How Stories Change

During yesterday’s riff on the uses of metafiction, I made a stand against stories that were near-perfect, practically word-for-word recollections of things that had happened. I’m not fond of perfect stories; not only do they ruin the suspense and make the plot a little too clear when used as clues or foreshadowing, they’re rather bad for suspension of disbelief. As anyone who’s played ‘telephone’ or watched a rumor spread knows, it’s near impossible to keep even a sentence, let alone a story, from being changed as it spreads. Stories that changed in the telling can both serve as subtle hints and help muddy the trail so people don’t follow it too easily. But aside from the propagation of mishearings, what can make a story change?

Exaggeration for drama/audience appeal. Even if the story’s being told to teach, it’s not unheard of for its teller to exaggerate a few details or change an event or two to make the story more interesting; how else do you get the kiddies to pay attention? And when people aren’t worried about teaching through the story, they’re even likelier to sacrifice story integrity for audience appeal.

Changing details—names, places, concepts, you get the idea—for the audience’s understanding, whether they need the help or not. If it mentions a historical event not everyone’s necessarily going to have heard of, if the audience is too young (or appears to be too young) to understand the original idea, or if in general the storyteller just doesn’t think this particular group is going to get it, they might change the story to fit the audience’s understanding. Just think about those publishers who didn’t think that American kids would understand the concept of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Localization. This is a pretty similar concept to dumbing down the story, only it isn’t always assuming a different level of intelligence or cultural awareness; instead, what the storyteller is doing is just fitting the story itself to the culture. If you need an example, just look at all the different rewrites of “Night Before Christmas” that pop up here and there; I’ve seen two Southern California rewrites, one for Texas, one Cajun variation, a “politically correct” version—and those are just the ones I can remember.

Translating between languages. I once hung out on a message-board where one of the favored sports was “Polyglottal Telephone”; the posters would take a given text and translate it between languages, either real or created, then see what came out the other end. For those of us who weren’t participating, it was an excellent chance to see what kinds of contortions the story would go through. And even with people who were watching carefully for errors, mistakes were made; I once saw the end of a story go from a burning dress to blasphemy in two translations.

Deliberate change. Some people change stories because they feel like it; maybe they want to write someone in, they don’t like how a certain character is portrayed, or they think that a different ending would be more suitable. If their audience doesn’t know that this isn’t the original version, they might hang onto the new version, thus changing the story itself. Even if they do know, they might still switch over if they like the new story better, and the story moves on thus changed.

Bad memories. Maybe somebody completely forgot a detail, and made something plausible up to cover for it. Perhaps they misremembered, and that created a new version of the story. Sure, storytellers are often trained for their memories, but that doesn’t mean the memories are always accurate.

Along with keeping the important, plot-relevant parts from being revealed too soon, treating a story as having changed over time can give it an organic, part-of-the-world feeling that it might otherwise miss out on. So let, or even make, it change.

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