John Barth once famously said that there are no new stories under the sun.
He said this in a much-discussed essay called “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which Barth, not only one of America’s pre-eminent novelists but also a professor of English at Johns Hopkins and a literary scholar, asserted that everything anyone in the modern age is writing has been written before. Everything is a rehashing of plots that appeared originally in the great Arabic story collection, 1000 Arabian Nights.
The backstory on 1001 Arabian Nights is as good as any of the tales within it. The king found his wife and advisor in bed together and, naturally, took off their heads, but, being a vengeful sort, decided that he would have sex with and then behead a virgin a night for the foreseeable future. After a few rounds of this, the wizard’s daughter, Sheherezade, volunteered to be the next virgin. Her dad quite naturally objected but she said that she had a plan. So she went forth.
After having sex and before falling asleep, Sheherezade proposed telling a tale to her little sister who conveniently happened to be at the bottom of the king’s bed at this point of the evening. And then she started telling one. But sleep overcame her before she got to the end of the story and the king, who had gotten totally caught up in the tale, found he was unable to cut off her head the next morning because she said would finish the story that night.
Which she did. But she started another one. And fell asleep again before it was over. Which led to further delay of head removal.
And so on, for 1001 nights.
She told about Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, about Aladdin, and Sinbad. Each story had high stakes and a gripping plot–and each one ended satisfactorily. Sheherezade–and a lot of other women’s–lives depended on it.
In the course of those three plus years, she and the king had several children and got to know each other and the king finally found himself quite forgiving of his first wife, married Sheherezade, and presumably lived happily ever after.
Whether you agree with Barth or not (and I invite you to read the entire 1001 Arabian Nights and compare contemporary plots to the ones found in the stories Sheherazade told the king in order to keep him from chopping off her head—talk about having a plot with high stakes!—first and then decide)—it is certainly the case that you can enrich your writing and make it new by using the ancient forms.
Great writers do it all the time.
Some of the ancient narrative forms include:
- Fairy tale
A myth is an anonymous story that presents supernatural episodes as a means of interpreting natural events.George Lucas famously used the myth form to create the Star Wars movies, from Odysseus to Trojan War and beyond.
A fairy tale of course is a story relating mysterious pranks and adventures of spirits who manifest themselves in the form of diminutive beings. Fairy tales never go out of style, from Disney movies like Frozen (The Snow Queen) to adult fairy tales like Twilight (Little Red Riding Hood).
A legend is a narrative handed down from the past; distinguished from a myth by having more of historical truth and less of the supernatural. The Arthurian legends are the best ones I know–read Malory’s Works in total or just dive into The Morte d’Arthur–and have kinship with any quest narrative from Rabbit, Run to Their Eyes Were Watching God.
(Definitions adapted from The Handbook of Literary Terms.)
Explore one of these ancient narrative forms, experiment with one in your current writing—whether a novel, memoir, or email!—and let me know how it goes.