Where stories take place

Traditional story openings are fascinating.

First, because they show how much we share across cultures and parts of the world.

Second, because they tell us a lot about the internal logic of storytelling. In its turn, this reveals how we communicate things that we consider worth transmitting over cultures and generations.

Sunny Sunday morning in the Belgian Ardennes (2020)

Openings set the scene by giving us an idea of the time and place for what is about to happen.

So when do stories take place?

  • English: “Once upon a time…”
  • Arabic: “There was, oh what there was (or there wasn’t) in the oldest of days and ages and times…”
  • German: “Back in the days when it was still of help to wish for a thing…”
  • Irish: “A long, long, long time ago it was (and there was a king in Galway)”
  • Korean: “In times of that a tiger used to smoke”
  • Japanese: “Long ago, long ago…”

This is not the present and it is not exactly the past either. It’s a past so distant from us that it defies any possible historical placement. It’s so long ago that strange things happened back then – and they appeared as normal. It’s a possible past, loosely connected to our chronological past. A might have been.

Now, where do stories take place?

  • Czech: “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…”
  • Estonian:”Behind seven lands and seas there lived…”
  • Slovak: “Where the water was being strewn and the sand was poured…”
  • Hungarian: “Once there was, where there wasn’t, there was a…”

Since stories take place on a time plane that’s so distant and different from ours, it makes sense to see something similar when it comes to their physical, geographical placement. This can be expressed either as a measure of distance (number seven is often involved) or as a measure of difference and strangeness (“where the water was being strewn…”). It is always far away – so far away that it becomes irrelevant where. It remains in the shadow of maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t. And this is exactly the point. Stories need to stay in that undefined space of possibility in order to travel and be transmitted.

I want to finish with a few words about the Romanian opening: “There once was, (as never before)… because if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been told…”. Not because it is my mother tongue, but because it adds something that, to my knowledge, does not appear elsewhere. It’s not only the play between was and wasn’t, between may have been and may not have been. It’s the second part: because if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been told.

This is not an invitation to believe that those incredible things really happened. It’s just a way of saying that our words, our stories carry something important that needs to be heard. It’s the narrator inviting the listeners to gather around, settle down and open their minds.

The fact that a story existed for so long, and has spoken to so many people who wanted to share it and keep it in existence, is proof of its value, proof that what the story has to say “exists.” A story remains alive only insofar it’s able to speak to us from that undefined place of possibility, only insofar it continues to travel, be shared, and enchant.

Source: I have taken examples of story openings from this Twitter thread.

You can read here an older post about the benefits of storytelling, and here another one about the role or function of stories.

6 thoughts on “Where stories take place

  1. My grandmother used to open stories with “In the time when animals could talk”. All her stories were about disobedient baby animals that learned a lesson after disobeying their mothers. 😉 I guess I was not very well behaved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an intriguing read. I love the way you’ve added your thoughts and ideas to this. It makes folklore and the craft of storytelling even more compelling. Have never thought on these lines before.
    Wonderfully written!
    And the Romanian one is lovely. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks!
      The Romanian one appears in different formulations, some of them very elaborated. All the extra elements do the same thing – they convey the idea that the story takes place in a time and place that are different from our own and at the same time strangely familiar.

      Liked by 1 person

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