Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ideas Aren't Sacred

I've long maintained that orginality is at least somewhat overrated. In a world with billions of people, it's very unlikely that you are privy to wholly original idea that no one has ever thought of.

Author Natalie Whipple puts it better than I could:
We writers can be really weird about our ideas. Sometimes we love them like people. Sometimes we doubt them or feel as if they betrayed us...or we betrayed them. We can be wildly possessive over them, and we really want to think that we're the only person EVER to have a certain idea for a story. 
The truth is—other people are going to have your ideas. 
Also, that is OKAY.
And, not only that, it can even be helpful. Authors can sometimes serendipitously tap into a trend started by another author just because they happened to simultaneously be writing something somewhat similar.

Absolutely try to be yourself and put your own unique spin on whatever idea you have, but don't go for broke trying to think of something completely different than anything that has been done before. What's most  important is the originality of your execution.

Art: Archimedes Thoughtful by Domineco Fetti


Jaimie said...

Which is why you should find some old fairy-tale and write it in the present tense. Overnight success, the present tense.

Peter Dudley said...

Totally agree. (How many times have you heard that Avatar, The Hunger Games, or [name of popular title] is just a ripoff of something done before?)

That said, it is important to put effort into originality. I've participated in and judged a number of flash fiction contests that all begin with a prompt. I am sure that the 50 people who come up with the exact same "twist" all think theirs will be unique and clever, but with 250 entries you have to push yourself to think three or four steps away from that first clever twist.

Taylor Napolsky said...

Exactly. Modern day fairytale retelling written in present tense with plenty of melodrama. That is a hit.

AR said...

C.S. Lewis said that a good writer (poet?) doesn't represent his own mind but a mind much vaster. Or something like that. Point being, communing with human nature while enjoying a fully realized personhood is probably the best state of being when writing or doing anything.

Nice post, as always.

Mr. D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristin Laughtin said...

Like AR, my mind went straight to a C.S. Lewis quote (how unoriginal! gasp!):

"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."

I find it is often the case that you can tell who is trying too hard to be original. The writing becomes stilted, the plot and characters become too outlandish, and many of the events seem too out-of-the-blue rather than organic evolutions of prior events and the world. To a certain extent, a writer needs to let go and worry about writing the story that is true to them. Because we're all individuals, it just seems more likely that being true to ourselves will allow our unique characteristics to infuse our work and differentiate it from others'.

Surfer Dawn said...

Scared? Who said anything about being scared? Sorry, I'm a little dyslexic. I guess now I can stop being scared that I won't get published if I don't come up with that elusive "original" idea.
(omg, am I the only one that has to retry word verification over and over?)

Bryan Russell said...

Ideas are easy. Making them work, however...

Whirlochre said...

The onward march of time dictates - RUTHLESSLY - that most of the stimuli bombarding us are out of our control.

If there's a trick, it's either to react as appropriately as possible or as inappropriately as possible — or to assume some middle ground that's neither/nor.

The bum news is that whatever path you choose, the likelihood of you being perceived as an idiot depends entirely upon whatever everyone else is doing.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the word verification either: It is ALWAYS blurry.
I liked the way it used to be. This format makes me have to try and try again and then sometimes the comment gets lost while trying. Nathan, can we go back?
On the point, it's a great one. The wonderful thing about a myth or archetype is that it CAN be told anew again and again. New characters, new settings, new style, even brought into other myths/archetypes. They work because they are infinite in our psyches and, -important point- that is very very different than formula writing.

wendy said...

I agree and disagree. I think that what a writer/story-teller does with an idea is more important than the idea, itself, but publishers often seem happier to embrace a story with something new and radical than the same ol' same ol'. True, putting a new spin on an old idea works, too, but that's still a story containing original ideas in the form of a new interpretation or execution of the old.

My experience has been there's nothing more frustrating than spending years working on a story based around ideas not encountered before - at least, not by me - then to discover you've been beaten to the publishing punch by another author with very similiar ideas and themes. This has happened more than once, strangely. A work that contains original concepts and/or style has much more prestige than a work that is considered derivative or dated. I believe there are still plenty of original ideas to be had - both in storylines and execution, and we haven't yet even begun to uncover the full treasure load of possibilities and human potential.

Anonymous said...

But, PS, I think archetypes ARE sacred, even if they are infinite.

Teresa Robeson said...

Sometimes, all it takes to free me and give me peace of mind is reading one of your posts. Thank you!

Kfir said...

I must disagree with the final conclusion. While we know already from the Bible that "there is nothing new under the sun", the statement that "What's most important is the originality of your execution" could be interpreted as a license to take a whole plot and write it up "better" than the original author did. I don't think that copycats with a good prose should be praised, and putting the "execution" before originality (instead of equally strongly encouraging both) is a slippery slope.

Sorry for disrupting the harmony of the responses, but I feel so strongly about it that I am sponsoring a competition to encourage originality (see

Stoich91 said...

Totally true. If you put your heart and soul into something, it's going to be unique, because nobody has ever had, current has, or will ever have the same heart and soul as you! :D

Naja Tau said...

I've always thought that the pressure for creative types to come up with unusual ideas is overrated. Most people don't even like things that are TOO original! Most people enjoy something familiar and structured. And for better or worse, we often judge the success or failure of an artwork based on how similar it is to other works of the time! You should've seen the trolling I got for my first book's first edition book cover. Yeesh! I said I was sick and tired of everyone making their book covers in such a formulaic way, and oh, the trolls rolled in! *shakes fist at trolls, unprofessionals and unmoderated children with internet access*

Mira said...

I like the discussion here about archtypes, I think that is the heart of it. Anything that is going to touch a reader draws upon an archtype, and there really are a finite number of them. But just like there are an infinite number of songs that use the same finite number of notes, I think the same is true of fiction plots. They are all unique, but draw on similar themes.

I write non-fiction, though, so I'd like to talk about that, too. I do think there is originality in terms of non-fiction.

For example, someone thought of gravity, and no one had ever thought of that before. That was an original thought, and there have been and will be others.

What I have been thinking lately though, is that even those thoughts aren't isolated. It seems like there is a collective unconscious, and lots of people have the same original thought together. So, everyone discovers gravity around the same time, but one person happens to gets credit for it because he was in the right place and time to make an impact.

Or someone might get there first, but other people are close on their heels.

Anyway, I don't know if that's true or not, but it's something I've been thinking about lately.

Interesting topic, Nathan!

Marion said...

At one point in my WIP, the 2 protags. are rescued by 2 dolphins. Original? No. Dolphin-rescue tales are at least 2000 years old.
But it's fun. And possible. and interesting.
And wouldn't YOU love to be rescued by a dolphin?!

Emily Wenstrom said...

I've been thinking about this a lot this week, too. People tend to think pretty similarly, by and large ... just scroll through the many comments on Facebook after the the presidential debate earlier this week. They're practically all the same. If you're one in a million, there's still 7,000 others out there just like you, as they say.

At first this really irritated me, becuase you're right -- as a writer, I get a little weird and possessive about my ideas. But then I realized, all this commonality is really a thing of beauty. After all, we rely on that commonality ot make the connections that make our work meaningful. I wrote more about this idea on my blog for anyone interested in the full:

Anonymous said...

This is a very realistic way of looking at all fiction. And when people argue this point it often makes me feel bad for them because they don't realize how uninformed they actually sound.

Daniel McNeet said...

"What's most important is the originality of your execution." I agree with Natalie.

Carl Grimsman said...

I think ideas are sacred. Especially high concept ideas. Ideas are stolen and run with by others every day. This is true particularly with novelists and screenwriters who try to interest "Hollywood" with their material. Next thing many of them know, someone is making a film using some of their ideas. I've heard that some studios actually hire people to glean ideas for adaptation. I disagree with anyone who says it's all in the execution, or that copyright protects anything. Ideas are worth money. Execution is usually secondary.

Guilie said...

There was a discussion in my critique group some months ago about this, whether ideas could be plagiarized. Befuddled me completely. No idea is unique, it's all been done before, one way or another; Writing 101 tells us that successful stories, stories that acquire a life of their own, stories that become memorable, that speak to the core of humanity in us, are all variations on a theme. Variations, I think, is the key here. Taking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and transporting the story to the modern world might sound awesome, but that's just fan fiction. The core, though--the duality that Jekyll & Hyde is really about--that's been done and redone again and again. And *there's nothing wrong with it*, as long as it's a new take, a new variation, a unique perspective. My take :)

Rebecca Taylor said...

So true, and yet it still freaks me out a little when I read a book with a very similar premise to mine. Its like I have a very contained, mini panic attack as I continue to read very quickly and determine, 'Okay, so HOW similar?' Especially since they are a big name author with their book ALREADY on the shelf and mine is still waiting on a cover and layout. Because even though my book was completed years ago, their book published first.

jesmat74 said...

As a writer, it is almost impossible to come up with an original idea for a plot. You don't want something too similar to all the others, but you want it similar enough to entice followers of the same genre.
Take the 50 Shades trilogy for instance. Since these books made the top sellers lists, there have been an abundance of similar books released; some of them better, some worse. As a reader, even if you didn't like the way in which the trilogy was written, you may still have liked the genre. So you go out and buy similar books. As a writer it is your responsibility to readers to write one, but with your own spin on it so that the reader will want to buy your book, spurring you on to write more of the same.
I, like many other aspiring authors, am always trying to think of something original that will cause my book to make it to the top sellers list. Sometimes I think of an idea that I’m sure no one else will have thought of, then a few weeks or months later I read a book that has almost the same intricacies and twists as mine. At first I am a little annoyed that it wasn’t my name on the book but then I think ‘I’m on the right track with my story ideas. Next time I will work a little faster to get it to a publisher so that it is my name on the best sellers list.’

abc said...

eWhich reminds me O Brother Where Out Thou is the best and most creative retelling of The Odyssey, no? Oh, how I do love the Coen brothers.

Nathan, you popped up in a dream last night. You were dating some famous actress and doing some reality show hijinks. Huh. Probably not a good story idea.

Charie Dawn said...

Ideas should always be coming. Whether they be influences from others or not, it`s what`s going to keep producing, evolving,enforcing, changing the way we think about our lives, what we`re going to write and anything else really. Sometimes, as writers, we can get too caught up with ideas that we begin to doubt its "originality". We limit ourselves in writing (and beyond) when we become possessive.

There's a lot that can be taken from this post. It's definitely something that reminds me to be self reflexive. I appreciate that :)

furrykef said...

I started on a novel and got it to 16,000 words before I realized that it really wasn't going to work. Between my dry prose (I was rusty), my confused story structure, and underdeveloped plot, I realized I'd do just as well to start over. (As it happens, since the timing is fortuitous, I'm going to try my next attempt as a NaNoWriMo.) Among the flaws of my book was that my protagonist is too boring, and if the author can't get interested in his protagonist, what chance does the audience have?

I've already had the thought that I could model him on a Ghostbuster. (I've also had other possible models, like Indiana Jones.) I recently rewatched Ghostbusters and I realized that what really makes the movie is the interactions between the main three. So I'm thinking rather than model my protagonist on one Ghostbuster, I should make three characters based on Peter, Ray, and Egon and have them work together to solve the crisis in the novel.

But of course I don't want people (especially Dan Aykroyd or Harold Ramis!) to read the book and think, "Oh, he's ripping off Ghostbusters." But my suspicion (and hope) is that, as I write the book, the characters will evolve in their own directions. It also helps that my book isn't about ghosts in any way, so the connection should be less obvious.

The point of all this is that I think "unoriginality" should not only be allowed but even encouraged if it helps solves the problem. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say originality is overrated! As somebody once said, "Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." (This has been attributed to both Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain, but neither said it.) The bottom line is not whether your work is original, but rather, do people want to read it?

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