There are certain stories that are written over and over again. I call them “template stories.”
“Snow White” is a template story. So is Dracula. There are many, many versions of “Snow White”: there’s the Grimms’ fairy tale, of course, but also book versions, movie versions . . . And each version is a reinterpretation of earlier versions, a conversation with those versions. Each version can be very different from the others. It’s the same with Dracula. How is this different from non-template stories? Well, take for instance a novel by Edith Wharton. There may be a movie version, but it will be a version of that particular novel–it will attempt to represent that novel, its plot and characters, in their time period. Same with novels by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, most other novelists . . . But “Snow White” gets turned into Snow White and the Huntsman, which is almost nothing like the original fairy tale. Dracula becomes Count von Count from Sesame Street.
Template stories are a little like vampires, in that they live on and on . . . And they keep transforming themselves. Most myths are template stories. So are many fairy tales, but certain modern stories have taken on this particular quality of fairy tales. They have become modern myths. Hamlet is a template story, as is Murder on the Orient Express. Jane Austen novels are not quite template stories, but are in the process of becoming so as we keep rewriting them — Clueless is one example of how an Austen novel can function as a template. Interestingly, Emma is the novel of hers most often turned to other uses.
I’ve been trying to figure out what turns a story into a template story. I think character is central: you need something that serves as a still point around which the rest of the story can pivot. That’s usually a character: Snow White, Dracula, Hamlet, Hercules Poirot, Emma Woodhouse, Sherlock Holmes, Batman. But the still point can also be something else: the House of Usher or Wonderland, for example. The story needs to have something that lives outside the story, and I think also something that reaches deep into our minds, below the level of consciousness. There’s something in these stories that resonates deeply with us — the stories stay with us, or at least certain components of them do. And if we are creative, we feel the compulsion to engage with them, reimagine them. So we get more stories set in Oz, or stories about Tarzan . . .
I don’t think you can know ahead of time what will become a template story. I don’t think you can set out to write one. Although it does, I suspect, take thinking about story a little differently. Instead of thinking about what issue you want to tackle, what style you want to write in, how you want to engage with the contemporary literary world (and yes, there are writers who think about all those things), you want to pursue your subject a little differently. You want to dip down into the deep well, into the dark water of story, and draw something out — you’re not entirely sure what, at first. Or maybe you’re never sure. But it takes going deep into a mysterious place where you’re not sure entirely what you’re doing. Template stories partake of the structure or substance of myth. Mary Poppins is one of the old gods . . .
Template stories are often not the stories we validate culturally: they are not the intellectual novels, ones that win prizes. They come, more often I think, from popular fiction, children’s literature, comic books . . . Perhaps because those sources are closer to the deep well. They are not trying so hard to be relevant. They usually don’t tell us about social conditions at a particular time and place, although literary critics can analyze Peter Pan in the context of the Victorian concept of childhood or J.M. Barrie’s life. But of course they are relevant, in a different way. They keep getting rewritten. Every generation gets its own Peter Pan, its own Miss Marple. King Lear is always fresh and new.
And template stories are not necessarily the best stories in literary terms. Dracula is a fascinating novel, but it’s not as well-written as anything by Thomas Hardy. Nevertheless, Dracula has a continuing life that Bathsheba Everdene does not. There are movies made of Far from the Madding Crowd, but she’s not a muppet. Maybe you don’t want your characters to become muppets? As for me, I would be thrilled to write a story that turned into a template, that turned into something other people wanted to reconfigure in various ways. I think that would be fascinating. But it does mean I think about story in a slightly different way. I try to go deeper, to send my bucket down into the well that exists in my head, and your head, and all of our heads. And sometimes it means I play with other templates, that I retell the old stories in my own way. Not for any particular conscious reason, but because that’s the sort of writer I am. Perhaps it’s fair to say that I am a teller of tales, that what I’m writing are tales of various lengths rather than short stories or novels? Isak Dinesen makes that distinction, and I think she’s certainly writing tales, which is why I like them so much.
At any rate, there are different ways to tell stories . . . and this is one of mine.
(The image is an illustration for “Snow White” by Hanna Boerke.)