Can We Only Ever Tell One Story?

The other day my friend asked me, “So what are you writing now?”

I told him about my blog and gave him the url, and then he asked, “But what about your stories?”

I reluctantly admitted that I stopped writing them all a while back, if only because I had no time with school. Of course, I’ve been off school for two months now, and so I wondered why I hadn’t picked them up again. I started clicking on all the drafts crowding my Documents file, and skimming them through, reading over passages I was particularly pleased with.

But I found out that a lot of my stories followed a similar premise: the main characters are both introverted, one of each gender. One is extremely creative and eclectic. The other is quiet and serious. There’s some scarring pasts, some emotional baggage, some adventure, and the characters open up.

The only thing that seemed to vary from story to story was the setting and circumstance. One was a magical collector-story fantasy which was very The Last Airbender meets Tolkein. Another was a dystopian sci-fi incorporating genetic modification, hoverboards, and corrupt government agencies. Another was an adventure story, inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s The One Who Walk Away From Omelas.

But when I thought about it, there are a lot of writers who seem take the same formula, shove it into a different situation, and call it a brand new story:

John Green. Spunky girl meets quiet/nerdy/pretentious guy. Boy has a specific problem. Girl is able to alleviate problem. Boy falls in love with girl. Reciprocation varies. Thesis statement mentioned in inner monologue.

Rick Riordan. Children discover that an ancient mythical universe exists, they are somehow connected to that world because of their parents, have super powers, and are tasked with saving the world.

Gregory Maguire. Fairy tales have a lot more angst, emotional turmoil, death, insanity and sex than we knew.

Gail Carson Levine. Fairy tales are misogynistic retellings. The heroines are actually badasses.

Jane Austen. Love is difficult. Especially in Victorian England.

Nicholas Sparks. Love is difficult, and tears are inevitable.

I, at the very least, respect each of these writers. Coughgregorymaguirecough. Which is ironic, because trying to follow the same plot over and over again for a paycheck would be something that usually irritates me (and no doubt, others) to no end.

Because I like writers like Scott Westerfeld, who tries all kinds of stories, be it steampunk WWI or physically modified human beings. JK Rowling has attempted two different stories after completing Harry Potter, both of which I still have to read, but hey, at least she’s trying something different. 

And then there are writers like JRR Tolkein, and Tamora Pierce. Their stories are restricted to one/a few fantastical worlds.

Sometimes we accuse writers of writing similar to others, whether it be characters, plot, setting, etc.

So my question: Can we only ever tell one story? Are we only ever meant to?

Rowling’s more recent works are always compared to Harry Potter, and I prefer Westerfeld’s Leviathan series to Midnighters or Uglies. This, paired with the formulaic plot lines of various authors, makes it seem like this is the case.

So why haven’t we stopped writing after one story?

I have several theories, but I’m only going to try two. The first: we–human beings as a species–are perfectionists.

I believe (or like to think) that we’re trying to tell the story we want, but we’re never satisfied with how it turned out, so we try again. I know that when I submitted short stories to my teachers back in grade school the “Final Good Copy” for marking, I was always unsatisfied.

People like Westerfeld and Rowling know when it’s time to drop the story, even if it was more interesting than any other idea they would come up with later.

Sometimes, it seems like this trick works, since everyone thinks TFIOS is the best John Green book ever, or that Mark of Athena was the best Riordan book.

But then there’s my second theory: premises are not plots, and stories are about circumstance.

The reason why plots are so the same is because plots are simple. Plots should be driven by characters, their motivations, and decisions. And since characters should be people, they tend to follow similar patterns.

What complicates plot is situation and circumstance. And the how of it playing out is what really matters, not necessarily what is playing out.

I don’t know if any of this is true, but I’d like to think no two stories are the same.

It makes libraries and bookstores more exciting places to be.


2 thoughts on “Can We Only Ever Tell One Story?”

  1. I haven’t written much for awhile, either. Sometimes when people only write about the same plots I get frustrated. But I understand it, a piece of you goes into that first plot. Into that first book that you nursed until it blossomed into something so much bigger than you. Perhaps, it’s hard saying goodbye to that part of you tucked inside the pages of that very first book. At least thats what I think, although I agree with your reasonings….


    1. That’s a really good point! The first story a person attempts to write seriously has a lot of sentimental value. Funnily enough, after writing this post my writer’s block ended! Hope you’re inspired to write more soon too!


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