There are some people who believe that there are no new ideas: everything has been done. Still, there are others who strive to make the most unique thing possible. Sometimes the search for originality creates remarkable things. Sometimes it creates garbage. After all, there’s a reason traditional story structure works. Human beings, as diverse as we are, are still 99.9% of the exact same DNA.
Is There Any Originality Left?
We see things ideas repeated throughout popular culture. When the same thing keeps popping up over and over, we call it zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment. Usually the zeitgeist is a subject: vampires, zombies, superheroes, etc. Sometimes it’s something less concrete. At this moment, over 3 million books are listed on Amazon under the Literature and Fiction category. Odds are, if you boil a story down to three words, someone else has developed that very same idea. “It’s all been done before.”
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it again. Think about it in terms of concrete objects: as a society, we don’t stop designing products just because something was already created from that basic idea. We didn’t decide that clothing was perfected with the doublet and tunic and leave it at that. Look around you. Pretty much everything in your immediate physical vicinity is an improvement or variation upon someone else’s idea. As I write this, I cast my eyes about my desk. I’m using a computer. It’s an Apple computer. There were cheaper Windows machines we could have bought. It has keys and a screen and a mouse just like something HP makes, but it’s different. If Steve Jobs had looked at the Windows Computer and said, “But someone already made a computer,” think of how different the world would be! The story of humanity is one of small steps and improvements. Why shouldn’t we say the same for story telling?
There may be nothing completely original left, but that doesn’t mean we can’t combine the elements that have been used before in new ways to satisfy different purposes. Everything on earth is made of (as far as we know) the same 100+ elements. Boil that down further, those elements are made of electrons, neutrons, and protons. Want to go even further? Well, you get the idea. Sure, we’ve done vampires a billion times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something new with elements that have been used before. That doesn’t mean that your story isn’t worth telling.
In the end, the piece of culture that you create may look—at first glance—a lot like something someone else has done. But the devil is in the details. If you do it right, if you create themes and characters and settings and ideas that are fully developed, even if you write another damned vampire novel, you’ll still have made something new and unique.