Today’s post is an excerpt from my book Ready, Set, Write: A Guide to Creative Writing, which takes you on a tour through various forms and genres of creative writing, providing you with tools, techniques, and tips to write more and write better. Enjoy!
Originality in Writing
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 the creative works that preceded it.
Most of us writers have had ideas that we dismissed because we thought they were too similar to other works. But just because your idea is similar to another one, perhaps a famous one, should you give up on it?
Instead of giving up on a project that you think has been done before, you can simply make it your own.
Look at it this way: Everything already exists. The ideas, plots, characters, language, and subject matter—they’re already out there in someone else’s work. Originality isn’t coming up with something new; it’s using your imagination to put old concepts 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 nonhuman stranger. This message sets him on a new path, and he embarks on a great adventure. He receives special training from a mentor who teaches him superhuman skills. He acquires loyal allies, including a guy and a girl who end up falling for each other. Our hero eventually faces off against a terrible villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that he knows and loves—the same villain who killed his parents.
If you guessed that this synopsis refers to 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 different writers.
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 to completion 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 imagination, discovery, 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 when I read a superb novel or watch a fantastic movie, I often realize upon reflection that these works share 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.
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 fresh idea? Why do you suppose some people have a deep need to produce work that is considered original? Have you ever examined a story or a poem that you thought was original only to realize that it shared similarities with stories and poems that came before?
Use the synopsis about Star Wars and Harry Potter above to write your own story (or outline).
Great article — I agree with it wholly. Everything you want to write in fiction has already been done before, and it’s the truth. I had to come face to face with that fact once when I’d written a story, and later discovered that it was too much similar to someone else’s when I wasn’t even aware of it! That’s why hunting for ideas is such a useless job, when there are so many better ones to do.
You might want to check the article I wrote on this subject two months ago: Why Hunting for Plots is Worthless http://www.writerstreasure.com/plot-hunting-worthless/
Thanks for the great post.
One of the biggest challenges in creativity is the removal of imaginary barriers and limitations — and this is just one of many. Thanks, Idrees.
This was a great post. The search for an original writing idea drives me insane. I find myself constantly passing on ideas out of fear that I’ll be seen as a copycat. Your post has given me renewed hope that people will be able to see my stories not for how they are similar to other stories, but for the way I make them my own. Thanks for the morale boost!
You’re welcome, Megan. Keep writing!
Strive to be excellent. That is always rare enough to be its own kind of originality.
Originality for its own sake is almost always a failure. It may get an artist a little peer attention but the general public just shakes its head, if they even notice. Some would like to claim that this is because the masses are ignorant of aesthetics. I think it is because the masses responds to excellence foremost and only recognizes originality when it is good enough to be enjoyed despite its earth shattering uniquety.
Yes, I know uniquety is not a word. Failing to be excellent, I have no recourse but to attempt originality.
Great response, Mikel. Yes, I think one’s time is much better invested in striving toward excellence. Sometimes I wonder if originality ever did exist or if everything is just some new and improved version of something else. Even a light bulb, surely one of the most important inventions in the last 1000 years, is based on the sun.
Plato said there are no new ideas, but I think he ripped it off.
Ha! Your comment gave me a good laugh. Thanks!
Yup, I think he ripped it off from King Solomon, Ecclesiastes…”There is nothing new under the sun.”
Ah, yes, seems that he might have done just that.
(Shame on me, I had this page open and comment ready but forgot to hit submit!)
I really enjoyed this post. It felt a little comforting knowing that original ideas are difficult if not impossible to come by. I recently had a conversation with a friend about how come up with ideas. I told her the story about when I was younger, I came up with an idea for a superhero who basically controlled electricity and traveled by a hover board, similar to what was in Back to the Future 2. On top of all of that, he was a black kid with some funky hair, so basically it was me. A couple years later I’m watching Kids WB and they are airing a new action cartoon called Static Shock… which I later researched was based on a comic book and it was almost the same exact character I created. So had I tried to sell this idea, I’d definitely come into some trouble.
Today, my ideas come from life experiences. I know people have gone through whatever I’m trying to explain, but I think it’s how I tell my story that may make it sound fresh and new. I’m also interested in retelling historical stories that aren’t as popular or well known. But I can go on all day about this topic so I’ll save it for a future blog post. Thanks for inspiring me yet again!
Many years ago, I outlined a story that was about a kid who went off to magic school. It was eerily similar to a novel that came out later — Harry Potter. And when I outlined my idea, I had thought, “Nobody’s going to read this; it’s silly.” Turns out I’m the one who’s silly. Still, I just looked over those old notes a few weeks ago and realized that though the basic premise was similar to Harry Potter, my story would have been vastly different (female lead character, based more in sci-fi than fantasy). Yeah, original ideas are impossible. But I’m definitely hooked on the notion of combining things in new ways. So, how about a school for vampires? Hehee.
I cosign that idea of vampire school. Surely vampires have to go somwhere to learn all about their history and proper vampire manners.
With all this hype over vampires and werewolves, I feel kinda bad about mummies and Frankenstein’s monster (and his bride). Surely they could have a revival.
I know! Many monsters are getting neglected. What about the beasts that aren’t monsters, like unicorns? Nobody says anything about them!
I wonder what kind of twist can be plotted using unicorns as the driver.
Or winged horses… Adult versions of children’s fairytales.
I agree with Megan.
I often think my ideas have sprung from some of my favorite stories or movies and have scrapped them before I have started.
Its great to know im not going crazy and am very much not alone ! Thanks !
I think all my ideas come from my favorite stories. Right now, I’m really into Lost (yes, I’m way late on that bus). I would say that it comes across as perhaps the most original show/book/movie I have ever seen. But if I take it apart, I find out that it’s just a new way of combining and retelling a bunch of old characters and stories. In some cases, the show even references its own sources! White rabbits and “going down the rabbit hole” galore!
Much of the pleasure in reading is the recognition of a well-disguised plot. If what what we read is similar to what we have read, it is an easier read – less the challenge and more the gratification. The more original a work is, the less popular it will be – sadly.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m not a lazy reader, so I definitely appreciate plots and characters that present a decent mental challenge. Some people like to read (or watch TV and movies) just to relax and tune out. That’s fine once in a while, but mostly, I like art that makes me think.
I wrote a piece of flash fiction called Sherry’s Last stand, someone who commented on it said it reminded her of a movie were people were turned into wax figures. Ah I said, House of Wax 1953 Vincent Price! LOL – I never thought about my Sherry’s Last stand being similar, but I guess it is a new twist on an old idea… and that’s it really isn’t it ? Giving new and original twists to old ideas even if we didn’t realise it was an old idea in the first place! :O)
I think this happens to writers all the time. I’ve heard countless, woeful stories from writers who thought they’d created something original only to discover there were similar stories already in existence. I think the trick is not to try so hard to be original but to be brave enough to put your own story out there even if it does share similarities with other (often more famous) works. The key is to combine different story elements in unique ways rather than try to come up with something that nobody has ever thought of before.
Well I think you are absolutely right, and really from what I’ve seen there is very little that has not already been written about, but that in itself should not stop us. I never occurred to me Whether Sherry was an original story or not, it was just a story I had to tell.
I think the value of storytelling is not in originality but in emotional content, but that’s just me.
This article has opened up a whole new perspective for me! Thank you, I’ve been trying to write this one story for years. Years. And what is stopping me is every time I get an idea I think its great but then almost immediately I shoot it down cause its similar, even in just the slightest way to a book I just read, or a movie I just saw or just by coincidence. I keep self-criticising myself, but thank you, Melissa for an exceptionally well-done article.
I think it’s inevitable. I see similarities in novels, movies, and TV shows all the time. In fact, for every story out there, I can always draw several similarities to other stories, so why should my work be an exception? That’s the thought that keeps me going when I feel like everything’s been done.
Ok. So I have an idea for a historical novel; however, I found a similar book that focuses on the same character. Of course many of the events would be the same because it is historical fiction. My idea is greater in complexity and has more breadth. This will be my first attempt at writing a novel. I was quite discouraged when I found “my book” already written. Should I pursue and write my story? Or is it a hopeless endeavor because no publisher will publish a book similar to another….but better, of course!
My guess is that once you start writing, your story will diverge and end up being quite different from the one you’re worried about. I say go ahead with your idea and see what happens.
I guess I am fortunate I never run out of ideas.Once in a while I take a break for two days or so then approach my computer again with a fresh perspective and the ideas flow freely.
That’s awesome! Most writers I know either have too many or too few ideas.
Great article. I, too, hesitate all too often because I am writing something that feels, or I fear could be, redundant. I have begun telling myself that no matter how often or in what context a story is told, there will always be someone hearing/reading it for the first time. That has helped open the possibility of a perpetual audience. Thanks again!
Thanks, Billie! You’ve made a great point!
I’ve always said it isn’t the concept it’s the execution. Now if I could just get a concept or two I’d be on my way…
I think concepts are easy to find, but coming up with a compelling concept, one you simply must write about…that’s another story!
I feel a lot of have similar interests and it would draw us closer of we all shared our individual thoughts and experiences through the stories we write. Just keep putting yourself out there. Have no fear.
That’s another good point! We share the human experience so it’s only natural that similar concepts and themes would appear in our work. Thanks, Teresa!
I love a romance author John a Lindsey, I’ve read about 10 books of hers. All the books have similar heroes and heroines. Do you know what keeps me going back to read more? She has different twist to the stories. Each story though set in the 17 century has unique characters that makes it really good.
Personally, I detest the idea that what I have written has no originality. Come on, it is my brain, the drama acted in my mind. A writer’s quote says “A writer is a world trapped in a person.”
I’ve never had issues with originality.
Though I’ve discarded badly written stories before. They were simply not good. As we all know, writers drive themselves hard and condemn their work first…*smiles*
I love this piece!
Writers can be overly critical of their own work. That’s a good thing if we use it to improve our writing, but it can also hold us back if it prevents us from writing or sharing our work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Deb!
After reading what all of you have to say about originality I suppose I must rethink my position. I am not a writer but I have many original (or so I thought) ideas for stories. I only wish I had the talent to use those ideas. Is there such a thing as collaboration with writers that need ideas?
Yes, there are many writers who work with partners. Ideally, you would find someone whose skills complement yours. But you can also practice and study the craft to improve your own skills so you don’t have to rely on a partner.
Bravo. Excellent! I just started my website about two months ago. I am experimenting with a free website before I launch the website I really want to produce. It’s for fun really! I have been writing for a very long time. However, I have never really been good at grammar or proofreading. I did a google search and came across your website. I have bookmarked your website and will use it often as I tackle my entries. Thanks.
This particular article caught my attention. I have been telling my sister, “there is nothing new out there to write, everything has been thought of”, for a very long time. Thanks for opening my eyes to approach writing differently.
I had to comment because I am discovering it’s harder to get your ideas on this vast internet. So again I say BRAVO! Ever since starting my website I am paying more attention to the lay out of websites. Yours is fantastic! I noticed you used WordPress and I have been watching editorials on WordPress. When I launch my “dream” website that is what I plan to use, WordPress.
I wish you all of the best as you continue to produce great and helpful articles about writing.
P.S. Sorry I haven’t used my real name. I wish to remain anonymous.
WordPress is, without a doubt, the best platform for an author’s website. I think it’s a good idea to experiment on a free site before investing in a self-hosted presence. Good luck to you!
Great post. I love your synopsis of Harry Potter/Star Wars. It shows just how different two stories can be with the same basic plot.
I think I’ll do your exercise and see what I come up with.
Thanks, Vivienne. I hope you have fun with the exercise.