Probably the greatest fear of any writer is that their work will be seen as unoriginal, boring, or derivative. After all, no one really wants to read Fifty-One Shades of Grey … do they?
It’s incredibly difficult to craft a story that stands out from the—literally—millions of similar stories that have already been written, published, and sold. Sometimes, it feels like you need to get your idea to market as quickly as possible before someone else essentially publishes your story. In science this is called a scoop—publishing a breakthrough before another research group more or less steals any chance of recognition. In fiction writing, it’s just downright depressing.
But in a world of what seems to be endless stories, novellas, and screenplays, is it even possible to write something entirely original? Unless we’re talking about Shakespeare, or perhaps Homer, the proliferation of fictional material in the past centuries means that no matter how novel you think your idea is, someone somewhere has probably already written something very similar. Trying to write a love story where events always get in the way? Been there, done that. An epic fantasy where the hero must navigate through a world fraught with danger, to find a mystical weapon? Yeah, seen that a couple times already. Main character is a fish? Swimming the seven seas in search of a lost relative? Humans are the enemy? Yeah … seen that one too. Twice.
The point is, it starts to beg the question, what is original, and what is originality, after all?
As children, we often love to re-read or re-watch the same book or movie over and over again. Repetition breeds familiarity, and in a big, wide scary world, the familiar is comforting. However, as adults familiarity more often breeds contempt, and—in our entertainment, at least—we are always seeking for the new, the fresh, the inspirational—something we haven’t experienced before. It’s an interesting human condition, actually, because in our real lives we often fear the unknown—but in our entertainment, we hunger for it.
Originality becomes the gold standard to aim for, the measure by which all else is compared. Of two movies that were recently released, Logan is praised as being unlike its predecessors, and unlike a traditional superhero movie entirely, while Beauty and the Beast is in some places being criticized for not only being derivative of the animated version but nearly a clone of it. (Critics’ receptions of films, of course, don’t always match popular opinion.)
But what is original? Is Logan, the ninth movie to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, really all that original? Is Beauty and the Beast, based off the cartoon that was based off the French fairy-tale, really anything special? If not, then what can be described as original? What qualifies as derivative?
The word ‘original’ defines itself as not being dependent on previous ideas or material, that the ‘origin’ of the work starts and ends with the first creator(s). An original screenplay is typically perceived as one that is not an adaptation of previous material and is something that is lauded in today’s film industry (consider that less than half of this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees were ‘original’).
In this sense, of course, it’s easy to identify original stories as ones that have no precedent—ones that are the sole creation of one or a set of authors and are not rewrites or adaptations of someone else’s work. (Interesting that in film this is called adaptation; in literature, it’s called plagiarism.) Most books are original, inasmuch as the fear of being labeled a plagiarist keeps most authors from directly copying and stealing each others’ ideas. Yet original books need not be good books, and many good stories are not original in the traditional sense of the word—Logan, for instance, is based entirely off a character and storyline that has already been told.
So the definition of original becomes slightly less clear when we start to take into account the fact that, in today’s storytelling market, ‘original’ is usually used synonymously with ‘good’.
The Role of Inspiration
In truth, other than caveman of the earliest days, there is very little literature that is wholly original. In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker breaks plot down into seven foundational story ‘types’, into which many—if not all—modern stories fall. These story types, including quests, comedies, tragedies, and rebirths, form a pattern that can be used to describe almost any story at all, and it becomes clear that, on the most essential of levels, all stories are the same. For example, one might not immediately see a connection between The Silence of the Lambs and Dracula, but both contain a sinister villain of unimaginable evil, weakened throughout the majority of the story until the very end, when we witness their true power. This would be the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ plot. Similarly, Romeo and Juliet and (forgive the comparison) Fifty Shades of Grey both share a theme of a heroine destined to misery and despair, ending in what Booker would describe as ‘Tragedy’.
Whilst some would argue that comparing stories in such a manner demeans their inherent value, it’s nonetheless a useful tool in understanding how humans tell stories, how we structure them, and what we want from them. The first stories we tell are usually as small children, reenacting scenes from our favorite movies and TV shows. As we mature, these stories grow and become more inventive, introducing elements from outside the original source material. Yet even at such a young age, we are basing our stories off of someone else’s: we are using existing material as inspiration.
Art rarely exists in a vacuum. Everything we do, everything we create, is touched and inspired by what we’ve experienced before. In the case of, say, La La Land, the film, whilst original in most senses of the word, is not without its clear influences: classic musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain are evidently paid homage to, whilst director Damien Chazelle himself notes films such as Boogie Nights and Pulp Fiction influenced his portrayal of the city of Los Angeles.
The further back in time we go, the less clear the influences become, as history’s gray veil draws itself over our collective memories. It’s harder to say what might have influenced great writers such as Charles Dickens than it is to see the more immediate parallels between modern authors such as Dan Brown and Tom Clancy. But every storyteller has their precedents, and their own literary loves and influences.
Inspiration, then, could be considered the antidote to unoriginality; for every story that treads the same waters, another tale takes inspiration from it.
Of course, inspiration is different than derivation, and there’s a fine and somewhat blurry line between the two. In my fantasy series The Redemption of Erâth, I pay homage to Tolkien in a number of ways, including through character names. The plot itself is heavily inspired by such epic fantasies as The Lord of the Rings and even Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. In fact, the plot of a farm boy driven from his home and forced into a quest for redemption is so well-worn that it could well be considered derivative, though I’d like to hope that I’ve injected enough of myself into the stories that they don’t feel clone-ish.
And there are endless variations of this theme. The Belgaraid, by David Eddings; The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan; Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams; all of these have orphans or farm boys or kitchen servants as their protagonists. In fact, there are so many quest-style fantasy stories in the world that any new generation of fantasy writers can but be derivative—it’s pretty much all been done.
In my other, more contemporary work, a teenage girl struggles with depression, suicide, and self-harm in a loveless, dysfunctional family setting. There are plenty of miserable teen books out there too—Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher; Cut, by Patricia McCormick; even The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Yet this story is one that is based not on other stories, but primarily on my own personal, human experiences. In this, I hope it to be something more than just derivative—even though it’s hardly the only story of its kind.
Yet even derivative fiction can have its merit. Harkening back to our childhood love of repetition, there is a pleasure in reading a story that is at once familiar and fresh. There are stories that take us by surprise, stories that make us laugh and cry—and then there are stories that are fun yet predictable. When’s the last time you read a mystery where the sleuth didn’t solve the case? We know it’s coming, yet we read it anyway, because it’s light entertainment.
In a world of ebooks and online self-publishing, the number of books being released is exponentially rising. With such large numbers of stories to read, there can only be so many that are wholly original—that don’t immediately remind us of that other story we just read.
And sometimes it isn’t the original material that makes it big; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is as derivative as it gets (even for the same author), and it was the best-selling book of 2016. The highest-grossing blockbusters of recent years have been Marvel’s Avengers films, which are of course based on characters and plots originally published decades ago.
The Value of Stories
In the end, original, inspired or derivative are simply ways of categorizing the inventiveness of authors—like Booker’s seven types of story, they are only useful to a certain extent. If you took the cast of The Lord of the Rings, dropped them off in Westeros and sent Death Eaters after them, you’d certainly be derivative—but probably pretty original too. Call Harry Frodo and send him off to destroy a ring instead of a Horcrux—did you really think we wouldn’t notice? Yet for all the perspiration and inspiration, the homages and thematic thefts, every story is ultimately original to some extent, if only because only that author could put those words together in exactly that way.
Even in the rather special realm of fan fiction, where characters, settings, and events are not just derived but copied wholesale, the author’s intent is nonetheless to tell a story that hasn’t been told before, or to see an existing story from a different point of view. When I set out to create the world of Erâth, I knew it would bear more than just a passing resemblance to other, similar fantasy lands. Yet even Middle-Earth was intended as an alternate medieval Europe, so who’s the copycat now?
So the question becomes, is the value of a story in its originality, or in its telling? As stories were first handed down from generation to generation, each teller added their own embellishments, their own flair, and their own imagination to what had come before. Undoubtedly some people preferred one teller’s version over another. Interestingly, this is something Hollywood long ago realized: given enough time, younger audiences will yearn for a contemporaneous version of an old classic, to the point where apparently they’re even considering redoing The Matrix now. My son far prefers the 2014 version of Godzilla to that from 1954, and in fairness, for all its charm old rubber-suit just doesn’t terrify anymore.
Yet in literature this remains taboo. Perhaps because of the longer extent of copyright, or perhaps because plagiarism is so vehemently frowned upon, but it becomes paramount for authors and novelists to invent freshness, to seek out the holy grail of originality and write something that’s unlike anything that came before it. And while I’m not defending the outright copying of another’s work, I would argue that ‘true’ originality is a pipe dream: every story there ever was and ever will be has already been told a thousand times in a thousand different ways, and the inventiveness of the author is less in the plot and more in the voice. The masters of modern literature didn’t make their mark with stories that had never been told, but by telling them in a way that had never been heard.
What do you think makes a story ‘original’? Does it have to be something you’ve never come across before, or is it the way in which the author tells it that is more important?
Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com.
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