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All Stories Are the Same

4 January 2016

From The Atlantic:

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

. . . .

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited,Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

. . . .

So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf,Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now orFinding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Terrence for the tip.

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14 Comments to “All Stories Are the Same”

  1. So Dodge, Chevy, or Ford?

    So trad-pub doesn’t really nurture special snowflakes?

    If you’ve read one you’ve read them all …

    But mine’s of an old man who no longer thinks he has to prove anything, on a ship, in space, with alien critters, and stowaways.

    Time to go key in a few more lines of the old fart …

  2. “Native American myth”?

    Pocahontas was a real live historical person, guys.

    • Maybe they meant Dances with Wolves?

      (Seriously, I asked my husband how was the movie after he took our son to see Avatar. DH said, “It’s Dances with Wolves with blue people.”)

    • To be fair, they might mean “Pocahontas” as most know of her, rather than what actually happened. When the Disney cartoon came out newspapers dutifully listed the difference between the legend / movie and her real life.

      But I think Cameron really did steal Pocahontas and Dancing with Wolves as Suzan said, and Fern Gully apparently. I refused to see it the minute I heard about them looking for “unobtanium.” The blatant ripoffs of other movies were just a bonus reason.

      • The observation in my family was that Avatar was basically a mashup of Dancing with Wolves, Fern Gully, and a healthy dose of World of Warcraft modeling.

      • Yup. I refused to see it in theatres, refused to rent it, refused to buy it. Finally saw it in the course of a David Farland writing workshop, where it was our assignment (roughly speaking) to analyse Why What Worked In Spite Of All The Stupid.

        I personally like to call it Dances With Smurfs.

  3. It’s all in the execution – many stories have the same premise, but that’s not why the great stories survive. They survive because the idea is explored far more deeply, and the writing is worth the reading.

  4. A cynical movie producer once said there is only one plot:
    delayed sex. (He used a raunchier term)

  5. The differences between Jaws and Beowulf are more significant than the similarities. While vaguely interesting for an English historian, it’s not particularly useful for a working writer to focus on what they have in common, if the goal is to write a modern commercial story.

    Which is to say, the techniques of modern story telling (like an action packed opening), and modern genre conventions (you can only kill a zombie by shooting it in the head), are far more important for a writer to understand than how classic story telling structures kinda… sorta… evolved into modern story structure.

    Beowulf is a mess from a story structure standpoint, very episodic and kind of random in a way that was very common for epic poetry at the time. It is not simply a straight forward kill the beast story. (He also has to kill the beast’s mother… etc.) That kind of episodic plotting seems either very outdated or is considered bad writing today.

    If a writer wants to write something in with the hope of popular success like Jaws, perhaps the best thing to borrow/steal/model would be the relationship between the three main characters Brody/Quint/Hooper, which gives it much more pace than a simple hero defeats the monster story. Coming up with three intriguing characters and the conflicts between them, rather than focusing on the quest, is a more useful device to think about and instantly feels more modern than a Joseph Campbell type hero’s journey.

    In other words, I think the basic idea is pretty much bunk. It’s kind of like saying all stories have a beginning middle and end. So what?

  6. Something that has stuck with me from all the writing craft books I read way back in the early 70s and onward: There are no new plots, only new stories.

  7. Probably, I dont know, if there was one underlying archetype to all story, it would maybe be “the return.’ The Ring Cycle, the Iliad, the Odessey, the myths of Teotehuacan’s Gods, All of Fenris and Thor and etc, all of the Icelandic Sagas, all of the Nasca Plains myths, Siddhartha, Gilgamesh… The Return. To home. Or heart. Or love. Or faith. Or death. Or God. Or madness. Or peace. Or war. Or sanity, or Self or forgotten one, or or.

    agree with Tony, ‘native american myth? You have to be kidding. Writer doesnt seem to know difference between hi-story and mythos, legend and saga, fact and understanding.

    If whatever were a taking of Native American history, Avatar was more true to those of us whose elders still tell the stories of invasion [with superior weaponry] of our own peaceful people who spent far more time at finding food, fishing, providing for family and creating life and the implements needed, than in imagining invaders would without conscience tear into gathering circles at the river.

    Id only add, that story line of marauders with superior weaponry who want to cut out the heart of the culture or tribe away in order to own the land, take the gold if any, colonize the women, force their ‘religion’ on others, live with attending slaves, etc… is the back story of most all persons here commenting. Somewhere in time. M ost were not kings, princes, knights. They were those who were seen as fodder/ free labor or for a pittance/ saleable/ so very killable.

    Its not a myth. It’s a horrendous reality. And still is enacted.

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