Whose bright idea was that?

by limebirdvanessa

Following on from my post about the tendency some of us have to hold back our very best ideas for fear of wasting them, What’s the big idea? I’ve been thinking about what the value actually is of an idea, and whether there is such thing as a completely original idea; we are told there isn’t, but I’m not sure we really believe that. As writers, we strive for originality, and of course we shouldn’t stop striving for that, but perhaps we should worry less about the actual idea being completely original. There is nothing wrong with recycling an old idea by putting a new and original spin on it; Hollywood does it all the time. In reality, the actual idea usually has very little value. You can’t copyright an idea, or you certainly can’t in the UK. But wherever you are, it’s really what you do with the idea that gives it value.

Some story concepts are churned out time and again, and nobody complains. One of the most popular is the transformation story. Based loosely on the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady concept, the stories centre around the main character undergoing a makeover to their looks and/or personality. To call it a ‘makeover’ doesn’t quite do justice to the seemingly miraculous overhaul that these characters can go through – the unattractive and awkward girl becomes confident and beautiful, the unknown nerdy kid becomes the most charismatic and popular kid in school, the clumsy tomboy becomes a graceful lady, the frump becomes a sex bomb, the airhead becomes informed and articulate. Need I go on? I’m sure we could all list a dozen films that follow this concept. Yet how many of us would actually consider writing a story like this? I doubt I would, because I want to be original. But why should I care so much about being original when others are having great success using the same old story concepts? In any case, I’m probably not being half as original as I think I am because the chances are that whatever story idea I come up with, someone somewhere will have done some variation on it before.

I wonder whether our writing is being stifled at times by our drive for originality. Could some of our moments of writers block be eased if we allowed ourselves the freedom of rehashing something that has been done before? I’m writing this with a rather large degree of hesitation because my instinct, for myself, is that I should always try to be completely original. I’m uncomfortable with the thought that I might choose to write something which could almost be classed as (gasp) copying! But maybe I could produce better work if I occasionally gave myself permission to not be completely original. Maybe we all could.

Where do you sit on this? Do you allow yourself to reuse ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, or do you continually strive for originality in both concept and execution?

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25 Comments to “Whose bright idea was that?”

  1. Totally agree – What are genres, if not the “same old story concepts” – and why are so many boooks sold as being “Just like” some current bestseller – and why so many prequels and sequels and fanlit books – if originality is so highly prized?
    Sorry, having a bad writing day.

  2. I agree – you can always rework an old idea. It’s the originality with which you do it that counts. I definitely had Rochester in “Jane Eyre” in mind when I wrote the hero of my “Termite Queen,” although Griffen’s dark secret is nothing at all like Rochester’s. And my next series of books are based on retellings of myth, mostly Greek but some medieval legends as well, within the culture of my intelligent temite lifeform. I had a friend say to me, “How could you write these books?” And my reply was, “Well, I had some really great material to draw on.”

  3. Nice post, Vanessa, about a conundrum that plagues artists of all kinds.

    Everyone struggles with originality, and I have to admit that I adhere to the school of thought that says there are no real original ideas any longer. What’s “original” about a story is how we tell it: what spin we can give it, with our words, characters, and plots. That’s what I find beautiful about a lot of stories, even when I know what’s going to happen in the end. The basic idea is what might catch my eye, but it’s the journey that really engages me.

    Thanks!

  4. Good point. How our characters interact and advance through the story is what we can make unique. The genre is a template for what type of book you’re writing, but we have the license to make as many twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. The beauty of ‘What if’ lets us make changes to what’s been done before.

  5. I read somewhere a quote by someone famous (can’t remember who!) that there is no such thing as an original story. The story’s are merely retold from a new perspective. Hmm…do I believe it? Not sure.

  6. Follow your writing heart. If you feel you can take a general theme and make it work… look at what Cameron did with Titanic. What is new with the story tracks? He just found a way to assemble something remarkable.

    • That’s true – I don’t always trust myself to just follow my heart though, I try and sensor and steer myself with my “sensible” head on, I need to learn to let that go a bit more!

  7. I think there is always a way to rehash an old idea. I know what you mean though, getting frustrated with an idea because it sounds like another. I started to write a novella -length post apocalyptic story and everything I said sounded like The Hunger Games to me, so I scrapped it. Though, when I first heard the premise of The Hunger Games I immediately thought of Stephen King’s (or I guess I should say Richard Bachman’s) The Long Walk. It’s not anything like The Hunger Games in regards to the arena, but it is a society who willingly sends their children to most likely die in a “battle” so to say. I was shocked to read that the recent “it” book Fifty Shades of Grey actually started out as a Twilight fan-fic!

    • Sometimes when I’m writing, I find that I’m not sure whether an idea has come from my head, or from something I’ve seen before, especially if it’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for a while – maybe I should just not worry about where it came from and go with it anyway! Maybe you should go back to your novella now?

  8. I was talking about this the other day actually, I think this applies to films too. It’s so tricky to think of completely original ideas. I had an amazing idea for a book once and then I googled it (to be safe) and I found a book that was very similar… back to the drawing board! So, when I come across a book that has a really original story line I always am in awe of them! Great post Vanessa.

  9. I try to put my own style on an idea and whether that had been done before or not, it’s my voice and my thumb print and hopefully that makes it unique and not stale.

  10. Originality of ideas is an issue in all creative occupations. I’ve won art contests on the basis of originality, but I have to admit that I never strove to be original; I only tried to do what I do as well as I could do it. Maybe it helped that I was basically unteachable, so I couldn’t be over-influenced by anybody, and didn’t like any of my artistic forebears enough to imitate them too closely. (But I don’t recommend going this route unless you really can’t help yourself, because it makes your life a lot harder.)

    C.S. Lewis:
    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

  11. You’re right that one can spend so long wanting to be completely original that no writing gets done while one waits for the idea to come.
    Personally, I’ve seen too many examples of the same idea done over to be concerned that someone has ‘ copied’ (Avatar vs Pocahantas anyone?), but I’m not entirely sure that I have the confidence to do such things myself.
    Maybe if I already had an idea in mind, with my own twist. But I don’t think I’d set out to do it.

    • Yes, I think setting out with your own ideas is always the way to go, if it ends up that it’s similar to something that is already out there, oh well! I couldn’t really see myself deliberately trying to use an idea that’s already been done .

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