One of the things I sometimes struggle with is coming up with new writing ideas that nobody else has written about before. More than once I have explained one of my plot ideas to my partner, only to be told that a writer or movie maker has already beaten me to it and created something very similar. In fact, there is an argument that there are actually only seven plots in literature: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth. Every story is said to stem from these themes. There are around 130 million published books in the world (depending on what your definition of a book is), and that is perhaps a rather reserved figure as it was suggested in 2010. So what’s the likelihood of anyone thinking of a new idea that hasn’t already been done?
“Well,” you might think, “this is all a bit disheartening. Is there any point in writing something if someone has already written it, and might even have done a better job?” Yes, yes there is a point. Because even if someone has already written a book with the same general premise as yours, it’s the details that matter. You can put a new spin on an idea and make it your own. Find that new angle. Is your end of the world story a bit too close to I Am Legend? Change the setting to a beach town in Spain, make Will Smith’s character psychic, and have him convinced that his grandmother is the only other survivor, stuck way out in the Scottish Highlands and he has to get over there to save her from a herd of rabid Highland cattle. It’s all about the details.
Actually, it’s not just about the detail – it’s all about you. You have – or you should have – your own writing style, interests, experience to draw from, little quirks, and a host of other attributes that differentiate you from everyone else. I used to spend a lot of time on a website called Young Writers Society, where children and teenage writers share their work and review each other’s. I remember a handful of times when I read a poem by a fellow writer and told them that I felt like the poem could have been written by anyone – that they needed to inject a bit more of their own personality into the poem and make it their own, whether that was by adding more personal, specific details or being more adventurous with their language.
Going back to your end of the world story – would your story be serious or satirical? Maybe it would be set in your hometown, or feature a character based on your old high school maths teacher as a surprising ally. Perhaps you would draw on your knowledge of highly contagious diseases, or the geography of Eastern Europe. Maybe you could incorporate some of your rhyming skills by making your main character a poet chronicling her experiences in case other survivors find her.
Of course we should never plagiarise or copy intentionally. But I think if we worry too much about what has and hasn’t already been done we can stifle our own creativity and denying ourselves the pleasure of writing what’s really in our hearts. Besides, if everything really does boil down to only seven plots, then everything really has already been done – but look at all the other writers out there who are plotting and writing and publishing regardless. So forget about what everyone else is doing, be true to yourself, and go forth and write!