A story-teller like no other

101 days. That’s how long our house has been on the market by now. It feels more like 1001 nights!


Ferdinand Keller – Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar (1880)

As I was thinking of a topic for today’s post, trying to come up with something moderately meaningful and entertaining, I thought about Queen Scheherazade of 1001 Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights). Here I am struggling to come up with one post per week, while this clever woman told a new story to her husband, the Persian King Shahryar each and every night for almost three years. Though she certainly had a more pressing motive than most other writers, she must be the ultimate storyteller of all times. Hands down.

There are many different accounts of how she did it, how she managed to keep her husband pining for yet another story. Writers, pay attention. What she achieved is any writer’s dream! How do we keep readers turning the pages of our novel, just like Scheherazade concocted stories that kept her alive another day and yet another, and so forth.

The story, dating to the early 9th century, goes that every day the King would marry a new virgin, and after doing so would despatch the previous day’s wife to be killed. This was done in anger, having found out that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He reasoned that all women are the same. By the time he was introduced to Scheherazade, his high-ranking political advisor’s daughter, he had killed 1,000 such women. Eventually the vizier, whose duty was to provide them, could not find any more virgins.

Against her father’s wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might tell him a story during the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. So the king again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.

And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of the previous night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these 1,001 nights, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and so he spared her life, and made her his queen.

I love this, because it’s a story within a story. A tall tale, you might call it. But think about some of the wonderful stories that Scheherazade thought up, night after night. Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Old Man of the Sea, The Fisherman and the Jinni, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Three Apples.

This last story, The Three Apples has in fact been described as a “whodunit” murder mystery with multiple plot twists. However, although the story has detection fiction elements it lacks a detective, in that the person charged with investigating the murder, does nothing to solve the crime, but in both cases sits at home awaiting his fate. Both times he is saved from execution by a chance revelation.

Or take The Thief of Bagdad. It tells the story of a thief who falls in love with the daughter

The Thief of Bagdad - N.H. Wilton 1924

The Thief of Bagdad – N.H. Wilton 1924

of the Caliph of Bagdad. Hugely popular, the story was made into an American swashbuckler film in 1924 and considered one of the most expensive films of the 1920s. Not a bad record for a woman who made up the story on a whim ten centuries earlier.

What’s so interesting about these stories for us writers is their structure. The Three Apples is a first level story told by Scheherazade, and contains one second level story, the Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son. It occurs early in the Arabian Nights narrative, being started during night 19, after the Tale of Portress. The Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son starts during night 20, and the cycle ends during night 25, when Scheherazade starts the Tale of the Hunchback.

It’s the layers of the stories that make them so effective, i.e. saving Scheherazade from literally losing her head. She tells just enough of the story to keep the King’s interest, promising to continue the next day. She then adds layers to the plot, introducing new characters, adding more complexities as she goes. (Footnote: What does that say about the need for detailed outlining? Looks like our clever storyteller was a true pantser).

I love those stories and I am starting to read them again, after many, many years. They are magical in the purest sense, and they show me some interesting things about pacing, plotlines, and a lot more. Whether fact or fiction, 1001 Nights has much to teach writers about the art of storytelling.

Enjoy what’s left of the Labour Day weekend.

4 thoughts on “A story-teller like no other

  1. Very interesting Helga – she certainly did have reason to make her stories cliff-hangers. I know many of the stories, of course, but have never read the 1001 nights, I may have to add this to my list now to see how an expert storyteller did it!

    • I loved reading them as a child. Those stories in fact inspired me to start writing as I got older. Thanks for your comment, Andrea

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