This past week, the topic of writing was briefly brought up between a co-worker and I. He mentioned that he’d always wanted to write a novel, but he could never think of an original story. This is something I have struggled with, along with many other young writers I have met. We all strive for the one idea that will grow into a great and original story that nobody has quite read before. Another friend and I also knew of a young writer who apparently had an idea “so original” she dared not explain it for fear of it being stolen, leaving her without any constructive feedback.
Maybe she did have a very original idea that could be a phenomenal success, but I have my doubts. My reasoning for this is not out of jadedness or cynicism, but simply that I have come to learn that there is no such thing as a purely original story idea. Furthermore, if you strive too hard for this ideal of originality you can potentially stonewall your creativity.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not advocating that people simply rewrite the same stories that are popular and prevalent all around. If you really want to, go right ahead, but this is more to encourage a shift in perspective about your writing.
If you learn to recognize the tropes and themes that are woven together to create narrative, you can start to see how many stories are very similar. The story of an alien humanoid child crash-landing on Earth and being raised in the country is the origin story of both Superman and Goku from Dragon Ball, yet knowing the two different narrative universes the reader/viewer understands that these two stories are unique from each other, despite their similarities. Taking the subject of Dragon Ball even further, the initial narrative of the series is based on the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, especially Goku, who is heavily based on the character Monkey King. What Dragon Ball eventually becomes is a significant deviation from this as well.
Despite all these adaptations of existing ideas, Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are iconic in the world of anime and are still widely recognized. Take Inception and The Matrix as examples as well. Very different films in their own way, yet they are still actions movies where characters enter virtual worlds that they can bend to their will to perform extraordinary feats.
There is nothing wrong with incorporating an idea from something else to make your story more interesting. This plays with the reader/viewer/player’s knowledge of what has come before by playing around with it. Moon Knight is a Marvel Comics character clearly inspired by DC Comics’ Batman, yet there is something special to the stories of Moon Knight because you can do things with the character you couldn’t with Batman. Moon Knight has a lot of explicit mental illnesses, which conflict with his life as a vigilante. You couldn’t necessarily tackle this angle in a Batman story, however, because the hero has such an elevated status among his fans that such compromising flaws would likely not be as accepted.
You’re not trying to create something entirely new and unseen, but rather use existing elements and combine them into something unique. The same, but also a little different — maybe even combining existing story ideas that are not seen commonly put together. If you’re stopping and asking yourself “has this idea been done before?” too much, you’re potentially nitpicking your own ideas into oblivion.
At the end of the day, always remember to tell the story you want to tell too. If it’s a little similar to something that’s popular, it’s not a big deal. What matters is incorporating your own unique perspective. What can you bring to the table with these narrative elements that’s different? This post is about acknowledging that we evolve stories by incorporating them into each other constantly, creating new and interesting ideas that are still familiar.
I know I haven’t got it all figured out yet myself, but I hope this is helpful to any other young writers.