You have an idea for a story, and although you think it is great, you are unsure whether it has been done before. Luckily, almost every writer has faced such a dilemma through the years, and many of them became literary greats. In the sense of unique stories, each story is a reworking of another earlier story, so how do you know if your story isn’t just a cliché?
Here’s how to know if your story idea is original:
- Read extensively in your chosen genre.
- Ask readers/writers in your genre.
- Don’t be afraid to cross genres.
- Use your unique life experiences.
- Avoid clichés and overused literary devices.
Although every story retells an old tale, you can ensure that your work doesn’t put your readers into a fairy princess’s sleep. Often it is not so much the story idea that defines originality but how you adapt the story idea into your unique vision. However, some plotlines are so overworked that they will trip you up from the get-go, so let’s go over some ways to tell if your story needs a revamp.
1. Read Extensively in Your Chosen Genre
If you intend to write in a specific genre, you will need to read other authors in the field to find your feet. By reading both the great and not-so-great fellow writers extensively, you can learn the standard plotlines in your particular genre.
For instance, damsels in distress saturate the romance genre and, of course, sadomasochistic and alluring male counterparts form a million “Fifty Shades of Grey” copycats.
Fantasy is full of “chosen ones” who will eventually save their fictitious world, albeit reluctantly.
You may also discover why a specific story succeeds and how the particular author created an original and compelling story out of a popular literary genre. Ultimately you will need to provide a measure of a surprise to your reader while still staying true to the genre.
2. Ask Readers/Writers in Your Genre
Often we lack objectivity regarding both our written works and our story ideas. Sadly, the closer you seem to a subject emotionally, the harder it is to stay objective about the value of your work.
Don’t be afraid to run your story ideas by people who read extensively in your genre. Or reach out to readers on fan sites that center around your chosen genre. If nonfiction is your choice, join online groups of people who show interest in your niche.
You may often find questions and posts that alert you to what the public needs to read.
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Cross Genres
Some of the most inspiring novels have added elements to their basic storyline that are unpredictable and surprising. One often sees aspects of tragedy in romance and humor in a tragedy that enriches your successful novels.
Don’t be afraid to cross-reference other genres to bring elements of contract and surprise into your work, and always seek to shake off formulaic writing. Chuck Palahniuk crosses genres and conventions in multiple stories.
Tarantino used these to great advantage in creating a new cinematic experience that both defined and defied genres.
4. Use Your Unique Life Experiences
If every story is essentially a repeat, the only real power you have to be new is in the way that you tell the story or your voice. Each person alive is a unique combination of experiences, desires, and memories, and no two world views are precisely alike.
Use your own life to create a fresh perspective in your story, and draw on your experiences to inform your story idea. You could even use real characters in your own life to inform your characters and make them unique and memorable.
You could also use your life experience to inform the setting or backstories of your central characters, which gives them a deeper dimension. After all, some of the most engaging literary characters exhibit idiosyncrasies that mirror real-life characters.
5. Avoid Clichés and Overused Literary Devices
Some genre fiction can be genuinely soporific when authors borrow ideas instead of stealing them. As criminal as it sounds, writers become great when they steal an idea and make it entirely their own.
For instance, the sultry seductress in crime novels and the hardened sleuth falling for her evil wiles. The romantic protagonist falls for his best friend after pining for another woman. Although your story idea may be based on similar lines, you can envision your characters afresh and imbue them with engaging and surprising attributes from your own life.
Don’t be afraid to lift a story and create your context, such as using a fairytale in a modern setting or reversing the gender roles of historical figures. By changing the context, you can make an old story entirely new.
Is a Truly Original Story Idea Possible?
A truly original story idea is not possible as every story involves underlying motifs that extend back to ancient oral storytelling. But how you interpret the story and inform your version with your worldview and life experiences will make your story original.
In his whooping 700-page psychoanalytic tome, Brooker took 34 years to break down all modern narratives into seven basic plots that writers repeat endlessly and merely populate with different characters and settings.
When one writes genre fiction, it becomes even more of a minefield in that numerous authors have written in the same genre and no doubt explored similar storylines to your idea.
However, this does not mean we should put down our pens and head out to find work. Within the central story framework lies an endless possibility of permutations and specificity that are entirely that of the individual author’s own mind.
Compare the following, for example:
- Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
- Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Each is an example of the “rags to riches” plot, but their outcome could not be more different.
It’s up to you to make an old story new by reinterpreting the fictional world from your unique viewpoint.
Story ideas are a dime a dozen, but it takes a true writer to mark a story with their individual stamp. Don’t be afraid to change contexts, cross genres, and use your real-life experiences to bring your story to life. After all, the art of a good story is to allow the reader to glimpse the world from someone else’s eyes.