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When A Story Changes Too Much – Op-Ed Piece


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We got a question about stories that change a little too much.

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When A Story Changes Too Much – Op-Ed Piece

If there is one thing that a writer can’t fight, it is that time will pass as their story stays in the past. Stories are a very present human experience. It is why we love them so much. When you tell a friend what happened at work during the day, or you catch up with a co-worker, the stories you exchange are more present than either of you think. I mean that they result from your current viewpoint and perspective of the world, which can change. The way you tell the story today is not how you will tell it tomorrow. Why? Because you learn stuff about yourself and the world. Perhaps that part you thought was funny wasn’t met with any humor from your friend, so you decide to change the joke around a little bit next time you tell the story. Maybe you actually did learn a fact that you didn’t know when originally telling the tale like you learned that McDonald’s makes most of its money from rent by its franchisees, so you will mention that little note the next time you bring up your trip to the fast-food place. This self-editing begs to question, are you telling the same story after afterwhile? How many times can you change it until you are not telling the original story anymore?

In this context, you can view those writers of the past, like Homer, as having an unfair advantage to those writers today, with their caffeinated brains and keyboard fingers. The Greek writer had years of stories being passed around from person to person, from town to town. Bards edited the work for him because they kept in the parts people liked and removed the stuff disliked, so when it came time to write the story, all Homer had to do was put it into practice. The actual great parts that people liked were already “written” since those were the parts that everyone kept talking about.

That process of public editing doesn’t happen in literature today, even with the internet. As soon as a story is good, sometimes before it is even good, the words are put down on a piece of paper. So the writer is then forced to create what people would like, which is not easy, but then he also has to edit it. It is easy to edit the story when you are confident that the listeners will enjoy it.

Take this piece that you are reading now. Imagine if this was sent to another person after it was published, who adds their own parts. Then it was sent to another, who edits it a little bit. And then another and then another who continues the trend of editing the piece finding a way to generate some interest from their readers. We can agree that the last article would be very different from what I am giving you now. I really want to make a case that the internet does this with stories, but I don’t know if it does.

This gets me to my question; how should a writer feel if their story changes too much?

Let’s get something clear here. I don’t mean that the story itself changes. The Homer example I made earlier has the actual story and characters change as bards interact with it, but in this question, I am going to present those parts, the story and character, as staying the same. It is the audience’s reaction that changes.

Maybe some examples would help better explain this.

The first example is the classic novel Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. The young adult book was originally read by the outcasts in society, by the students that the schools didn’t care about or even want. It was a book that the teachers didn’t want you to read. Now, what is it? It is a book read by an English teacher to a bunch of disinterested students. The book’s very audience doesn’t react the same way they used to because it is tough to tell a kid that the book they are reading is rebellious because even kids know that if the book was so bad, then the teacher probably wouldn’t be teaching it. The ironic part is that the modern student reacts to Salinger’s classic book the same way that the character in the book would also react to it.

Did Salinger mean for that to happen? We changed how we view the book, all in the name of cultural relevance, but maybe that is not what the author wanted. Could it be that he was happy with the book being an underground success? And perhaps he wanted to keep it that way? We don’t know, but we can definitely say that the perception of the book and the story is not as it once was.

Then there is another example of people taking a story and making it into something it wasn’t meant to be: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now, I won’t pretend to know what it is that the movie originally wanted to be, but I doubt that was the same as what it came to be. The Rocky Horror Picture Show became a cult classic because of late showings where the audience performs with the movie. People interact with the movie as the story is being told, a concept that most movies are still trying to perfect with 3D glasses and IMAX. People throw rice at the screen during the wedding, and of course, dance along to Time Warp. I can’t imagine the reputation of being a cult hit with a following dedicated to viewing the musical as a background for entertainment is what the movie originally wanted to be. Who tries to make a cult classic? I never met anyone, who when coming up with a story idea, said, “You know, I want this to be only known in a certain community, not by everyone. Yeah, I want this to be a cult hit.” That is not how any writers think. We want our stories to reach as many people as possible. Sure, now those involved in the movie with Tim Curry will say the right thing to stay out of trouble. “We are happy that the movie is still around. The fans are great. We are so proud that the movie can affect so many.” I paraphrase, but you get my point. I want to know about the part where the audience took the movie and made it into something else entirely. Is that okay? Is everyone involved in it really going to pretend like they were planning on this film being a success the way it was? You planned on jumping to the left? Right….

I’ll ask you about this. How would you feel if your story was made popular and not only popular but iconic to the point that society identifies with its themes and features and relates to them with colorful t-shirts, story slogans, and other media? But the reason for all that fame was not for your intended cause? People like what you did, but for the reason that you didn’t expect.

I think there are two basic ways that an author can react to this.

Just So Cool

You’re cool about it. You may view the whole thing as no big deal and not think too much about the fame or legacy of your story. This is taking a very professional approach to this question. I relate this to the co-worker who isn’t very up or down during work because of how they approach the work environment. It’s a job that you get paid to complete, and that is that. Nothing else is needed to be said. Some days are good, some are bad. You still get paid, so it’s cool. The story was one that the person wrote a while ago, and so be it if people take it where they will. Obviously, this nonchalant attitude is most accepted by the masses since it is least critical of their positions on the story.

Upset About It

You can be upset about the whole idea of your story changing as if by altering it, people are being stupid and misunderstanding of all of it. I get this part too. It is your story, and you want it told how you meant it to be told. You wrote it for people to understand something, so they better do that, or you didn’t do your job as a writer. This approach is very noble but not easy for the audience to grasp. You are telling people who are there to support you that they are supporting you in the wrong way. That is not a good way to make friends.

Both sides have a good point. The cool side is right to be accepting of change, but shouldn’t they care enough about their story to keep the original message? The upset side is right to point out that the audience is not interpreting the story in the right manner, but shouldn’t they be aware that a story changes over time, no matter what?

This is similar to what I asked about, a writer owning their own words.

If a writer is lucky enough for their story to take on a life of its own that society wishes to engage with on a constant basis, then that writer has to decide what to make of their fans’ reaction to their story. Should they accept their fans’ interpretations of the story, good or bad? Or should they try to push their purpose onto the fans, informing them of the story’s meaning and messages?

There is no right answer here. It is something only the writer can answer at that moment. This also presents another question, “If the story that was originally written is seen different over time, then what the hell was the writer writing about, to begin with?” That is a question for another day.




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About The Blogger

Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes that the reader shares that same passion.


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