Are any story ideas really completely new? The short answer is yes and no. Stories spring out of the human experience. They evolve over time. In evolution, each new creature on the evolutionary chain brings some of the previous creature’s DNA with it. In the same way, new stories spring from old ones. They bring some of the story DNA of the past with them, but become wholly transformed by what often amounts to very small changes.
Some authors create stories by taking an old one and reframing it. They take a common story like Cinderella and shift it in space and time. The essence of the plot stays the same, the characters stay the same, but shifts are made to accommodate the new timeline. This same story can be moved to another culture, into the future, or even into ancient times. This kind of shift is especially popular with writers who excel with descriptive settings.
Shifts in space and time give rise to fresh new characters and focus. You can reframe old stories by populating them with modern thinkers. By shifting “Cindy” into an animal activist/women’s studies fanatic, and turning the prince into a millionaire computer hacker, an old story takes on a new life.
Stories can be improved with beautiful language. One author who was a king of cannibalizing stories and then reframing them with his mastery of word choice was the Bard, William Shakespeare. He had a remarkable talent with language and mixed it in with a lively wit and sense of pathos. He took old stories from his day and rephrased them with a singular voice in literature that’s still speaking today.
Some authors read the times well and find new genres and discover new story shapes. A good way to conceptualize this kind of leap is to look at the work of an author who created a new genre. One example is Jane Austen, founder of the romance genre. She told a story of women in a time when few books were geared toward a woman’s audience. Think about untapped audiences on your story idea journey.
Familiarizing yourself with common story plots will help you on your story idea journey. A quick overview includes man against man. Man against machine. Man against the environment. Man against the supernatural. Man against self. The book, The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, is recommended for further reading on common plots. For more in-depth study, A Hero of a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, is a definitive text covering the myth-cycle that serves as the DNA for modern stories.
Don’t worry if your story idea has been told before. Your job isn’t to reinvent the wheel. Worry about bringing new DNA to the ancient story path. What makes your take on the ancient path unique? What makes your story stand out as original from the ho-hum of the day? Bring old and new to your storytelling and create unique, standout work.
I think the same way because when think about it is not so bad.
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