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Jan 19 2012

The Tyranny of the Original Idea

While I’m at ScienceOnline, my brain is usually buzzing too hard to concentrate on writing anything. To keep you entertained, a repost. This was originally posted here.

Two youngsters fall in love. Their love is forbidden because they belong to two worlds at war with each other. Realizing the futility of the feuds that keep them apart, they decide to flee. Confusion follows and our story ends in death.

Romeo and Juliet, of course. Or is this West Side Story? Sung in Shadow? Or Pyramus and Thisbe? Perhaps even Ha-Buah?

Earlier this week, Mike posted about feeling that his writing wasn’t original enough. Bah. I hate it when I see someone denigrating their own work this way. It’s silly and pointless and keeps people from contributing to the world. And may I point out, I’m hardly the first to say so.

TWO hundred years ago, Dr Johnson surmised that fiction was limited to a few plots “with very little variation”. Now a major study has worked out that there have been just seven since storytelling began.

In addition to hating to see writers going to waste, part of my passion about this topic comes from writing science fiction. I love science fiction, but I hate its obsession with not repeating itself. Science fiction is the only genre I know of in which someone will look at a story and say, “Oh. I saw XX do that in a short story in 1977. Never mind.”

What? Yes, science fiction the genre of ideas. Got that. But it’s the story that puts the idea across. That’s why you can’t copyright ideas. And frankly, the idea is not nearly as important as the characters and civilizations that interact with it. “What if?” is answered differently depending on who answers.

Telling the same story in multiple ways communicates the idea to different audiences: different generations, different cultural backgrounds, different stylistic preferences, different experiences reading in the genre. If we’re not willing to occasionally retell a story a bit differently, we run the risk of alienating all these different audiences, and we run the risk of running out of things to say.

For the record, Spider Robinson wrote that story. (Huh. I’d forgotten he used the same example. So much for originality.) So why am I bothering to write this post? Because while the story made quite an impression on me in my early teens, Mike hasn’t read it. Or maybe he has, but he forgot about it. The point, of course, being that some things are worth saying again.

All of this is true for nonfiction too. How many biographies of Shakespeare do we need? Well, how many audiences do we have? A biography written for children isn’t going to be the same as one written for poetry geeks isn’t going to be the same as one written for historians of the theater. One written a hundred years after his death is not going to be the same as one written today. It isn’t so much new historical information that makes a new book worthwhile as it is a new perspective on the underlying facts. The facts don’t change, but the people looking at them do.

Almost any writer out there will tell you that ideas are cheap and plentiful. It’s the execution that matters. It’s figuring out how your idea connects to your characters and to your readers. It’s finding the little details that resonate with you and bringing them to the forefront so they can’t be overlooked, or fixing the things that always bother you when you read. It’s taking your voice and your opinions and your observations and your obsessions and stamping the idea with them so that it becomes unmistakably yours, wherever it came from.

And for all our veneration of originality, a heavy dose isn’t what most of us want as readers. There’s a reason, aside from snobbery, that sophisticated readers sneer at so many best sellers as hackneyed. Yes, we want some surprises from what we read, but not too many. Very few people read James Joyce for pleasure; fewer still read Marx for fun. We want to read works that build directly off what we already know and understand. We’re much less comfortable with anything that upsets our views of how the world behaves. Rearranging one’s world view is a lot of work, and we get tired if we do too much of it at once.

How much work do you want your readers to have to do to read you? Enough, of course, that they don’t get bored. Enough that they walk away with something they didn’t have before, whether it be a deeper understanding, a fresh perspective or just a turn of phrase that will make them smile or be useful in an argument. But beyond that? If a subject is worth the work of writing, isn’t it worth the work to give your readers something familiar to which they can connect? And the stranger or more threatening the topic, the more the reader needs that comfort.

Despite our society’s romantic, individualistic notions, ideas don’t spring fully formed from the aether. There is no cosmic fountain of creativity. The muses, just like all the other gods, are relics of superstition. Ideas build on other ideas, both as we conceive our own and as we understand others’. Originality comes from combining ideas or approaching an idea from a different angle or presenting it in a way that makes your readers do more or less or different work than they have before.

Accepting that may not be very romantic, but it’s far better than thinking you can’t be creative unless you have access to some mystical source of original ideas. And that is a concept that always bears repeating.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    freemage

    When the Harry Potter books first came out, more than a few readers noticed the strong resemblance between her protagonist and that of Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic–bespectacled, lonely youth learns he has a great destiny as a wizard, etc. The accusations of plagiarism ran fast and deep.

    Eventually, someone got around to asking Gaiman about it. He replied (and I may be paraphrasing, here), “I thought we were both cribbing from T.S. Elliot.”

    Or as my father used to tell me (and I’m sure he got it from someone else), there are only two plots in fiction: A Stranger Comes to Town, and The Hero Goes on a Journey. Everything after that is just details, and even the difference between those two is mainly perspective (ie, if you see the world through the Stranger’s eyes, he becomes the Hero).

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    Simpsons did it!

  3. 3
    scenario

    I agree that a story doesn’t need a new idea to be great. The first thing is good storytelling. My favorite stories have one new idea and the writer spends an entire novel or novels expanding on how that one change affects peoples lives and civilizations.

    But a new idea isn’t really necessary. It could be just a little different way of looking at it or a different viewpoint or many other variations.

  4. 4
    ladydreamgirl

    This is why public domain is so important. Unoriginal works can be pretty awesome. For example the modern BBC series Sherlock is an amazing interesting show which actually lead me to read some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. The fact that it’s ‘unoriginal’ doesn’t make it bad.

  5. 5
    Inflection

    Something that I always think when I consider originality in these circumstances is that every human life starts so absolutely ignorant that retelling takes up much of it.

    I sometimes wonder if eventually we may accumulate so much knowledge that the necessary retelling of the basics to get someone to the point where their knowledge can support advancement of knowledge will no longer be possible — if even a narrow specialization would require too much time to convey.

    Then I think maybe we already have reached that point, and we solved the problem by layering the advancement, modularizing it. I doubt there is anyone in the world today who, by themselves, could take a breadboard, a silicon etcher, and some basic electrical parts, and construct a computer with a built-in 56k modem capable of communicating over a phone line. But you do have people who could build the innards of the modem, or construct a circuit board from parts, or make the various parts to start with, program the firmware, program a basic OS on top of the firmware, et cetera. And each of these people can advance their field while trusting that the others will advance their sufficiently to keep up.

  6. 6
    Jenora Feuer

    Inflection: Isaac Asimov wrote one of his (many) essays on a similar subject. In particular, he pointed out that even within his particular subfield of biochemistry, he literally did not have enough hours in the day to read every article that was published in his field. Even if he didn’t sleep. Even if he didn’t write (which was probably a much harder assumption for him). Even if he just limited himself to the (many) peer-reviewed journals.

    I read this back in high school for me, so think early 1980s. It’s only gotten worse since then.

    And that was just to keep up with the state of the art; getting up to speed to start with is all about the Red Queen’s Race: you have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place, and ever so much faster than that to go anywhere.

  7. 7
    Sas

    The obsession with “originality” in scifi does bother me. Though, when I’d heard that A. E. Van Vogt sued over alleged plagiarism by Ridley Scott’s Alien, I was curious and read the book they supposedly plagiarized, The Voyage of the Space Beagle … the absolute only similarity between the two was that alien embryos are implanted in a human. Nothing else is the same, not the dialogue, characters, ship, or even the alien.

    If a guy can sue 20th Century Fox over such a tiny similarity (and get them to settle out of court!), I guess I would be kind of obsessed with making sure my story didn’t resemble anyone else’s, too.

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