What If Our Story Idea Has Already Been Done?

by Jami Gold on March 22, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Computer screen duplicating image into infinity

In my last post about Google search terms, I mentioned that we sometimes have lots of content around a search’s keywords and yet have never answered the question directly.  In that case, Google just gave us an idea for a blog post.  *smile*

One search term that led people to my blog this past month was “What do we do if our story idea has already been done?”  That’s a great question.  So rather than giving it a paragraph in the last post, I decided to dedicate a whole article to the answer.

Are There Only “X” Number of Stories?

We’ve heard the idea that there are only so many stories in the world.  Some say the number of stories is one (“overcoming obstacles”), some say three (happy/sad/fateful ending), some say seven (the “man vs. X” idea), while others say twenty or thirty-six.

The truth is that all those numbers are right.  The only difference between them is how high-level we’re categorizing a story.  All stories deal with conflict (the one plot), but we can categorize by the nature of the conflict (man vs. self), the goal or theme behind the conflict (“Quest,” from the list of twenty plots), or the situation behind the conflict (“Pursuit,” from the list of thirty-six plots).

Great, does any of that tell us anything?  Not really.  Understanding what kind of story we’re writing might help us focus on what’s important or identify the theme, but high-level categories don’t help us when we’re trying to figure out how unique our story idea is.

What Does a Story Idea Consist of?

Any story idea that consists of only the vague categories from those plot lists won’t do us much good.  “I’m going to write about a man vs. man story involving escape and a revolt.”  Uh-huh.  What’s that going to look like?

Sometimes in our quest for a high-concept story, we aim for such a high-level that we miss the hook.  Just as our story pitches have to be specific, our story ideas need specifics too.  Who are the protagonist and the antagonist?  What’s the situation behind the premise?  A story about a convict’s escape from jail would be very different from that of a slave escaping his master.

In other words, good story ideas—those with enough details for us to work with—have a premise, character sketch, and specific situation.  We mix those elements to create a unique story.

Details Make the Difference

A good story idea might look something like:

A convict escapes from jail and gets his revenge on the gang leader who put him there, leading a revolt in the process.

That seems detailed enough.  We have a premise, basic character sketch, and specific situation.  If we were writing a story along those lines and saw this description for a book already on the shelves, we’d probably worry and think our story idea had been done.

But the deeper we go into the details, the more we see endless possibilities.  Our characters won’t react like the characters in the other book, even if they face the same situations.  One convict might be an anti-hero, and the other might have been framed and innocent.

The way they pursue revenge will be different, the nature of the revolt will be different, and the goals, motivations, and forward movement of the plot will be different.  Along the way, the emotional heart and themes explored in each story will be different.

Two stories.  Same story idea.  Two unique implementations.  That’s why ideas aren’t copyrightable.  That’s why ideas alone aren’t special.  Everything comes down to the implementation.

So before we worry about how our story idea has been done before, we should dig into the details.  Find what makes our story unique and what makes our telling of that story unique.  If authors didn’t do that, we’d all have only one book on our shelves.  *smile*

Have you worried about a story already being “done”?  Did you give up on it or press on anyway?  In your opinion, what makes a story too similar?  What makes a story unique?  What do you think about the “x” number of stories idea?

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54 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Juli Page Morgan March 22, 2012 at 8:16 am

Very timely post for me! My crit group and I were just discussing this the other day. My current WIP was started about three years ago, but I put it aside to finish another one and just recently came back to it. Last weekend I read a book and was floored at the similiarities between it and my WIP. Of course, I freaked out as I’m wont to do, because at first glance it seemed like the two books were almost the same. I panicked, thinking if I queried this WIP that agents would think I was just trying to cash in on a new trend. After my crit group calmed me down (God love ’em!) I realized the similarities were few. As you (and my crit group) pointed out, the characters reacted differently, my plot was different, etc. etc. etc. Then two members of the group told me they’d been in the same situation, finding a book at random that on first read seemed very much like what they themselves were writing. One book even shared the same title as a WIP my crit partner’s, as well as some of the same paranormal elements of her book, even though she’d never read the other one. Though it’s a freak-out moment when it happens, just go back and compare and that’s when you’ll discover that they’re NOT the same, even though some of the ideas might be similar. Kind of like snowflakes — they look the same falling from the sky, but upon close examination, no two are the same.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 8:28 am

Hi Juli,

Exactly! Coincidences happen. That’s completely different from trying to copy someone’s story or characters. In your case, the differences between the stories are there because of the characters are different at their core, not because of sleight of hand on superficial details.

And I love your snowflake analogy. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience and for the comment!

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Chihuahua Charms :) December 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

OMG YES!!! This happened to me, but I too have realised that the similarities are few and very vague/general 🙂 PHEW!!!

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Jami Gold December 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Hi Chihuahua Charms,

Yes, there are some bestselling authors who use the same premise Every. Single. Book. 🙂 The point is that the specifics create new characters who react differently to the plot events and take the story in a unique direction. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover March 22, 2012 at 9:26 am

What a great question, and a wonderful answer. I agree wholeheartedly. For instance, how many times has the classic Romeo & Juliet storyline been a plot in plays, books, song lyrics, etc. But the retelling of it can change every time and feel fresh and intriguing. It’s in the author’s hands to make it so.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Julie,

Yes, and the old classics are fair game because copyright doesn’t apply either. 😉 I have an antique, beautifully illustrated version of Tristan and Iseult, which did the star-crossed lovers story before Romeo and Juliet. However the stories themselves are different because the characters, setting, situation, and plot events are all unique. I can love both stories on their own. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee March 22, 2012 at 9:54 am

My favorite Romeo & Juliet story is Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Just sayin’.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 10:07 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Very true. Pretty much any “doomed romance” could fall into that category. Thanks for the laugh!

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Carradee March 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

*curtsies*

(What?! I like dresses! :p)

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Carradee March 22, 2012 at 9:53 am

I’ve had an idea in my head for a while, started jotting notes and preparing the characters and all for when I finish one story series I’m working on… and then Kris Rusch announced a coming release that bore surface resemblance to what I had in mind. (A far-future universe where killing is often legal, with a highly regulated assassins guild.)

I squeaked, felt intimidated… then thought that it might be a good thing, since it would give me an example to compare it to once I have it written, though mine won’t be a steamy romance.

There’s another author, whose books always feature an unusual name and an unusual situation or plot idea I’ve already dabbled with elsewhere before discovering and reading that particular book. Always. (Kinnor and Reena, for example.)

And I’ve realized that some things that will get more obvious when I release the next Aleyi book could be mistakenly believed to be drawn from Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge series, though discovered after writing it. For example, the world has a bit more technology than appears book 1, and one character’s pragmatism means she’d be willing to kill you if you gave her cause. Coincidental.

To paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Comparison is a good thing. People like categorizing things, and categorizing your book helps you find your readership.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 10:06 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, people do like categorizing things. I’m waiting for someone to come up with categories like “books start one of three ways: a vowel, a consonant, or neither.” 🙂 Maybe then, people will realize that categories are only useful if they tell us something. LOL!

The unintentional echoes you’ve found with those other authors are interesting. Those types of coincidences are enough to make the idea of a “collective unconscious” make sense. Thanks for the comment and I hope you continue with your stories!

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Carradee March 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm

No, no—it would be “a vowel, a consonant, or a punctuation mark”! 😀

I doubt it’s collective unconscious. I have some similarities to all the aforementioned authors—like the one I like who always addresses a story element and an odd name I’m already playing with? She’s a devout Christian, like me. (Kathy Tyers.)

Lindsay Buroker and I both started our fantasy worlds by considering the “default” setting and intentionally thinking “Hey, what if they were a bit more advanced?” And potentially lethal pragmatism can be all that keeps someone alive, in some cultures.

Kris Rusch… Well, we evidently have similar enough interests that I’m equally entranced by her gruesome dark fantasy novels and her sweet paranormal romance. And we both like mysteries and, er, reading everything we can get our hands on. So it’s not exactly surprising that two writers with similar interests might come up with similar world-building premises, no? (Although Kris has way more experience and skill, so I’m a bit uncomfortable making the comparison.)

…So no, I don’t believe in a collective unconsciousness. :p

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Hi Carradee,

But… But… What if it starts with a number? Where does that fit? Hmm? 😀

Great point! I don’t generally accept the idea of the collective unconscious either, but echoes between stories can make it seem like a real thing. However, as you point out, sometimes those similarities between authors exist simply because they have similar tastes or interests. I mentioned before how one of my beta readers and I discovered a similar scene in our stories. We’re also friends who have a lot in common, so it makes sense that our brains might work similarly. Thanks for the great comment!

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Carradee March 23, 2012 at 5:47 am

It’s grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with an Arabic numeral (Ref. 9.5 in Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.). 😀

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 8:45 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! True, so maybe it should be vowel, consonant, or grammatically incorrect? 🙂

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Carradee March 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Perhaps, but that doesn’t account for punctuation, like quotation marks. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Hi Carradee,

*sigh* Coming up with worthless categories is hard. LOL!

Amanda March 22, 2012 at 11:42 am

I worry about this ALL THE TIME. I only have so much free time, and there are so many books out there (and I’m talking only the paranormal/urban fantasy variety) that I’d drive myself crazy trying to find out if someone else has already written my story. My theory is I’ll just rely on the editor-I would think they’d be up to snuff on what’s going on in the literary world that if my story sounds far too similar to something else, they’d tell me so I can either a) change it or b) they’ll turn it down.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Hi Amanda,

Honestly, there are too many books coming out for agents or editors to keep up with either. 🙂 So they go by their personal experience. One agent didn’t want to look at one of my books because she already had a client with a “dragon story.” Nothing about the books were similar, but she didn’t want to have two stories with dragons. Period. One word was enough to convince her not to look at it. I’ve heard of publishers having the same attitude.

So even if we’re turned down, that doesn’t mean our story is too similar to another story, that just means they want something different. Our story can still be a good fit for someone else. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson March 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Great topic! One of my A to Z Challenge posts has this thread running through it. Truth be told, there aren’t any new plots out there to be discovered. Everything’s been done. So the trick is to find a fresh angle and tell it from a different perspective. Do the opposite of what’s expected and try to combine 2 or more distinct story elements to create a new twist on the same old same old.

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Hi Nancy,

Yes, at the high level, everything has been done. But there are always new ways to retell a tale.

I just participated in @AnassaRh‘s #ufchat on Twitter, and we talked about how writers could retell the old Grimm-style fairy tales in a modern, urban fantasy way. We’re seeing this in TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time. Fairy tales have been told so often they’re almost cliches, yet there are still new and fresh ways to approach the story. Thanks for the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly March 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I rather find the fact that most standard urban fantasy can be broken down into just one or two plots. “Some woman finds that she has magical powers and is ‘the chosen’, and a baddie wants to make her life miserable because of that. Oh, and it’s set in modern times.”
or
“Some woman falls in love with a vampire/werewolf/wizard or two, and all sorts of angst ensues. Oh, and it’s set in modern times.”

I guess as the saying goes, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Hi Roxanne,

LOL! Hmm, that does seem to be the pattern. However, I have a paranormal romance that breaks that mold. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy March 22, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Hi Jami,
Well, I think you know what I’m going to say, but I’ll tell you anyway. 🙂 Six authors (who have never met) could be given the same theme, word count, plot high-points and black moment to write and you’d still have a good, better and best scenario. And, why is that? Because each author brings something unique to the table. They bring their world view and that can’t be duplicated no matter how much you level the playing field. In my mind, that’s what makes the difference between an author who gets one or two books right (out of twelve) and one who gets one wrong (out of twelve).
Great post!
Riley

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Hi Riley/Murphy,

Yes, every author is unique. Even if we kept that experiment to a short flash fiction piece, the authors’ voices would still differentiate them in the tone and worldview they brought to the story. Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy March 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Okay, where did my avatar go????? >:/

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Hi Riley/Murphy,

The avatars are set by Gravatar.com, which looks for your picture based on your email address. I bet the email address you used here doesn’t match the email you set up with Gravatar. Hope that explains it. 🙂

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Donna Hole March 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I don’t worry about a story already being done. I just worry about making my version unique.

These are great tips Jami. Thanks for sharing them.

………dhole

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Hi Donna,

Yes, our focus should be on making our version unique. What do we bring to the idea with our background, experience, thought process, worldview, etc. that others won’t? Thanks for the comment!

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Adriana Ryan March 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Great post, Jami! When I first started *seriously* writing, I got very discouraged by the fact that all of MY ideas were taken. *snicker* Then I realized that, hello, there are a billion gazillion (yes, that’s a number!) writers on the planets, and even more stories–of course there aren’t going to be any truly original, never-done-before ideas. The difference is in the execution, in the twist, in the details each author provides. After Anne Rice’s success, who would’ve thought Twilight would do so well? Same premise, different story. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Hi Adriana,

Great observation! Yes, it comes down to the twist, details, and execution. Thanks for the great comment!

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Sophia Chang March 23, 2012 at 12:19 am

This was one of the best blog posts I’ve read all month.

I’ve definitely had to change some of my plotlines and situations because they resembled recently released books, but I can’t do that for every little detail.

I love your logical point of copyright – that really drove this message home to me.

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 8:43 am

Hi Sofia,

Aww, thanks! Honestly, if we start out with unique characters and ideas that feel unique to us, then most tweaks during revisions would be to bring out those unique qualities more and make sure the reader saw the story we wanted to tell. Plot or situation changes shouldn’t be necessary unless they make sense for our characters or overall story arc. And yes, I frequently have to make changes like that for the character/arc/reader interpretation’s sake, regardless of other stories out there. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong March 23, 2012 at 6:52 am

There have been times when I felt discouraged because I discovered someone somewhere had “stolen” my idea, i.e. he/she beat me to it. The reality is that there are only so many stories and there only so many characters/archetypes. I just try to do the best I can to make it make own. No one can tell the story like Buffy can. 🙂

Recently I found out that one of the well known YA writers has a faerie character also known as the Dark King. I have a Dark King. I pouted for about ten minutes before I realized it didn’t matter. Do you have any idea how many Dark Kings there in fiction? Oodles. I googled it.

I write about faeries and folklore. I know others do as well. I try hard to make sure my mythology is unique at the same time trying to stick to the actual lore. (This is where my blog name came from, Pixies Don’t Have Wings.) This is how I try to make my stories my own.

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 8:54 am

Hi Buffy,

“No one can tell the story like Buffy can.”

Exactly! 🙂 “Dark King,” to me, indicates more of an archetype than a specific character. You’re fine. Good luck to you and your wingless pixies and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Gene Lempp March 23, 2012 at 8:13 am

All stories are: A Conflict involving one or more People. That’s it. Everything else is dressing. And, for those that will say a story doesn’t need People and/or Conflict: Take out the People and who will the reader identify with; take out the conflict and why will the reader care?

The one thing – and others have pointed this out – that is different in every story, regardless of starting point or similarities is – The Writer. No one rights like you, but you, and unless you are trying to write the exact same story you’ve already written then in execution, you’re story has never been done. Unless you are copying another writer, and that is called plagiarism, whole nother subject there.

Bring your unique voice to the story, your unique choices and it is guaranteed that the story will be unique – even if they are all, at their most basic, identical.

Great post, Jami 🙂

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 9:06 am

Hi Gene,

I love your explanation for why stories are–at their essence–a Conflict involving People. 🙂 Perfect.

And yes, you’re right that plagiarism is a completely different issue. I think some people see these unintentional similarities and compare them to plagiarism, giving the excuse, “Every story has been done already.” But there’s a huge difference between random coincidences and purposeful copying. Intention is everything.

“Bring your unique voice to the story, your unique choices and it is guaranteed that the story will be unique – even if they are all, at their most basic, identical.”

Love this! Yes, this exactly. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment, Gene!

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Alberthe March 23, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Great post! I’m still at the point where I let myself be discouraged by ‘everything’s been done before!’ Sometimes I feel that the more I read, the more I discover that there are no ideas left for me, if you see what I mean. Instead of reading as a way of increasing my horizons, getting new ideas, and learning from others, it closes doors right in front of my nose;) Whenever I come up with an idea, my immediate response is to list the 20 novels on the top of my head that deal with the exact same plot/topic. I want everything I do to be ORIGINAL and PERFECT and when I realise that’s not really possible, I put off writing altogether (it’s not just fiction; I had no end of dithering with my thesis because of this as well). I try really hard to remember that it is, as you say, the execution that counts, and it is cheering to be reminded of that, so thanks for this post.

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Jami Gold March 23, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hi Alberthe,

I truly glad I could help. 🙂

I face this issue every week as I try to figure out what to blog about. Hasn’t everything already been said? I’ve learned to trust that as long as I feel like I have something to add to a topic, others will find value in my words. Truthfully, that fact still shocks me a bit. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and good luck with your writing!

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Jemi Fraser March 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Great post. It’s really about the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Hi Jemi,

Exactly. Now why did it take me so many words to say that? 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Bonnie Way March 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

I think you’re right that plots can seem similar if we classify them in a broad way. Like “boy meets girl.” Yet each boy and each girl in those stories is unique, and how they meet is unique, and so we have millions of romance stories in various genres. 🙂 Each of us is a unique author, with a unique perspective on life and a unique set of situations behind us, and we bring those to the table when we write, and hopefully create a story that only we can tell. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Hi Bonnie,

Yes, I agree. I start with unique characters and a premise/situation. They drive everything else with their reactions and dialogue. That forces the story to be unique as well. Thanks for the comment!

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Todd Moody March 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Hi Jami, sorry catching up on blogs and I missed this one and it’s a great one! Do people worry about posting too much of their story online for fear that it will be copied? I posted a few short story ideas on some of Chuck Wendig’s challenges and wonder if someone will take one of my ideas and run with it. But it wouldn’t end up like mine since I didn’t write it, at least not likely. Great stuff as usual, Jami!

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Jami Gold March 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Hi Todd,

No worries. 🙂

Oh, that’s a good related issue to bring up–posting story ideas. I don’t post my story ideas in advance because my premises tend to be very unique. That is, my world-building details are like nothing else out there. So while if someone stole the idea of one of my “worlds,” they’d still implement it differently, I’d rather keep my world/premise unique too by keeping those under wraps. That’s just my personal approach. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Hmm your “high level/ low level” categories of story remind me of David Marr (a neuroscientist)’s three levels of analysis.

The:

1 Computational Level:
The goal, or the problem the system is trying to solve, and WHY this problem must be solved.

2 Algorithmic/ Representational Level
The ways in which the system solves this problem, the abstract, representational, symbolic level of the problem solving processes.

3 Implementational Level
The actual, physical realization of the system’s problem solving.

So, this would translate into:

1 Computational Level
The basic plot type: the quest, the adventure, the romance, the chase, etc

2 Algorithmic/ Representational Level
The abstract ways you are going to write this story:
Okay X girl meets Y guy. They marry, have a child Z, who runs into catastrophic situation A, which will be resolved by Z doing B.

(In other words, the “algebraic level” of your story)

3 Implementational Level
Who exactly are these characters? What exactly are their likes, dislikes, fears, desires, dreams, etc? What exact situations led them to meet and fall in love with each other? What exact events led their child to that climactic scene? What was that climactic scene?

So you’re right in saying that all stories will be unique, in that they will differ in at least the implementational level. I find algorithmic level novelties impressive, and computational level novelties utterly mind-blowing–the latter are so daring that they may run the risk of disconnecting with readers because they are so rebelliously different, and don’t satisfy any of our expectations.

It’s so cool when different realms of knowledge echo one another, eh? Writing, neuroscience, and computer science!

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Jami Gold April 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Hi Serena,

Ooo, love your analogy! (I’m a sucker for brain science stuff. 🙂 ) Yes, that makes total sense.

And I guess that’s why I’m protective of some of my basic story ideas. I know I write unique premises–even my harshest feedback from contest entries said that much–and I don’t want to lose that Level 2 novelty. Very interesting. Thanks for the great comment! 🙂

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Jaclyn December 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Great post! In my case, the premise of my story is very similar to a video game(Bioshock/Bioshock 2) The differences in it are many, however, so after reading your post, I feel much better 🙂

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Jami Gold December 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Hi Jaclyn,

Yes, premises are reused all the time–often by the same author. 🙂 Good luck with your story and thanks for the comment!

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Ashlie January 22, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Thank you so much for the useful article! I literally just got discouraged because I have had this idea about writing a children’s storybook for a few months now. I brainstormed over for the title and plot for sometime now and was ready to write everything out. I decided to Google the title I came up with and discovered that there was a title similar to the title I wanted to use, and the main character’s name is identical to the name I had chosen! The plot has some similarities, but is not exactly the same. Would it still be ok for me to use the same name and title I wanted to before? I don’t want to be sued and accused of stealing their story idea, even though this plot is something I thought of well prior to seeing their story.

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Jami Gold January 22, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Hi Ashlie,

That’s a great question! If there’s a book in the same genre with a very similar title and the same main character name, that might be too many similarities to stand out well. Titles aren’t copyrightable, but usually when you see the same titles, they’re in different genres.

In other words, you’d want to think about having enough differences that if someone was looking for your book, that they’d find your book. You wouldn’t want someone to remember just part of your title and Google it, find the other book and say, “Oh, this must be it. It’s in the right genre, and I remember that character name now that I see it. Hmm, I didn’t think that was the author name, but maybe it’s a pen name.” You’d lose a sale that way. 🙂

So it’s not so much the plot similarities that I’d worry about, it’s about making sure that your title, character name, and book cover were different enough to not cause confusion. And I’d suggest NOT reading that other book so there’s no chance of subconscious borrowing. 🙂

I hope that helps! Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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