This is topic How important is originality? in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
Way back when I was a kid and I first started writing, I used to make up stories from my heart. I didn't concern myself with rules, regulations, or even whether or not the story had been written before in some way, shape, or form. I think those were the most enjoyable days of writing. I spilled my heart onto the paper.

Of course, I stumbled onto a lot of the same themes and ideas that are all over the place, not because I was copying but because these are basic themes that come up time and time with magical powers, aliens, superheroes...wish fulfillment. Those were some great times.

Now, things are different. There's something holding me back when I write. I'm afraid to work with an idea that's too close to something else. When I read a book or watch a movie/TV show that really inspires me, I ignore the inspiration and bury it because I'm so afraid of writing something that is too much like something else.

The strange thing is that as a consumer, I actually like to read certain familiar stories. I appreciate originality but I fall in love with classics more often than ground breakers.

So if, as a consumer, I like to read familiar things and as a writer with an inner child, I like to write certain familiar things, is it really that bad?

I don't know....I guess there's this part of me that just wants to have some fun, the way I used to before I started showing my work to other people and started caring what they thought. I don't want to give up my dreams of becoming a successful writer, especially not now that I've sold a book and have made a start at it, but I just wonder if I could possibly let go a little bit...write something that's been written a million times before but do it anyway because it's a story that I have in my heart and I want to tell it my way.

Ok, now I'm just rambling.

Posted by Hookt_Un_Fonix (Member # 4783) on :
Christine, I think there is not to much left for original thought. I think what makes writing fun is giving an orginal presentation. Have fun with it, put the pen to the paper and enjoy the actual art of writing, and if you can do that with the same abandonment you had as a child you might find yourself having fun again. When you have fun writing people can tell.

It is real hard to come up with a concept someone else has not done yet, and even harder in this day of mass marketing to be free of outside influence. I find myself reading over some of my shorts and even my novel and seeing how things tie into other things I have read, watched, or heard.

I think the only way to write something that was not influenced by anything, it would not connect to the audience. You would have to take an author and hid them on an island for their whole life, and some how each them to write, with out them reading a single work from another person or thing.

Posted by Matt Lust (Member # 3031) on :
Hookt nailed it on the head.

I've heard it this way "Sin hasn't been original since Adam and Eve"

So don't worry about being "original" just use enough smoke and mirrors to keep us from seeing somebody else besides you pulling the strings.

Shakespeare did this quite well as did many other well known writers.


Posted by The G-Bus Man (Member # 6019) on :
Well, I tell you what....

My current novella ends up being a lot like "Ender's Game" and I was reading Larry Niven's "The Mote in God's Eye"...until I suddenly stopped when I noticed it seemed to be going in the same direction as my novella too!

But I'm still writing it as planned.

The above posters are right - presentation is originality. If you really want to you can argue every story is just a rehash of Gilgamesh (hey I've had everyone from high school teachers to college professors argue this!) I've found that, the more thought you put into your characters, interactions, backstory and plot the more "original" it gets.

Of course, there's such a thing as too unoriginal, like the backlash "Eregon" got for being a LOTR rip-off.

Posted by Rick Norwood (Member # 5604) on :
Nothing is completely original, but I like new ideas in what I read. A scale has only seven notes, and then it repeats. But I read somewhere that just saying whether the first twenty notes rise or fall can identify every song ever written.

So it is with fiction. You use the standard notes, put them together in new ways.

Of course, some editors want stories just exactly like what has sold best in the past.


Posted by rstegman (Member # 3233) on :
If you read enough to start with, your writing will hide all those influences.
I post a science fiction or fantasy writing idea a day on other boards. I have yet to repeat an idea, though my presentations tend to have similarities, depending on the subject matter. There is nothing truely original in them, but the scene or situation that seeded it is never the same.

When posting them, I work from the assumption that if twenty people wrote stories from the same idea, one would have twenty different stories. I have written stuff from my own story ideas and they never looked anything like the original concept. The one novel rough draft I finished was based on two similar story ideas and you would have to search to find them in there.

Many of my story ideas are based on something else I have seen. Commericals are really fun to try to explain logically and make for good story ideas.

Don't worry about similarities, your writing style, your impressions, your preferances, will always be different. As long as you are not copying the other piece scene by scene, I doubt others will be bothered.

Posted by dee_boncci (Member # 2733) on :
What I think should be original is the personality behind the writing. You could call it voice, perspective, personality, maybe all those together and more. Each of us is unique as a story teller, and if that comes through in the writing even an old story can become fresh and original. This is of course aside from the obvious superficial ripoff.

Fiction is a connection mechanism, and at it's best conveys an emotional experience. Moreso than the trappings (genre, millieu, even plotline, etc., it's all in the delivery.


Posted by Elan (Member # 2442) on :
Christine, I don't think you should worry about it. You cannot help but bring your own original voice to any story you write. It just happens. You have been actively honing your skills so long, I believe you will automatically veer away from the copycat stories without even realizing it.

Tolkien wasn't original. He was an avid student of mythologies, and was not the first to present an epic tale centering around a ring.

I suggest you read OSC's "Enchantment" if you haven't done so. It will give you a good look into how a very old fairytale can be retold with a unique voice and approach.

Go for it, and write the tales that stir your heart. If writing isn't fun, then it's nothing. Do what gives you joy.

Posted by Leigh (Member # 2901) on :
I find that I write what I want to write, I don't care about the conforming standards of "She's written it like this" or "He's written that before!". I believe that if we limit ourselves with the fear of copying another writers works then we limit every thing we have in our stories, from characters to plot, to subplot to minor characters.

I do realise that there is always that annoying little voice that goes off in the back of our minds that reminds us that this has been done before, but how many people have copied Tolkiens elves, dwarves, orcs and hobbits? How many people have used the wizarding school where the protagonist learns his magic?

All the published writers have had their inspiration and written like their favourites. I don't see why we should not do the same.

That sounds a bit like a rant.

Posted by debhoag (Member # 5493) on :
I try not read anything that sounds right spot on to something I am currently writing. But finding that common denominator that speaks to a wide audience is possible because we all share a lot more of the same thoughts, feelings and dreams - and fears - than we pretend to sometimes. We're a very social species, and we really have very pretty narrow mores across cultures for what is normal or not. Patricide/matricide? Bad in nearly every culture. but repressed anger toward parents? also very common. So, IMHO it's not that we are unimaginative or repetitive, so much as that we get staggered by the same issues over and over, and that the same archetypal literature resonates with us. Joseph Campbell and all that stuff. and Jung's clock.
Posted by annepin (Member # 5952) on :
... This makes me a little sad to read... because if you don't write what's in your heart, and if it's not fun, well, what's the point?

We all go through these doubts. Sometimes it seems I strive so hard for what's original and what's fresh--the result it something that just tries too hard and doesn't really work.

There's a reason there are myths and fairy tales--these are the familiar stories told over and over again, and they still delight and mystify because they strike a chord with us. So what's unique is not the story, it's how it;s told, the unique blend of characters and circumstance. And this is what comes from the heart. In one of the writing books I've read (Scott Bell?) he says you should never consider writing a story you're not passionate about, and you should listen to your passions when they tell you to write about something. Usually, you're on to something.

Anyway, NO ONE is original, save, perhaps, the very first cave-man story teller. We're all learning, adapting, and evolving from previous generations. Not even Rowling is original--I think we can all see traces of her work throughout fantasy. So take heart--what's original is your passion, and in the end, I think that's what counts.

Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
There is no shame in writing about ideas that have been written about before - there is so much that influences writing that 99% of what is written is rehashing old ground. I enjoy reading different takes on my favorite themes. In fact, one of the best anthologies that I have read, the idea behind the story was sent to over twenty authors. The result was a varied and enthralling group of stories.

However, some here have suggested that there aren't many original ideas left, or that nothing is original. If this were so in science fiction, then we may as well pack our bags - science fiction would be dead. The soul of science fiction is the potential to take an idea and see where it leads. Both the idea and the application can be original, and there are many, many instances both are. Where would this world be without Clarke's geostationary sattelite? Or Maxwell Smart's shoe phone? Or Verne's submarine? There is something about reading (or watching) new ideas within fiction that can influence the minds and thoughts of the next generation, and result in changes to the world at large.

Having said this, an original idea doesn't make a story. But that is a whole different topic.

Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
There's nothing new, many stories about, say, robots have we all seen? Just put your own spin on something and see what comes of it.
Posted by Brendan (Member # 6044) on :
There's nothing new, many stories about, say, robots have we all seen?

I disagree entirely. If there is new science, there are new prospects for stories. Science is finding new things all the time.

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited August 25, 2007).]

Posted by luapc (Member # 2878) on :
I guess I'm in the minority here because I've never believed that there is no such thing as a new idea. I think that there's just a lot more to compare to now, and the more there is, the easier it is to find something that is familiar. A lot of the time, what people call "similar", in reality isn't "similar" at all. It's just that comparisons are something we do so we can evaluate things based on our own experiences. It’s a natural part of our thinking process, and regardless of how different something is, we can always find something that we reason to be similar.

As authors, it's true that when we start writing, and studying writing, rather than just reading, we lose something. It's difficult to turn off our need to analyze. I know I always find it harder to enjoy stories just for the stories now than I used to, but I try. In that light, along with our doubts, we find things that we think are close to our stories, and reason that it’s the same story, even though it might not be.

Consider the book Eragon. While a lot of people (especially writers) said it was a rip off of Star Wars, most people found it to be a good story and got no connection of it to the plot of Star Wars. By analyzing it, it took the story element out of it for many writers who were trying to dissect it rather than just read it. The popularity of the book shows just how flawed that is.

I have found many of the novels I read to have unique and interesting story lines and plots, even though many have similar elements to other stories. It’s not the single elements that make up a story, but the entirety and how enjoyable it is to the reader. It doesn’t matter if your story has robots, or elves, or dragons, or spaceships, just so the story grabs the reader and is told well.

That being the case, don’t worry about originality. Just write the best story you can. Nothing is ever wasted, and even if some ideas seem old, the only reason we consider them overused and cliché is that there are still stories with these concepts sold every day.


Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
I kind of figured that this would degrade into the question of whether or not there is truly anything original to write.

I tend to think that it's always possible to say something is like something else if you break it down into component parts or simplify it enough. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. That story has a witch in it...this other story does too. But there are definitely stories that strike me as original, either because I'm not well read enough or because they really are. Especially as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I will never suggest that there are no new ideas. Talk about a way to box in creativity!!

But even though I do think there are new ideas to explore, my point was that I'm not sure I want to explore them. And perhaps, forcing myself to concentrate only on totally original ideas is another way to box in creativity. Because no matter how similar two ideas are, the author will always bring in a distinctive voice, personality, or angle. But these feel good favorites are just so much fun to write.

Posted by RMatthewWare (Member # 4831) on :
I kind of figured that this would degrade into the question of whether or not there is truly anything original to write.

Every once in a while I'll read a book and it will remind me of what I've already written. Then I worry and think that I should cut something out, or throw the book away altogether because I don't want to steal anything.

What I actually do is just think that since I wrote what I wrote before I read it somewhere else, that author must have stolen the idea from me. And if time is circular, then we can assume that is exactly what happened.

I just try not to worry about it. You know you're not plaigerising. What you write will be unique because you are unique. You have had life experiences that no one else has. Your mind and heart work in a way that no one else's does. So write your story the way you want it written, and let the critics worry about it.

Posted by debhoag (Member # 5493) on :
I've been thinking about this today. I think the creativity comes in the telling. In a lot of ways, both Star Trek and Hill Street Blues, at their cores, are stories of middle management angst. Flying Sorcerers and the Ugly American. Benjamin Hoff makes a pretty good case for the Tao Te Ching and Winnie the Pooh. It's all in the delivery.
Posted by TaleSpinner (Member # 5638) on :
Strange Horizons has a good list of 'stories we've seen too often' here:

If the story is primarily the plot, then various writers have analyzed plots and structure. Here's a good summary from Emma Davis:

For example, Emma notes that Tobias lists 20 master plots such as Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, Rescue and Escape, while Ploti has 36 which are further divided into subcategories. Every story you ever read is there, methinks. They're all familiar.

"So if, as a consumer, I like to read familiar things and as a writer with an inner child, I like to write certain familiar things, is it really that bad? "

No, I think it's good. I think major books and movies follow familiar structures and themes because we readers and movie goers generally like familiar. When we go to a Disney movie we don't want everyone to die horribly. If we want that, we do Tarantino or something. (Yech.)

Like many people I read fiction to escape, to 'enjoy a good read'. There's nothing better than discovering a new writer and, from the first few pages, being able to anticipate - with confidence - delightful twists and turns of mystery with a satisfying denouement. Equally, there's nothing worse than starting a book that shows promise and finding it deviate from the familiar to the unwanted. For example I love speculative fiction and don't care for horror, so I'm unhappy if a story that starts out with spaceships, heroes, villains and beautiful girls in distress twists towards cannibals and torture and everybody dies. While my tastes are my own, I'm sure I'm not alone in expecting a book to deliver on its promises. Given that, sure, there are no truly new ideas.

(Yes, there's a world of so-called art which rejects the familiar and embraces the new, but for every new and good piece of art there are IMHO many, many new-for-the-sake-of-it and bad. The Tate Bricks are amongst the most famous examples of this here in England. They were just a pile of bricks and some clever pseudo-intellectual marketing in my not-so-humble opinion.

But our worlds of imagination are infinite. A musician using the usual chromatic scale only has 12 notes to play with, yet there's an infinity of tunes. So too, although as writers we may have familiar themes and plot structures, our choices of milieu, character, fantastic gadgets, strange powers and plot give us endless possibilities for stories that are both new and original, while at the same time familiar.

"I don't know....I guess there's this part of me that just wants to have some fun, the way I used to before I started showing my work to other people and started caring what they thought."

My gosh, Christine, get the fun back, per-lease! Maybe, quit caring about what others think -- although one can't quite, not if one wants to learn to write stuff that others want to read. Sometimes I think crit groups can squash originality and passion by enforcing a 'group norm' based on an uncritical enforcement of lessons not fully learned from books on writing. Don't get me wrong, crits are immensely valuable and I'm learning loads from Hatrack. But I've learned to think critically about crits. I gratefully accept and then ignore crits I don't agree with, or that seem to be preaching from books without understanding what I wrote. (And it's ok folks, I don't get many crits to ignore here at Hatrack, they're largely well informed and sensitive to what I'm trying to write.)

Arguably, fun is more important to writing than anything else. JKR's books are criticized (mostly by jealous writers, I think) for not following certain 'rules' of writing. But above all, her books are fun, and I think she had fun writing them. I have a suspicion that all the best writers write ultimately for themselves - when you're alone in your garret, whom else is there to ask?

So, here's to the fun in writing. Cheers!


Posted by Christine (Member # 1646) on :
I just want to say thanks everyone! You're great.
Posted by Marzo (Member # 5495) on :
TaleSpinner, thanks for that Emma Davies link. That's some good stuff.

[This message has been edited by Marzo (edited August 26, 2007).]

Posted by Kolona (Member # 1438) on :
Wow. Christine, we've had our disagreements, but we are on the same page here. I wondered if you had been channeling me -- except for that selling a book part.

Maybe agents and editors who read umpteen submissions, many of which are probably similar in subject matter and delivery by umpteen aspiring writers who still write from their inner child rather than from a marketing standpoint, get jaded against the familiar. And maybe they're doing the reading audience a disservice by always seeking the ground breakers instead of feeding the reading masses the bread and butter of comfortably classic tales.

Special effects aside, didn't Star Wars plug into that kind of simplicity? Would it have been as successful if Lucas had left it in the hands of the Hollywood experts?


Posted by The G-Bus Man (Member # 6019) on :
And maybe they're doing the reading audience a disservice by always seeking the ground breakers instead of feeding the reading masses the bread and butter of comfortably classic tales.

Special effects aside, didn't Star Wars plug into that kind of simplicity?

Star Wars (and I'm talking about the original trilogy, and especially the very first movie) was, in many ways, a reactionist movie against what George Lucas saw as "mainstream" at the time - the type of "groundbreaking" stories you were referring to, with complicated plot twists and very blurred lines between protagonist and antagonist and what's "right" and "bad" with very "gray" lines. George Lucas wanted a movie that was an homage not only to the original sci-fi movie and TV serials, but also hearkened back to the very origins of storytelling, borrowing at least some things from Gilgamesh. He studied the works and teachings of Joseph Campbell, at least then perhaps the world's leading cultural anthropologist in regards to story origins and construction, and crafted a tale that, despite its sci-fi nature had all the classic elements of all the classic stories of antiquity. In short, Star Wars was actually a very cliqued movie, not so much by nature but by design. But (combined with Lucas' excellent and groundbreaking visual presentation) this is what made the movie so successful - it was a simple story people could just get into right away and enjoy, without having to wrap their heads around complicated plot twists and figuring out who's "gooder" or "badder."

EDIT: On that note I was looking at this site ( ) which compares Star Wars and The Matrix to Campbell's tenants of "monomyth" storytelling (the guidelines of antiquity storytelling). It's also kind of amazing to compare Ender's Game and the Homecoming series to these tenants as well (with Homecoming given its Book of Mormon roots it's not surprising, but it's interesting to see how Ender's Game fits in).

I was going to post more, but decided that it was really beyond the scope of this discussion. However, if you are interested, I made a post in the OSC discussion board, which can be found here:;f=1;t=004856;p=0&r=nfx

[This message has been edited by The G-Bus Man (edited September 03, 2007).]

Posted by walt.xeppuk (Member # 5489) on :
Here's my take on originality...

First - there truly aren't that many different structures for our stories (Milieu, Idea, Character or Event stories) - and so in that sense you can't really have anything original when you are telling a story.

However those authors that do stand out are known for their originality. Star Wars, Matrix in movies, Dune, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park are groundbreaking (to me), but the structure of the stories themselves are not.

I mean Star Wars, Matrix and Harry Potter are Character/Event stories. They start where the Luke, Neo & Harry first get active in changing what is wrong with the world or their lot in it. All three have this mythos about them...all three are the "One" to some extent. Yet all three stories are definately original.

Second - if we could have magically taken the three authors and given them the different ideas of the other authors (like switched the Matrix over to George Lucas, Harry to the Wachowski bros and Star Wars to Rowling) we would have gotten completly different - yet groundbreaking - stories than we do have now.

So you just have to take your structure or even plot ideas that sound similar and give it your unique twist to make it you. And it will be original.

Posted by Kolona (Member # 1438) on :
Try to forget the trilogy aspect to Star Wars, G-Bus. I'm thinking of the first released SW film (which of course was #4), which predated the plot twists, etc., of the trilogy. I remember hearing back then how great the simple good-vs.-evil-boy-meets-girl-boy-rescues-girl plotline was so refreshing and surprisingly exciting. The visual presentation was stunningly ground breaking, yes, but that the movie was so much a cliche and yet as you wrote, "a simple story people could just get into right away and enjoy, without having to wrap their heads around complicated plot twists and figuring out who's "gooder" or "badder." That's what I'm talking about.

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