One of the members in my writing group wrote a promising story, which the rest of us thought had real potential. As we were wrapping up his critique, ready to move on to the next person, someone said, “Hey, have you seen the movie Happy Feet? This story kind of reminds me of that!” She didn’t know it at the time, but she probably killed his story with her innocent observation.
Mind you, his story didn’t involve talking, dancing penguins. It didn’t even take place on the polar ice caps. There was a remote similarity in the plotlines and the themes. Still, this devastated the writer, and he couldn’t remove himself from the fact that his story was no longer ‘original.’ This was nearly a year ago, and, honestly, I don’t know if he ever picked the story back up.
I was reminded of this recently when I was listening to the podcast Writing Excuses—
(if you’ve never tuned in, go NOW. It’s okay….I’ll wait)
–back? Good. Where was I? Ah, yes. Not too long ago they had an episode on originality, and how being original all the time isn’t necessarily a good thing. They stated, for example, that in creating fantasy worlds, if you make up a whole new animal that essentially has the same function as a horse….then why not just use a horse?
I’d say I agree with them. Readers like and appreciate originality, but only to a certain extent. To truly draw them in, you have to relate to them in some way, which can be done in a variety of forms. In the Writing Excuses example, introducing a new creature can be engaging, but if you’re replacing horses, then you probably have a lot of other new flora and fauna to flaunt, so why not use the opportunity of bringing in a horse to ground your story?
Originality, of course, can also be thought in terms of plotline and themes, as my writing friend found out some time ago. You may be caught up on writing something ‘no one has ever seen before’ but, truthfully, that may be not be feasible to entirely pull off. If you google aspects of an idea you think may be totally new, nine times out of ten you’ll see that someone else has thought of it before. Should you let this discourage you? No. Because your originality comes from how you tell the story, the way your characters speak, interact, live, and the journey you create to get from A to B, even if A and B already exist.
Another example from Writing Excuses is Avatar (see, look at me being all unoriginal!). People ripped it for following the standard ‘Poccohontas’ type plot: white man bullies indigenous, outlier white man becomes part of indigenous, indigenous rise up against white man. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean. However, other people have said Avatar is the best telling of this kind of story. And when it comes to originality, the movie sure is full of it just due to the workings of the alien ecosystem alone. To me, it didn’t matter that the movie utilized a previously used theme. The question was, how well could it put it all together?
If you’re still anxious about being the most original storyteller who ever lived, consider this: did you know that nearly all movies today are made with the same formula? It’s true, just check out The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field. At specific times of a movie, certain changes are supposed to occur, and just about all screenwriters stick to the widely-used format. Why? Because it’s proven to keep audiences entertained and in their seats for two hours. Does it limit the diversity we have in movies? No. Does it keep writers/directors from playing with the form while still using it to create things we’ve never seen before? Nope.
So why should old themes, character ideas, or settings be any different?
My advice: don’t worry if your idea has been done before. As long as you’re not blatantly being a copycat (i.e., writing a book about a telepathic teenage girl who goes on a rampage and kills everyone at her prom after she is humiliated by a falling bucket of pig blood), don’t let someone saying ‘hey, that sounds just like….’ discourage you. You may notice at times that you have ideas that are directly influenced by something you’ve watched or seen. Don’t shy away from these, but rather think about how you can use that same seed to grow a different plant.
On the other hand, if you’re committed to being perfectly original, well, then I suggest banning yourself from Google. Ignorance is bliss, right? 😉