The originality trap

spices

The hardest thing about writing a novel is getting started.

Just how are you supposed to sit there for hours and pull new ideas out of thin air? What on Earth is there left to write about that hasn’t been done before? But that’s just it – everything’s been done before. And many, many times before that. Oh, and before that too. And that.

Here’s the thing: originality doesn’t really exist.

Even the ancients knew it: there’s nothing new under the sun. There aren’t any original stories; only original tellings. At their core, every book, film or video game is simply the Hero’s Journey, or the Love Story, or the Tale of Revenge.

Boil it all down to its ingredients, and any story’s about as original as the thoughts and emotions that make humanity tick. Which is to say, not at all. So… why even bother? As storytellers, what could we possibly have to offer that hasn’t been done before?

Our personalities. Every one of us is a unique machine, tapping into the same shared knowledge collected over thousands of years. The stories have all been told before – but not by us. It’s how each of us can understand, interpret and embellish those tales, with our own singular mix of tastes and influences, that creates a fresh new story every time.

There aren’t any new foods or ingredients under the sun either – but it hasn’t stopped people creating new recipes or drinks in the process. No one accuses the world’s best chefs of plagiarising someone else’s use of beef or potatoes, and demands that they conjure up completely new animals and vegetables out of nothing. If a staring diner asks you for something new with q’uken and shplomatoes, and demands that you create them, maybe just make yourself scarce until they leave.

There are infinitely more variables that can be tweaked and combined than just the ingredients themselves. It isn’t about the base ingredients; it’s what you do with them that counts.

When you sit down to start your novel, accept that there’s nothing new under the sun. The story you’re telling isn’t new or unique. It’s all been done before. That’s because there are only so many ingredients for storytellers to work with. If you can somehow conjure up a new side of human nature in your stories, that billions of others haven’t found over thousands of years, then the rest of us should be worshipping you. Or terrified.

In the same way, your favourite books and films aren’t unique either. All those bestsellers and blockbusters you’re drawing on for inspiration are just a retelling of a retelling, of a retelling. Nothing they’ve done is truly original either. Don’t be put off by that – it’s the thread that’s connected people over thousands of years. You share the same hopes and fears as your favourite authors, poets, painters and movie makers, and the greatest heroes in history.

Writing new stories isn’t some never-ending high jump, to be more original than what’s come before. It’s not a contest. It’s about making sense of what matters to you, and telling it in a way that connects other people and speaks to their thoughts too.

Originality isn’t your job. You’re just here to cook mind food for hungry readers, with a limited number of ingredients. All you can do is cook it well, or cook it badly. No one with real hunger will turn away a decent meal because they’ve eaten those ingredients before. No one can survive on a meal they ate last month. Stories are food for the mind, and we all need more and more stories to survive.

There’s no possible way to create something truly original. But being truly original isn’t the point.

 

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