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).