they came for him.

They took the away the helmet, and locked him up…

…with the voices

Of the remaining stories, three were humour, three dealt with death (also a recurring theme in Friday Fictioneers over the weeks), two dealt with hiding, and the remaining five were unique in their themes.

So, I don’t know how many stories there are. But probably fewer than we think. Whether this is really because we can’t tell other stories, or whether it’s an effect of our culture only presenting certain themes, I leave you to judge.

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43 thoughts on “72. How many stories are there?

  1. Interesting post Neil, I have often been struck by how similar two stories written by different authors can be. Maybe we are recycling things we have both read or similar experiences we have had. I try to only read other stories after I have written and posted my own in case someone else has stolen my thunder and I feel obliged to come up with a new one.

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  2. What a fascinating post. I’ve been browsing through your blog, and finding much to interest me. This idea of categorising stories is intriguing. One could probably categorise life itself into the same groupings, and maybe this is why we can do it with stories. What do you think?

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    1. Thanks, Margatet. I’m glad you liked the post and other posts on my blog. T think that stories (and I’m not just talking about fiction here) ARE the way we make sense of life. Stories are probably the oldest form in which humans have stored and transmitted wisdom. There’s even a strong case for saying that our identities are the stories we tell ourselves and others. If you drill down into the site, there are three posts on “The unexpected power of stories”.

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  3. I came expecting a story and was not disappointed by your analysis of FF writers. I think i went with a unique theme this week but I haven’t gone through all 70+ being the last this week (as of now).

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  4. oh wow. this is just lovely to read. I have always been fascinated with how minds can create a lot of unique stories out of a photo. and you put numbers to my fascination, Neil. Now I wonder what category my take will fall… 😀

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  5. Fascinating study, Neil. I find it interesting how the same theme (I call it the recipe) is used over and over again, especially in romance. In fact, I believe you’d be hard pressed to sell one to a major publisher if you didn’t follow that format.

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  6. This is such an intriguing post, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. There’s a quote I like that I think fits in with what you’re saying:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

    Almost every story nowadays derives from same ideas, same themes, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re all experiencing the same things. The nuances are different, but ultimately, everyone’s trudging through life trying to find their way. And in that way, I think there are actually an infinite amount of stories, because even if two stories are about Scary Dads, they’re never exactly the same.

    This was an awesome post!

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  7. I have long since stopped being able to read the full selection of FF stories, but I do remember times when they were very much on a theme. On the other hand, sometimes I’m impressed by the variety a photo can provoke. While it sounds like an excuse, I do think some of it depends on the photo – this one was relatively ‘closed’ and I’m afraid I was one of the Scary Daddy stories – Grandpa actually, but it’s the same thing.
    I have treatised on the topic of how many stories there are myself (search my blog for Booker’s Seven if you’re interested). In this instance I would suggest that the story isn’t what is going on (Scary Daddy), but what it means – whether that’s grief, abuse, love, etc. Those, if there are a limited number of stories, are what unites them, more than the setting.

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  8. Fascinating. I never look at anybody else’s submission until I have done my own for fear of being influenced but someone else’s story. I’ll have to pay more attention to themes although I have noticed that often there will be a number that are very similar. In regard to a comment you made above I very much agree with the school of thought that believes our identities are forged by our narratives. For me it is a question of which comes first? Memoir or identity. I believe it is memoir. And I believe that when we lose our narrative as in dementia it is this that causes the loss of our identity. A fascinating area of study.

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    1. Oh I agree with you. Without narrative we lose identity. It’s an interesting fact that the earliest memories most people can recall in their lives coincides roughly with the age at which children develop narrative ability

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      1. Yes that is interesting. I also believe that until we have a narrative of our own we use the narratives of others, deciding which narratives of those others we like, adopting them until such time that we can create narratives of our own – in the early stages making an identity for ourself that have those characteristics.

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  9. I found your analysis to be thoughtful, thought-provoking and well-written, Neil!
    I’ve often thought that there are only a few stories in the world, and that everything else is a variation thereof.
    In the end, it isn’t the story, but the filter, the mind, the voice of the story-teller, that makes a story uniquely what it is.

    (P.S. And I suppose my story/stories for last week’s photo would have been … ? Sci-Fi for the Strawberry Jam creature – and how would you classify the Drowning and Flying one? (https://magicsurrealist2013.me/2016/06/09/drowning-and-flying)

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  10. We certainly do tell the same stories over and over, in different settings with different characters. I guess its a formula that works though. Maybe it’s something to do with audiences preferring some level of predictability.

    I saw a quote somewhere (forgive me for not remembering who said it) about not worrying whether your story has been told before. That it needed to be told again because perhaps they were not listening the first time.

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