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Ancient Stories

You have to start with the story. You can have great characters, but without a good plot they’re wasted. And a good plot has to grip you from the start. A plot idea from the Xpo north pitch session was that a woman wakes up to find herself in bed with a stranger; the man tries to have sex with her, at which point she grabs the nearest blunt object and kills him. Eventually she finds out that he was her husband, but in a parallel universe, into which she has just dropped. Great start.
And it’s an old story, an ancient one. Remember Oedipus. Comes to a cross-roads, has an argument with an unknown man, kills him and marries his wife, then gradually discovers that he’d killed his dad and married his mum. Even before the invention of writing, all the best stories were already being told, only the trappings have changed.
Does that mean that we writers are all plagiarists of the ancients? By no means, as St Paul keeps saying. Myths, legends, old stories are birthmarks of the human condition; they resonate with all of us. Good writers tap into these ancient plots, supply them with arresting characters, eloquent locations and authentic cultural detail.
A century ago the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne (1867-1925) developed a classification system for folktales, and captured many of these ancient plots. Some social anthropologists criticised this project, saying that stories can only be understood within their cultural milieu. And while there’s undoubtedly some truth in that – and wouldn’t it be boring if everybody had the same culture? – the widespread incidence of the story types does suggest there’s a deep-down cultural level that dates back to early man.
The trick is to put the ancient wine into contemporary bottles. To tell the ancient stories in a setting that’s authentic and with characters who are culturally as well as humanly plausible. Hence Oedipus meeting an argumentative old guy at a crossroads becomes a wife slipping into a parallel universe to encounter an unknown man who wants her body. “Man/woman unwittingly slays family member.”
My own story, The Peat Dead? “Ancient secret brought to light.” How many thrillers follow that story? You could even add “… despite efforts of its guardians to suppress it.”
What makes these mythic story-types so powerful is that, deep down, we all recognise them, our deep culture says, “Yes, I know this story. Now, how is it going to be told?” In oral cultures, story-tellers tell the same stories over and over again, but each time, slightly different. Perhaps our familiarity with the story is a key element, enabling us to form a mental map of the narrative landscape, and to appreciate the way each author elaborates it.
Am I losing the importance of the characters in the story? By no means. The power of these mythic stories is that people are central to them. Situations and relationships are changed. People are changed. There is deep recognition of shared humanity.

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