Once upon a time, in a place far away, there lived a writer filled with dreams and yearnings. Day after day, this writer toiled in a cramped, gloomy space tucked away under the eaves. There was no heat in winter and no AC in summer. Her desk was filled with splinters. Her chair lacked a cushion. Again and again, she would sit there with all the world before her, and when the old clock downstairs chimed the hour’s passing, the page before her would still be empty.
I have nothing to say, nothing to write, she thought with a sigh. It’s all been done before.
Of all the criteria on my checklist when it comes to evaluating a story premise, originality is the real stinker. It’s so darned challenging. How in the world do you come up with something that no one’s done before? The prospect of finding that truly astounding idea is so daunting and unlikely that many writers give up before they’ve even started.
When I was a teenaged writer wannabe, I discovered Polti’s book about the 36 dramatic situations. How I studied them, so puzzled because a large number of them seemed to be too old and out of date for modern fiction. Later, I found out that there are maybe only six real plots.
And they’ve all been done before.
Probably by Shakespeare.
So what’s to be done when it’s all been done before?
The first step is to toss away the misconception that you must reinvent the writer’s wheel and create an entirely new plot that’s never been conceptualized before. (Naturally, if you’re a genius and can actually do this, then please go ahead.) The rest of us, however, should stop terrifying ourselves with the prospect of achieving the impossible.
All we have to do when examining our plot idea is ask if there’s some piece of it that’s a little different than what’s gone before. Is there any new angle or combination of successful elements?
What about a wizard private eye in modern-day Chicago? Author Jim Butcher drew on 1940s detective noir, channeled a little paranormal alternative reality, and juxtaposed wizardry with technology. Result? The highly successful DRESDEN FILES series.
What about a boarding school for young wizards and witches? Throw in the orphaned hero that’s a stock prototype for the majority of traditional fantasy fiction. Mix with a dash of destiny, a few enigmatic mentors, a big old gloomy compound, and a ruthless enemy. As though that weren’t enough, J.K. Rowling added soccer-type games played in mid-air on broomsticks. Cool!
Or take a dyslexic kid who does poorly in school, make him the son of Neptune and a human mother, and have his fierce math teacher be a terrifying harpy straight from Greek mythology. Rick Riordan found a way to weave the old Greek myths into modern life.
Lest you think magic is a requirement of originality, what about author Tom Clancy? When he wrote his first novel, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, America was still limping along on the notion that our military was ineffectual and weak, a legacy from the frustrating years in Viet Nam. Clancy’s book was pro-military and featured heroic officers — both American and Soviet — pulling off complicated maneuvers flawlessly. The idea of a competent military force wasn’t new, but in the 1980s it was fresh.
To be continued …