The Quest for Originality

Have you ever had a really awesome idea for a story? Have you ever given up on this idea because it seemed too similar to something else, or because someone said it was just like that other story they read – or movie they saw, or whatever?

If you haven’t, you’re probably an exception.

Chances are you forgot it happened, because it was a really long time ago, before you’d even started writing. It happens to us all.

The Seeds of Stories

We all want to be original, and we want to bring something of our own to the table. The difference between us is what we want to bring – what’s important to us. Some of us want to explore deep emotional themes. Some of us want to provide a momentary escape from the drudgeries of everyday life. Some of us want to tell a new and original story that no one ever read the likes of before.

This last bit, creating a new and original story, is arguably the most difficult one.

There are those who say that everyone has a story in them, and there are those who say there are only three different stories (man vs man, man vs self, and man vs nature). In their own ways, they’re both right. It’s a matter of perspective.

What I’m getting at is that with the amount of stories that are written, it’s nigh impossible to come up with a new idea. Even with a very small circle of friends, it’s difficult to create a story concept that doesn’t remind one of them of something.

So what’s the big deal?

Or, to be more specific: why do I keep coming across young enthusiastic writers who throw out their ideas just because someone else points out it’s already been done? (Old experienced writers probably do it as well, they’re just not as obvious about it.)

The answer is that it’s not necessarily about being original, but rather about creating something of your own.

When you plant the seed for a new story, the idea is the only thing you have. It’s what everything comes from, and it’s what will eventually grow up and become the flower/bush/tree/forest that is your story. At the start though, it’s just the seed, and it’s all you’ve got.

It’s a seed like no one else’s, and it will grow up to be the most beautiful enchanting magical forest ever. There’s so much hope and promise in your seed. It’s the most precious thing.

…and then someone comes along and tells you they saw the same seed down a the florist’s last Thursday, and it’s an onion.

All of a sudden the glory is all gone. The promise is betrayed, and the hope deflates like a leftover balloon from last week’s birthday party. What was once a dream of a magical forest become just another stupid onion.

Sounds horrible, right?

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Growing the Dream

Let’s continue with the seed analogy. Just like seeds won’t turn into flowers unless you plant them, so too will ideas never become stories unless you write them.

As a skilled and experienced gardener, you will know what seed you’re planting, and you’ll know what kind of flower will grow from it. You’ll know that with the right care your flower will bloom and flourish. Chances are it’ll become strong and beautiful.

If you’re like me and don’t know anything about gardening, you’ll put a seed in a pot of soil and splash some water on it now and then. There might be a flower, and there might not.

There’s a saying that gets thrown around a lot when talking about ideas and originality, and it’s something along the lines of: “Ideas are worthless; it’s what you do with them that matters.”

In the context of ideas as seeds for stories, it certainly has merit.

When it comes to storytelling, it’s not enough to plant the seed. You have to do the growing for the seed too. With flowers, the seed grows on its own as long as it gets the right care. It’ll know where the leaves go and what colour the flowers will be.

As a writer and a storyteller, you have to decide these things while growing your idea. You make countless little decisions for your story as you write and develop it, and these decisions are based on ideas too – your ideas. Small ideas that come to you while writing, or which were left over after your last story. Some of them may seem so obvious they’re barely worth calling ideas, but they still are. They’re what makes your story yours, and they’re most certainly not worthless.

Sure, your original idea may have been the story-equivalent of an onion, but it’s your onion, and there’s no other onion like it. Your onion makes anyone who cuts it cry tears of gold.

But how can you tell?

When you have a seed you can look up pictures that show what it will look like when fully grown. With the right care, your flower might end up looking a little bit like that.

When you have an idea, you only have your own inner vision of what the story will be when it’s done. Depending on who you are as a writer, it may end up similar to that, or it might be completely different.

If you’ve grown a few ideas into stories, you’ll have experienced this first-hand. The vision you had for your original idea may not have much, if anything, in common with what you eventually ended up writing. This can be the case even if you outline your story in great detail.

You know it’s going to happen, and you know it’s part of the deal. Perhaps it’s even why you write: to see what becomes of your idea. More importantly, you know that even if your initial idea is similar to other ideas, the final story will be all yours.

As you write, you’ll leave your mark on the characters and events that you create. This is where all your tiny little ideas and decisions come together and create a flower that’s much too large to ever have fit inside the tiny little seed it grew from.

If you’re new to writing though, you may not have fully experienced how creating a story makes it your own. All you have is your idea and the vision it creates in your mind. The dream of what your story could be. You’ve not yet beaten your writing wings, and you don’t know for sure the true power of your own imagination. Perhaps you’re a little bit worried and a little bit scared?

Banishing the Fear

Okay, so let’s say you’re a new writer. You have an idea you used to think was really cool until someone pointed out that it’s basically Harry Potter In Space. Now you have to come up with a new and better idea.


Just because you have a young orphan space wizard who goes to a secret space wizard school and is really good at piloting a space ship, doesn’t mean it’s Harry Potter in space. Sure, it could be, but it could also be Phantom Menace (well, sort of), or it could be something else entirely. It could actually be pretty cool.

The important thing is: You’ll never know if you don’t write the story.

Only, it still feels like Harry Potter in Space, and you no longer care for writing it. How do you fix that?

The way to go is to reignite your passion for the story. You could try and come up with a new idea, but it would remind someone of a cyberpunk version of The Hobbit, or Game of Thrones set in 1920’s Chicago, or a fantasy version of Warhammer 40k. Whatever. Everything reminds someone of something.

So how do you reignite your passion?

This is, unfortunately, a lot easier said than done. However, there are a few things you can try:

  1. Develop your characters. Get to know who they are, what drives them, and what secrets they hide.
  2. Develop your story. What are the main events, and is there room for little secondary events throughout to spice things up?
  3. Spend some time with your characters. Write short stories about them that aren’t related to your main story idea, just to get a feel for them.

There you go. Basic advice for a complex problem.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to getting experience. Experience is gained by doing, not by reading about it. In this case, the doing that needs to be experienced, is writing. So, write.

Plant your onion and make it grow.

Final Words

My first novel I wrote was a “practice novel” based on one of the simplest most basic idea I could think of. I didn’t want to waste any of my good ideas when I didn’t know if I was able to do them justice as a writer, so I wrote something else instead. The idea was “boy meets girl” and that was it.

Over the months I spent working on that I grew to love my characters and my setting, and I developed a great passion for the whole project. In the end, the result was mediocre at best, but even now, several years later, I still think about going back to that story and fixing it up.

The idea is still the same. It’s still about a boy who meets a girl, but that’s not what matters. What matters is the boy and the girl he meets.

What about you? How do you feel about ideas?

Do you worry about your ideas being cheesy or tacky or cliché? How do you cope with that?

What’s the worst idea you’ve had that you’ve turned into a story?

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3 years ago
Miles Lacey

Whether you write an epic fantasy or political propaganda (which is my bread and butter writing) the primary function of a writer is to tell a story that people will remember. It doesn't matter if the story is unoriginal. What matters is that the story is told in such a way that people both enjoy it and never forget it.

I really like this highlighting of memory. Now I'm inspired to wonder what makes something memorable—so that it doesn't fade into the mishmash of so much else one might have experienced.

I think that question's really key to answering the question, Originality?

But this "told in such a way" may be the original addition in the story.

Miles Lacey
Miles Lacey
3 years ago

Some of the most successful authors have written books that are largely formula driven, cliche riddled and unoriginal. What separated them from most of the other formula driven, cliche riddled and unoriginal stuff churned out time after time was they added a few twists. The Harry Potter series took a genre of fiction that was all but dead – the British boarding school genre – and tossed in some magic and other fantasy elements and J K Rowling is now so rich from her book sales and the movies that were based on her books she could buy a small country.

The mistake that is often made is that people get so caught up with trying to be original that they forget the primary role of a writer is to be a storyteller. Whether you write an epic fantasy or political propaganda (which is my bread and butter writing) the primary function of a writer is to tell a story that people will remember. It doesn't matter if the story is unoriginal. What matters is that the story is told in such a way that people both enjoy it and never forget it.

3 years ago

Great article, really pinpointing what perhaps all of us feel at times. I've scratched a bunch of ideas earlier because of this – eventually you realize that with that mindset, "everything has already been written, so what is the point?", there shouldn't be any stories left to write, yet still authors produce a bunch of new books every year which feels unique.

This is something I might have to re-read a couple of times along the way, great stuff.

Dark Squiggle
Dark Squiggle
3 years ago

Great article, and I think it is a concept dealt with throughout the ages.
Standing on the shoulders of giants – Wikipedia
The goal is not to be original, but to build upon what came before you rather than repeat it.

3 years ago

I think there's this idea in our society these days that originality is desirable just for its own sake. Originality is a high form of praise, and it's lauded and sought after. It's the kind of praise given to highly respected forms of art, so of course it's something you have to strive for, right?

It's easy to forget that it's not enough just to be original. it also has to be good – ideally amazing. 😛

You jumped in front of me, heh, since I was about to wonder (by commenting) about this desire for originality and why it is so strong—or whether it should exist at all.

Even the pursuing demon image is not original. I no doubt borrowed from, or was influenced by, Poe's poem "Alone," heh. In fact, I'm sure that poem relates to the present topic very well.

I suppose the need for recognition is strong behind the desire to be perceived as original and the corresponding fear of appearing as only a mere copy, a number of the one-thousand or ten-thousand who have written much the same thing before. I mean, there's that niggling thought that, if I add nothing new whatsoever, then what's the purpose of my bothering with this messy and often-tedious process of writing? Heh.

If writing were a purely hedonistic pursuit for me, similar to the way I'll design and orchestrate the creation of my own dinner in the kitchen, it'd be much simpler. When I'm cooking for myself, I can let myself do whatever I like; I know what I want, and I'm utterly free to design it to meet that need.

But it's not a hedonistic pursuit for me. This is too bad. My output would go up tremendously if it were.

Rose Andrews
3 years ago

Awesome article, Nils. I’m glad you wrote about this topic. Too many writers worry about their work being cliche but the reality is that everything has already been done before, and tropes are *not* cliches. Originality comes from our voice and life experiences/perception/views that no one else has except us. One simple idea (boy or girl saves world against dragon attack) can be taken and spun a myriad of ways by different writers enough to not be the same exact story. That’s what newer writers would benefit in understanding: YOU and you voice is what makes a basic idea unique.

3 years ago

I swear I've heard all that before. Hmmm….

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun's love in the spring becomes the rose…

OH, yeah, hah.

Anyway, the question of originality is weird to handle, mostly because originality is obviously a sticking point or may become one for everyone. I know that I'm often pursued by the demon called Quest for Originality. It's a demon in pursuit, because I don't think I strongly pursue originality myself; my process in more like: Come up with an idea or several, then fear that the demon might appear and slug me upside the head with his fist while howling, "Not original!"

I find that the strongest fears of lack of originality in new writers generally circle those meta areas, things like story type and plot synopsis (or what we might see in a log line.) These are the grand, overarching archetypes. Someone will say, "Ah, but that's just another boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl story!"

But this is odd precisely because those archetypes are archetypes. They are meant to describe—capture?—a wide swath of stories in a general, expansive way. Archetyping is by nature antithetical to discerning originality; everything captured in its net is, by definition, merely a copy.

The notion that one's grand, overarching Idea for a story is hardly different. The attempt to make a story circle that Idea, so that everything within the story revolves around that Idea, supporting that Idea while gaining strength from that Idea, is pretty much an attempt to Archetype one's own story. The fear that one's personal Archetype for the story might turn out to be nothing more than a universal Archetype describing many stories—this is what terrifies many beginning writers.

My personal fears of that Quest for Originality demon arriving to slap me down circle other things than these grand archetypes—but are probably related to that other sort of archetyping, just on a smaller scale. Is the scene I've just written, the MC's predicament and solution to that predicament…merely a reiteration of a thousand other scenes in a thousand other stories, just with the names changed? This is the sort of fear that frequently strikes me in my soft areas. I now think these are merely a different sort of archetyping. The Escape-archetype. The Character-Reaction-to-a-Particular-Dilemma archetype. And so on and on.

Sometimes it's the fear that my personal Character archetype—say, that nifty form of magic use and the consequences of that use for my particular MC—is just a copy of something else. I mean: I don't consciously copy from others; but my conscious mind can be pretty ignorant, heh.

Orc Knight
Orc Knight
3 years ago

What about you? How do you feel about ideas? They're just that. Idea's to possibly be used.

Do you worry about your ideas being cheesy or tacky or cliché? How do you cope with that? No more. Though it didn't take me too long to get over it. I work with the cheesy, occasionally tacky and most definitely the cliche. My favorite thing to work with, if only to twist it.

What’s the worst idea you’ve had that you’ve turned into a story? Not sure. Seeing as I've turned the original Three Little Pigs story into a mythological story for Eld. Twisting fairy tales is kind of what I like to do.

3 years ago

Every so often a gem seems to appear like 'Jurassic park' people had written about dinos for years but having ones re-created and not go back in time or stumble across some island hiding them. It wasn't a massive original idea, just that little bit made it different. I liked the themes too they added to he story. The greed and arrogance of humans.

I think some of the best stories are twists of ones that all ready exist. Like how many ghost stories were there before the sixth sense? How how many covered it from a ghost's perspective?

I honest;y don't kniw if it's impossible to be totally original or not but there's nothing stopping anyone from doing a surprising twist on a worn out tale.

Reply to  Darkfantasy
3 years ago

Thank you for this. I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve written to work out my own problems. I’ve written to create hope for myself and for others and to entertain. It occurred to me that I was beginning to write the same story repeatedly, with variations in plot, sure, but I needed to have a different focus, in part to keep myself entertained while I write.

I was watching a science documentary and realized what I wanted to include in my novel, what the focus was to be. It seemed like a unique twist. So off I went. Except…except then I got stuck even after doing the scientific research. Now, it’s trudging along like I first did 28-years-ago when I wrote my first novel. My first book was nonfiction about a tragic event. It took me ten years to learn how to write it. After that I turned to fiction to work through my issues. Okay, so I worked them through, and now I don’t have any I need to work through, except the final one that we all face.

So I say to myself, do this for the fun of it. But then realized that I’m key-tied – as opposed to tongue-tied. Ridiculous after all these years. I don’t want to stop writing. I’m afraid all over again, that I’ll end up writing a variation of the same old story, just with a little science thrown in. Grrr.

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