I have come bearing bad news if you are a writer or want to be one. I know this will come as a shock to most people, but I am afraid there is just no getting around it. So, here I go.
There are no more… new? Untold? stories in the world.
There! I said it. We can all start praying to Neil Gaiman and offering tributes up to The Bard but I am afraid all the stories in the world have been told, and we are just fresh out of new ones. The cupboard is bare, the balance is zero. And both cupboard and balance are most definitively ex-stories
I’m not joking. I mean, I know I sound like I am joking because I did a quasi-Monty Python joke up there. Plus, no one would ever offer anything up to The Bard for new stories because we all know that The Bard, even way back then, TOOK STORY IDEAS FROM OTHER PEOPLE.
Oh god! I am having a meta-crisis right now. If Shakespeare was stealing stuff back then, what the hell have we been doing since then? Romeo and Juliet isn’t an original? IT’S A REBOOT? OH, COME ON!
In the actual story, Romeo and Juliet did get together, had a great wedding, and everyone sang Abba hundreds of years before Abba was born. However, audiences soon grew weary of the Pollyanna-like ending and wanted a dark, gritty version to be made. Hence, Romero and Juliet: Till Death Do Us Part.
Coming this summer to a theater near you.
Okay, so I’m done making fun, for now. I am here to talk about something that seems to plague writers all the time: the fact that the story they just came up with has been done before by someone else. It’s a common problem and as the media proliferation becomes even larger, it is going to happen more and more. You know that whole theory that if you put an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters, one of them will turn out the works of Shakespeare? And the fact that the result is inevitable? Well, my friend we are just another monkey hammering at our typewriter, and sooner or later we’re going to type something someone already has.
Is that bad?
That depends on if you wrote what you did willingly or just stumbled into the same thought process that the original writer had. If you sit down thinking, “I’m going to write my version of Gone With the Wind, yes, you are doing something wrong. You can want to write a Gone With the Wind–type story: old south, plantations, girls wearing curtains. That’s all fine and good. Margret Mitchell didn’t copyright the post Civil War South when she wrote her book, so the post-Civil War South is fair game.
But if you start by saying, “I want to do Gone With The Wind with an all male cast,” you aren’t writing something original; you are just changing someone else’s work. That’s not good. Margret Mitchell wouldn’t want that, the people who like Gone With The Wind aren’t going to like that, and more importantly the people who own the rights and property of Gone With The Wind will not like it.
But, say you have a character—let’s call him Roy. Roy is the youngest of three brothers who went to war on the side of the South to defend their father’s plantation. Each boy was fair haired and handsome, and the sight of the three of them in their uniforms made local girls giggle and think very inappropriate thoughts as they walked by. Roy, though, was oblivious to such things, for, you see, he was very different from his brothers. He wasn’t sure if he was sick or if something had gone wrong when he was born, but Roy lacked the things that in his mind made up a real man and he had no idea how to find them.
He drank, spit, whored around, went to war, and tried his best to be as his brothers were, but it just wouldn’t take, no matter how hard he tried. Still, he refused to be any less of a solider than his brothers, and his determination cost him greatly. Roy was stabbed by a Yankee soldier’s bayonet during the battle of Forman’s Point, stabbed him clean through his left arm. After the battle, the surgeons wanted to amputate, but Roy refused. In his opinion, having a lame arm was better than having no arm at all.
There was no point to a soldier who didn’t have the use of two healthy hands in those early days of rifle loading and firing. And by early 1865, the leaders of the Southern forces knew which way the winds were turning. Roy was sent back home to the farm, while his brothers continued to fight and wait for the inevitable surrender that was soon to come.
Now see? We have the same color of the Civil War and Post-Civil War era that Margaret Mitchell explored. We have a bitter, beaten man, and he is in no way Rhett Butler, who had bitterness in his past but was not a failure. Did I copy Margaret Mitchell’s book? Nope, because I can honestly say I have never read the book nor seen the movie. Anything you see in the above writing that seems familiar makes my point. I didn’t copy Mitchell’s story, since I haven’t read it. Instead, I went to the same story well and where she came away with her tale, I came away with a completely new one.
And that in no way should stop me from continuing my story.
A couple of people have read Foster High and said it seems like I was trying to channel John Hughes into my writing. If that is true, then I can only say two things. One, did it work? And two, can I put more of him into it? John Hughes is a personal legend of mine, true; but I don’t sit down and think, how would John Hughes write this?
Conversely, I don’t ask myself, “Has John Hughes written something like this before?” Ideas are always being turned over and written by people telling a new story. You can’t let that stop you from creating.
But…you just knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming.
There are times when a story idea comes too easily. When you have the entire thing in your head and done, and the whole thing seems to have arrived in your brain out of nowhere. The best thing when the sense of déjà-vu all over again happens is to take a glance at main idea and look it up online. Did you see or read something that triggered the notion? I know I see all sorts of things that spawn story ideas in my head, but most of them are just elaborations of what is already there. You don’t want your work to read like fan fiction, which ends up being you telling someone else’s story. Be careful if the story comes too easily. As my favorite general once said:
“It’s a trap!”
But seriously, yes, someone has told that story before and no, it shouldn’t stop you.
The sign of a good writer isn’t that they come up with this fresh and incredibly new plot and storyline. A good writer shows us another way of looking at the same old thing we’ve seen before.
We spend so much time on trying to invent a flying car when, in fact, we sometimes should be perfecting the ones we already have.