Over on Scribophile, a writer recently asked this question: How can I find out if my idea already exists?
I understand the concern. I don't want to write what's been done before.
Recently, I was explaining parts of my current work-in-revision to a non-writing friend. At various points, he would nod and toss out comments, like: Oh, that's like Legend of Korra. (I've never watched it.) Or—oh, that's like Mistborn. (I've read that one; it's vaguely similar—sorta.) Oh, that's like …
I felt a little wounded. My ideas were suddenly not so original.
Some scientists who have investigated creativity think it is not so original; it’s just a mashing and twisting of the things that we’ve seen before. I'm sure that point is debatable, but this is what it means to me when people say there's nothing new under the sun. Our original ideas are derived from our vast and often subconscious experiences. We may stretch, tear, wrench, tangle or puree them, but the particles of other ideas are still in there. And through all that, they've been filtered through our worldview. They've been altered by our efforts to make sense of the world around us. And that final ingredient is where true creativity lies.
"Originality is not seen in single words or even in sentences. Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing." —Isaac Bashevis Singer
Hatching New Ideas
Ideas are like eggs. Eggs are magic; it's true. They can be made into cake, cookies, bread, quiche, omelets … Developing an original noodle recipe with eggs doesn't mean its derivative. The ingredients might be familiar, but the product isn't (or might not be.)
Ideas are only one ingredient in a story. We also have theme, premise, concept, characters, character arcs, incidents and plot. After that, we can go deeper, into how the story is told to the reader: scene, setting, tone, foreshadowing, mood, etc. And then those go deeper into style, diction, syntax, tense, narrative mode, figurative language, etc.
So you put all together and … voila! PIE! Look, I made pie!
Desperately Seeking Originality
"Good writing is full of surprises and novelties, moving in a direction you don’t expect." —Iris Murdoch
It would be criminally disingenuous to take all this as meaning creativity doesn't matter. Like most writers, I want to surprise my readers. Not just once or twice, but throughout.
What we call writing is a stack of skills. I break it down into levels of Story, Story-Telling, and Language (something I learned from an acquaintance a few years ago.) At each level, I look for the original. In story, I look for original characters, original motivations, original incidents, original arcs. In taking that Story and deciding how to present it, I look for original scene constructions, original narrative attack, original motifs and metaphors. In language, I look for original style, diction and figurative language.
However, that doesn't mean I should stress because I discover similarities to another novel. Any story you find will have similarities out there, somewhere. Harry Potter and Hunger Games have both had strikingly similar works pointed out. Who cares? They had enough going for them to appeal to a broad audience. What matters is that there is enough surprise and newness to the overall product when it’s done.
Okay, But How?
There's the big question, right?
I remember Orson Scott Card, somewhere, saying that he never took the first idea. He would make a list and usually go with the fourth or fifth idea, because the first two or three were usually the most obvious. I've done this myself, and it works pretty well.
Brain science also offers some suggestions on creativity. These can be researched, but I won't cite sources for this since they're just some ideas to get started. Here are some things science has shown to promote creativity:
It's a little weird how most of those things tend to be common writer traits anyway, isn't it?
So, yes, originality is important, but it need not be in any one area. Look for a good dose of it throughout the process, from start to end. And don’t sweat the small similarities. You can’t avoid them.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.