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March 22, 2012

What If Our Story Idea Has Already Been Done?

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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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What do you think?

55 Comments on "What If Our Story Idea Has Already Been Done?"

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Juli Page Morgan
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… Read more »
Julie Glover

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.

Carradee

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

Carradee

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.

Amanda

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.

Nancy S. Thompson

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.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

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.”

Murphy

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

Murphy

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

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

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

Adriana Ryan

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. 🙂

Sophia Chang

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.

Buffy Armstrong

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.

Gene Lempp

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 🙂

Alberthe
Alberthe

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.

Jemi Fraser

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

Bonnie Way

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. 🙂

Todd Moody

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!

Serena
Serena
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… Read more »
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[…] Loved this post by Jami Gold on what to do if your story idea has already been done. […]

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[…] What if our story idea has already been done. […]

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[…] “right,” I think we should allow them the opportunity to reuse their unique premise. A premise does not a story make, and I wouldn’t even call that situation a P2P […]

Jaclyn
Jaclyn

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 🙂

Ashlie
Ashlie

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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[…] On some level, stories are formulaic. But that’s not due to the existence of beat sheets. Storytelling itself is formulaic: a protagonist faces obstacles. Boom, done. On a generic level, every story has already been done. […]

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