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?Pin It