There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
Uncovering Original Ideas
~ Mark Twain
The sentiment above can be found in Twain's autobiography, and I find it to be an artful way of communicating what I think is simply a plain truth in the world of storytelling--it's all been done before.
Original ideas are exceedingly rare, and by that I mean that we're talking generational timelines here. The major literary blockbusters of the new millennium aren't original stories. Fifty Shades of Grey and the Twilight saga have been done before (and much better, I might add); even J.K. Rowling's admittedly imaginative magnum opus, the Harry Potter series, owes a narrative debt to the works of such masters as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle.
I find this idea liberating and comforting, all at the same time. I recently finished my first fiction since wrapping up my doctoral degree at UCF (a novella about introducing shoggoths into the treatment of infertility), and it has been exhilarating taking work back out on submission and then settling into another story.
I ran hard today, thinking about which of the dozen or so stories that have been banging around in my head I wanted to write would be. I thought about length and plot and themes and markets. I thought about deadlines and workflow and attempting something new and fresh.
And I found an "in" and I'm thrilled to be working on the next story.
But the truth remains that every story we write is the product of taking an old idea and running it through the mental kaleidoscope. If the story works and is well told, creative, and says something about the human condition, then the writer has succeeded in making a "new and curious" work of art.
This is a great thing, and it's why I kick back every night for a few hours with a good book. I love reading different approaches to communicating universal truths.
I just read Ray Bradbury's sinister, delightful, perplexing, and masterful short story "The Veldt." It's a vicious tale, told largely in spare, keen dialogue punctuated sporadically with Bradbury's trademark virtuosity for breathless, whimsical description.
But is it a story about technological overreaching? That's a large part of it, sure, but at its core its about patricide and matricide, and the uncanny emotions of the maturing child. In that way, it's as timeless as the works by the ancient Greeks and just about everything in between--up through contemporary stories like Stephen King's "Children of the Corn."
It's important for writers never to become paralyzed by the looming specter of originality. Doing so may actually have an inverse effect, in which an attempt to create something wholly unique spins the artist off into the realm of foolishness, incoherence, or absurdity.
Keep that imaginative cupboard in the back of the mind open. Listen to the world around you, and work to find those interesting connections that add depth and complexity to timeless human stories. Doing so is a clear and honest path toward good storytelling...
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