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May 15 2014

TBT: The Tyranny of the Original Idea

This was originally published in May 2009. This idea that we have to present new ideas in order for our writing to be useful and good is something I still see in my blogging friends. Let’s just say I disagree. See also.

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.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    consciousness razor

    The concept of “an idea” here is generally being used in such a vague way that I don’t know how anyone is supposed to tell when there’s more than one of them.

    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.

    Or maybe there’s only one, or three, or twenty, or thirty six. Or any relatively small number that we’re supposed to find astonishing (but hardly explanatory). Whatever that “major study” says, it’s highly debatable whether it’s counting anything like a “plot.” That’s not my problem, but I take it that literary theorists still haven’t formed any kind of consensus about that, or if that sort of claim is even coherent, or if we can make any claim to know what there has been “since storytelling began.” Again, I’m no expert here, just registering my extreme skepticism.

    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.

    I don’t get how you could really mean that, while you’re also saying this:

    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.

    Aren’t you assuming that “originality” means one thing when somebody else says it, but it means something less than absolutely new and utterly Earth-shaking and mystical whenever you say it? Maybe they’re not being nearly as bombastic or “tyrannical” about it as you think they are.

    Isn’t there plenty of room for criticism (not “denigrating,” which is “silly and pointless and keeps people from contributing”) about how a person combines ideas, about how much or how little or in what ways their perspective differs from a previous “angle” or “presentation” of an idea (or a similar idea or set of ideas)? Aren’t those sorts of questions getting to the more interesting parts of creativity, and not just wallowing in agony at the surface?

    That xkcd comic you linked provides a different sort of argument. Not everybody is exposed to every idea, much less as soon as they come out of the womb. So, there’s some value in sharing information, and people shouldn’t feel ashamed for not knowing stuff. So far, so good. But that’s quite different from pretending it’s your idea if you happen to repeat it. If you tell someone about general relativity, let’s say, you are simply not in the same position as Einstein with regard to those ideas. He ought to at least get some credit, no? Citing your sources is sharing information too, and the person you’re telling might appreciate that information as well. You could conceivably put your “original” spin on it, and that might well be interesting too. Nothing stopping you from doing that. But that’s not what the comic is about. And of course, storytelling is usually a different kind of process than simply telling a person a fact … but I didn’t introduce the analogy, so I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it.

  2. 2
    Numenaster

    I don’t feel competent to comment, but damn that’s a finely written post.

  3. 3
    Randomfactor

    I own a book, honest to Xenu, that has a little spinner in it (like the one for Twister.) You flick the needle and where it lands, corresponds to a plot outline elsewhere in the book. It’s expressly designed to generate plots for “romances,” not meaning Harlequins but the older meaning.

    Or there’s this http://www.plot-generator.org.uk/create.php?type=1

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    @ consciousness razor

    In the juxtaposition of the two quotes on originality which seem contradictory, I took the first to be about the original idea – something novel and elemental, while I read the second as having to do with original treatment and thinking or expression on a core idea which is not entirely novel.

    I suppose this all depends on what you consider to be an idea. If you do want to look at literary theory, supposedly every story has to have a Conflict, and there are only three or four types of conflict. In which case, there are only 4 stories ever told, they just have wildly variable avatars. And I further suppose one could say that those 3-4 “ideas” are really just manifestations of the same thing, so only one idea.

    I think it boils down to the example Mike being unsatisfied with the level of primitiveness of his ideas, wanting something more deeply basic to be original, rather than the “level” of ideas at which his originality operates.

    I don’t know, I’m just applying my interpretation to the apparent contradiction of the quotes. I think you do touch on this as well in your following two paragraphs, it seems to be just from a different “angle”. ; ) Also, I have to note that I have wanted to use words here which simply are not coming to me, so this might come off twice as stupid But I find it all terribly interesting, and would definitely follow any deeper take(s) on it if the definitions/demarcations here can be more clearly identified.

  5. 5
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    There are universal human experiences. Love, loss, desire, disappointment, trust and betrayal…
    It’s a bit like playing a game of Story Cubes. While there may be almost infinite possible combinations, they’re all made up from the same elements. What is interesting for me to read is what the writers did with the dice they rolled. Some of the most entertaining books I read are creative twists to old stories. Jim C. Hines’ Princess novels come to mind. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. They allow easy access because they are based on beloved old friends, you slip into the stories like into a comfortable much worn sweaterand then they remain interesting because the authors took the material and made it their own.
    At other times somebody manages to come up with something completely new. Or maybe it is just new for me. Those stories are harder to read, they require more work. They are not the stories you can read any time because they ask you to pay attention. Yet after a while they get worn, too.

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