The Tyranny of the Original Idea

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.

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5 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Original Idea”

  1. May 15th, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks for this. I didn’t finish my thought on originality (in the spirit of brevity, I suppose.) What I didn’t add was that later I came to realize that what a writer can hope to do is incorporate the ideas, plots and themes of the stories they think bear repeating with their own ideas, plots and themes and experiences.

    I learned that originality is “organic,” because each of us have different spheres than the writers we read and the people we listen to. Ideas overlap and overlay; West Side Story may be a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, and the Twilight series may be yet another version of a similar idea, with a different sort of bloodletting. I had decided to keep on writing, because I thought even if someone else had thought of a similar plot or essay issue they had never seen it through my eyes.

    So if the most recent song lyric I wrote uses Bob Dylan’s melody (and even uses his theme,) it is mine nonetheless.

  2. May 15th, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Toaster says:

    I once composed a song in 13/8 time, thinking myself ground-breaking and progressive. Then I realized that jazz had been there long before me, I’d just grafted electronica onto it.

  3. May 15th, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    bioephemera says:

    Great post, great issues to discuss. I think a lot of artistic insecurity comes out of being afraid you’ll do something derivative. The really successful artists aren’t afraid of that – and sometimes they end up crossing a line and being more derivative than not. But at least they do it with confidence, and aren’t paralyzed by fear!

  4. May 16th, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Eronarn says:

    I actually love reading multiple takes on the same story or concept – as far as I see it it’s okay if my writing is an extension of that love. I think that you can also make the argument that sci fi greatly benefits from these periodic “re-writes” as technology progresses. Some of it is downright visionary in its predictions for the future but glaring examples can be a bit jarring to readers in the present.

  5. May 17th, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Glendon Mellow says:

    Originality is even harder to come by when there are this many people on the planet, and a growing number on-line.

    I used to believe I was doing something “different” in university when I would paint acorns bursting with human arms, and images of extinct animals…then I realized it was the same old story: creation and death.

    When I went online with The Flying Trilobite, I was still a bloggy-nobody and in short order a reader informed me about the webcomic Girl Genius had winged trilobites. I was devastated. The authors of Girl Genius were cool about it, and since then I’ve seen them in a coat of arms, and designed as an artful fence. If winged trilobites aren’t original, nothing could be.

    …ideas are cheap and plentiful. It’s the execution that matters. I’ve heard the same from another artist I admire recently. Inspiring words, and I gotta finish some ideas.

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