A lot of artists struggle with originality. Of course we all want to be original, but is it possible? Is there anything new under the sun?
Some say there are no new stories, just remixed and rehashed versions of stories we’re all familiar with. Often, when someone calls a piece of work original, a close examination reveals its roots in creative works that preceded it.
Most of us writers have had ideas that we shunned because we thought they were too similar to other stories. But just because your story idea is similar to another story, perhaps a famous one, should you give up on it?
Writing ideas come and go. If it’s true that originality is nothing more than putting together old writing ideas in new ways, then instead of giving up on a project that you think has been done before, you can simply make it your own.
A Little Guessing Game
Look at it this way: everything already exists. The ideas, plots, characters — they’re already out there in someone else’s story. Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.
To test this theory, see if you can guess the following famous story:
A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.
If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.
This shows how two stories that are extremely different from one another can share many similarities, including the basic plot structure and character relationships, and it proves that writing ideas will manifest in different ways when executed by two different writers.
As a creative writing exercise, use the synopsis above to write your own story (or outline). It will probably turn out to be unique, even though two of the most famous tales from the last few decades are based on the same ideas.
Recycled Writing Ideas
I’m not advocating for writers to go out and dissect popular stories and then rewrite them with a new twist (although that’s not a bad idea). What I am advocating is seeing writing ideas through instead of casting them aside because they have something in common with a story you’ve read or seen on film or television.
Creative writing is about discovery, imagination, and sharing your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with readers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several writing ideas that seemed brilliant at first but later just seemed like a retelling of some old story that everyone already knew.
But lately I’ve been seeing stories in a new light. When I read a great novel or watch a mesmerizing movie, I often realize upon reflection that these works have common elements with lots of other stories. I don’t know if J.K. Rowling ever realized that Harry Potter had so much in common with Luke Skywalker. Whether she did or not, the lesson we can all take away is that she forged ahead and believed in the story that she wanted to tell.
So I’ve come to realize that creativity isn’t always coming up with something new; often, it’s simply finding new connections, perspectives, and combinations of elements. Letting go of your ideals regarding originality and reshaping them with this new understanding will send you soaring into less inhibited and better writing experiences.
Do you ever discard writing ideas that you feel have been done before? Do you find yourself on a constant quest for a story that is new and original? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.