Okay... I can well imagine you thinking I’ve reached a new personal low in narcissism today: I’m quoting myself. But before you judge, let me explain...
I was thinking about a particular writing issue recently, in terms of a couple of quotes from two other authors, both of them famous: Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis. (I was originally going to say far more famous than me, but looking at those two names, and given that my fame extends only to members of my family --- on good days --- and maybe, very occasionally, to a few of my students... well, I’ll leave that sentence as it is. You see, there are limits even to my own personal narcissism.)
Quite some time ago now, Stephen King wrote a very fine novella entitled The Breathing Method. It was published in a volume of four of his novellas, a volume called Different Seasons. That title came about, if I recall correctly, because he felt the four stories in it were a little different than his usual Things-That-Go-Bump-In-The-Night writing persona --- although Stephen King being Stephen King, he couldn’t resist including at least some of the paranormal/macabre elements for which he is justly famous. The Breathing Method certainly contains those elements, but what relates it to my quote is the fact that his story takes place in a private men’s club where there is a massive fireplace, a fireplace that has engraved in the stonework this aphorism: It is the tale, not he who tells it. Which I have no quibble with, I hasten to add, but it did lead me to concoct my own version. See above. (C.S. Lewis’ contribution to this epistle, we’ll get to momentarily.)
What I’m really going on about today relates to originality. Most of us have probably seen various articles about how every story ever written falls into a very finite number of plot premises. To prove my own point, I just Googled “basic plot premises,” and there it is, thousands of entries assuring me that all stories feature one of seven basic plots. Yep. Seven. So the uncounted/uncountable millions of stories told since the dawn of human history are, really, all variations on an extremely small number of themes. (Which, on one level, is rather depressing when you think about it: Really? Our human interactions are that limited? Oh well... a topic for discussion another time, perhaps.) However, the good news --- particularly if we factor in my own quote --- is that we can heave a collective monumental shrug and loudly declaim So What?
Why? Because I’m suggesting that the tale itself doesn’t matter; it’s how well the tale is told. We can add all sorts of whistles and bells to any of those limited number of premises, so that, for example, whether the story takes place in Middle Earth or Narnia or at Hogwarts, the end result is the same: we’ve got a quest to complete --- whether it’s destroy a piece of jewellery that tends to have rather unfortunate effects on people, or get rid of a nasty lady who likes it really cold, or put paid to a megalomaniac wizard who wants to do all sorts of evil things. But the fact they all involve similar quests in ridding the world of evil is unimportant; what is important is that they’re all told so well, so imaginatively, so cleverly, that they are great and magical (no pun intended... well, okay, maybe...) tales. And very different tales, with very different endings.
And so where does Jack (C.S. Lewis) fit into all this? His contribution today is as follows: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
I often end posts with something from Jack, because he can be relied on to have something pithy and true pretty much most of the time. And so it is today: he instructs us that, as writers, don’t worry about being original. Because, if you go for the truth, you will be. No matter how many times the story has been told before. Because, in the words of another (largely unknown) writer, it is how the tale is told, not the tale itself.
(Okay... now you can accuse me of being narcissistic. Although I was saying it with my tongue very firmly lodged in my cheek. But as Kingsley Amis said, there’s no point in writing if you can’t annoy someone.)