Every Story Is The Same Story (Or At Least Is On This List)

Lal Behari Dey, “Folk-Tales of Bengal,” illustrated by Warwick Goble, page 267, 1912, via Wikimedia.

I occasionally joke that if a person reads enough, she will discover that all stories are the same story. She will be able to predict narrative beats, the presence of particular characters, and how the story will end. Of course all stories aren’t really the same. Human beings may repeatedly explore certain themes, but prose, characterization, and structure change the tales with each telling. And the number of possible themes is limitless.

I always assumed the number of themes was a large, unquantifiable one. It turns out I was wrong.

All stories, or all folktales at least, have been classified and grouped.

This grouping is known as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Classification of Folk Tales. The system is similar to the Dewey Decimal Classification System used for books in that the ATU classification assigns numbers to represent different types of stories. These types or themes may not map well to current popular fiction, but you can easily see how tales like Beauty and the Beast fit with them. The basic structure is as follows:

  • ANIMAL TALES   1-299
  • TALES OF MAGIC   300-749
  • RELIGIOUS TALES   750-849
  • REALISTIC TALES   850-999
  • ANECDOTES AND JOKES   1200-1999
  • FORMULA TALES   2000-2399

Though the categories appear broad when listed like this, the system is actually very detailed. The numbers drill down to specific types of stories such as:

  • 121 Wolves Climb on Top of One Another to Tree
  • 430 Prince Donkey
  • 717 Meat Stolen for the Poor Turns to Roses
  • 1004 Hogs in the Mud; Sheep in the Air
  • 1707 The Noseless Man
  • 2025 The Fleeing Pancake

The folktales listed above represent only the very surface of the list. If you want to see more, you can find the full ATU classification system at the Multilingual Folk Database.

In all honesty, the system isn’t suited for everyone – it is probably most useful for people who study folklore academically – but I’ve found a way for laypeople to use it as well. For me, ATU classification is a series of writing prompts. Here is how it works. You pick a number between 1 and 2399 and look up that number’s theme in the ATU classification system. Then you write a story that engages with it. Though the prompt might end up being a bit wonky, it will allow you to stretch your imagination. And we could all use a little of that from time to time.

27 thoughts on “Every Story Is The Same Story (Or At Least Is On This List)

  1. To be honest, I don’t actually agree with this post. My personal belief is that there are as many stories as there are stars in the universe and how someone sees a story is combletely subjective (for some a story is funny, but for others it actually represents their lives using allegory), but this whole thing where you pick a number and write a story seems pretty fun. I would really like to do something like that in the future. Anyways… great post as always. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree that stories can be classified into groups. The really exciting part, though, is that we can all tell a story in a completely different way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The variations really do make all the difference. It’s funny how sometimes the smallest changes in a story completely alter the way that people respond to it. I suppose that is part of what makes words and writing so magical.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. My favorite part of the creation of classification systems like these is always the controversy that accompanies them. People have such strong opinions about certain aspects of those groupings, and why people feel certain ways indicates interesting trends. Thanks for highlighting another attempt at making sense of the stories we tell.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Smiling all the way through this post as I’ve always had the thought in the back of mind that everything slowly starts to sound, be, read the same and when I write I am so conscious of sounding different and unique I rewrite and edit endlessly. Maybe we need to just surrender to and trust the formulas of this amazing Earth and consciousness in which we exist, and put dashes, smidgeons and soupçons of our own creativity into everything we do, thus making things, somewhat our own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes the familiar stories are the ones we need to hear the most! There is a reason, I think, that people explore the same themes over and over again. (And you’re right that those personalized touches make all the difference.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a very detailed version of Tobias and his 20 Master Plots – these are also useful jumping off points into accessing particular plotlines. Thank you for sharing, Kristen – as ever, a useful and very interesting article on a writer-friendly subject:)


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