Have you ever heard that there are no original stories? As a writer, did this turn your stomach or make you angry?
Although the idea that there are no original stories sounds upsetting, especially for writers, the truth is that every story follows the rule (most likely) of “same, but different.”
That’s a good thing!
If stories were completely original, it would be hard to know if there was a readership interested in them. We want stories that are unique, but that also follow the same conventions and tropes of certain types of stories that we’ve read or seen before.
Doing this means that your story will impact your ideal readers, and here’s why.
Once Upon a Time, I Believed in Original Stories
I used to think every story is original.
Every story ever told, I thought, must be completely and utterly different. Nothing must repeat, nothing must be the same as anything else. And if I wrote anything that resembled something anyone else has written in history, then I must be an unoriginal hack who will never make it as an author.
But, as it turns out, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Because the truth is that stories—good stories—function on formulas.
That is not to say that every story follows a formula, but the ones that grow popular or withstand the test of time, usually tend to. More than that, the majority of readers don’t want a completely new story. What they actually want is their story they know told in a whole new way.
I didn’t fully and completely embrace this lesson until I wrote my soon-to-be published novel, Headspace.
At its core, Headspace is a story about an ordinary person who enters, or rather is forced into, a competition in an extraordinary setting.
Does that sound familiar? Perhaps because it’s the same formula followed by The Hunger Games, Ready Player One, cult classic Battle Royale, and a number of YA and science fiction novels.
I struggled with this hugely as I put the book on paper, wondering if I am a fraud and copycat for simply coming up with this story. However, it is a story I believed in and it demanded to be written, so I forged ahead.
As I wrote, I realized something important: the more I wrote, the more organic the story became.
It grew its own way and differed greatly from books that follow the same formula.
Though the concept is the same, every one of these books are different, and beloved in their own right. My story, as it turns out, is different as well.
My characters do not follow the path of others in similar situations, and my book does not walk a paved path but rather finds its own. My story may not be original, but it is unique.
More importantly—at least as I like to believe—it’s good.
But what exactly does it mean to be unique if not original? Let’s take a look.
The “Unoriginal” Original
There are a number of studies on plot types and many people differ on exactly how to categorize plot. However, one thing remains the same—experienced writers recognize that the majority of stories fall into less than a handful of types.
Rather than go into detailed examples in this article, I want to point out some easily recognizable examples to help you recognize that nothing is truly original.
A hero is sent on a journey to complete a quest
A hero has set out on a long journey to complete a quest or obtain a prize that is far away. They meet and join up with unlikely companions who help them along the way or turn out to be enemies.
What story is this?
Perhaps it’s Lord of the Rings. That’s the obvious answer.
But maybe it’s Indiana Jones?
Or how about Watership Down?
If we want to go back even further, maybe it’s the Odyssey?
Is it possible that every hero on a quest since Odyssey has just been a retelling of the same formula?
Now I see you scratching your head a bit and re-thinking this whole concept of “original.” Let me give you the same idea, but rephrased a bit.
An ordinary hero is sent on an adventure
An ordinary, slightly annoyed guy is dragged onto an unwilling adventure by eccentric acquaintances.
Ok, that’s definitely The Hobbit, right?
Wait, maybe the old favorite, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Or the TV show Sherlock.
It could even be Green Eggs and Ham!
Different Stories, Same Formula as a Good Strategy
Are these stories too similar to be interesting? Or have you found each one unique and enjoyable on its own?
Has it even occurred to you that they share the same core formula?
Here’s an even more blatant example.
Two people meet. Two people fall in love. Two people run into trouble they conquer. Two people live happily ever after.
What does this sound like?
Perhaps every romance novel ever written, plus every story with a romantic subplot?
I don’t see the romance industry shrinking any time soon. In fact, there are more love stories written every year and the people love them just the same.
You can read more about stories that share a common formula in this article about short story ideas.
Old Idea, New Twist
You may now ask, “How do I distinguish myself if every story out there has been told a hundred different times?” Is it even worth writing your story if everyone else out there has already told it?
Yes! Everyone else has told this story, but you haven’t.
How you tell this story will be different from everyone else, see? The world needs the version you want to tell, too.
Make Your Story the Same, But Different
Here are three easy ways to make an old formula into a new story.
1. Fresh Perspective
A story told from a different perspective becomes a new story entirely. This means a new POV, we want to hear from your narrators in a fresh way!
Every set of eyes in a story looks at its events differently.
For example, a superhero story told from the point of view of the sidekick is completely different from the hero’s point of view.
A love story seen from the eyes of the rival love interest is a new story entirely.
Take a traditional story and tell it from someone you wouldn’t expect to hear from, and suddenly you have a tale never told before.
2. Unexpected Twist
When reading a book with a proven formula, readers tend to expect a certain order of event:
- Cinderella marries the prince
- The quest for the holy grail ends in obtaining the treasure