In my day job, I’m a children and youth worker in the Church of England. This means I tell a lot of stories. I talk to other children and youth workers about how to tell stories. I practice the stories. I tell them to different groups of children, in different ways. I tell the same stories over and over, and encourage children to wonder about them and make sense of them for themselves. I explain to parents that I am not trying to turn their children into Creationists – the Adam and Eve story is a profound meditation on our sense of alienation from our true selves and the source of meaning, the fact that humanity is (at least somewhat) culpable for the wretched State Of Things, and the deep sense we have that the world was not supposed to be this way.
It’s a damn good author who came up with the garden metaphor in that story, by the way – what a perfect symbol for fruitful, beneficent innocence: two naked vegetarians in a garden, talking to animals who neither prey nor are preyed upon.
My belief is that the Bible itself follows one of the Seven Basic Plots – it is, at its heart, a rags to riches story. Just like Cinderella, the Bible says, we are yearning for the time before our life became hard, the time
when we were safe and loved and cared for. But that time is unquestionably gone. Instead, we are faced with a world that is painful and bitter. This is the premise on which it begins – and from there, takes the reader on a journey from death to life, from exile to homecoming, from looking back and mourning our lost innocence to looking forward to a future in which we are welcomed as mature beings with free will into the city that is our true home.
So how does this connect to writing?
Well, basically, I think it means that “originality” is often overrated. Bruno Bettelheim argues that fairy tales are metaphors for the struggles of our own life, and builds on Jung’s theories about archetypes in stories relating to aspects of the human self, appearing over and over in different cultures across time and place.
There are very few new stories to tell. There are new ways of telling them, certainly – format and language are always evolving as creative people play with the form of the novel, play, or poem – but human
beings have generally struggled with the same questions over the centuries, and the stories that really speak to us are the ones that, as C.S. Lewis said, “simply try to tell the truth, without giving tuppence how often it has been told before.”
For those of you keen to innovate, I will tell you that he goes on to say that if
you do this successfully, “nine times out of ten, you will become original without ever having noticed it.”
This is important to me because I often struggle to figure out my plots. A Merry Requiem is based on the life of Victor Hugo, and my play, Alexander, is based on the life of Alexander the Great. The first novel I ever wrote, at the age of 18 (don’t be jealous – it was rubbish) was a retelling of the Gospel from the point of view of Mary Magdalene. None of this is particularly original. The novel I’m currently working on has an original plot, but it’s a mystery – and as my friend Claire McGowan points out, this genre comes with a built-in plot.
So often, we worry about subverting the dominant paradigm, or coming up with a TOTALLY NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT ALL OF HUMANITY, or inventing a plot that is NOT DERIVATIVE OF ANYTHING DAMMIT, and we lose sight of the fact that maybe that’s not the point. Humanity has, for millenia, told itself the same stories – the Rags to Riches story, the Quest, the Comedy, the Tragedy, the Rebirth, the Overcoming of the Monster, the Voyage and Return. Clearly, these plots speak to something deep and universal in us. They are reflected in our fairy tales, our religious narratives, our TV shows – probably even in the way we frame the stories of our own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using them, as long as you do it well.