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
- TALES OF THE STUPID OGRE (GIANT, DEVIL) 1000-1199
- 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.