As writers, we constantly try to write something original, or something with a unique twist. But how often do we come up with a super cool idea, only to discover there are already dozens of similar ideas out there already? (Looking at you, Marvel. Every time Isaac and I think we have a unique story idea, your next movie covers something really similar. All I need to say is “dancing baby tree.” *Sigh.*)
It can be depressing.
But here’s the thing: having similar ideas is okay.
That’s why genres and sub-genres exist. That’s why certain tropes show over and over again. We enjoy them. We like being able to follow patterns, and we’re delighted when those patterns fulfill their promises in unexpected ways.
For example, readers of romance know that the stories they reading will have a happy-ever-after or a happy-for-now ending, no matter how dire things may seem at the moment. They enjoy seeing how the two characters finally get together, despite the odds.
Readers of horror know to expect chills and moments of tenseness… and that the little kid down the road might very well not be a little kid. But the joy comes in seeing how the characters succeed or fail to tackle the issue, and what kind of monster is really lurking in the dark, not quite seen.
These tropes and ideas play into reader expectations, and if you know how to play your genre cards right, you can use those cards to add a new twist on an old idea.
Readers enjoy the familiar. Why else do we read hoards of dystopian books, or try to get our hands on every thriller we can find?
It’s after you consider genre conventions that you want to add a new twist, a new environment, or a new type of character to an old arc to see what might make it different.
This is the reason there are so many takes on different fairy tales. For example, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, puts the classic Cinderella tale in a space-age environment with robots.
You’ll find all the classic plot elements, but in a new setting, the old story takes on new life.
I’ve come to terms with the idea that nothing is ever completely original, and that really, the best we can do is know (to the best of our ability) what is already out there, so we can play on what exists and make something even better, or more unique, just a little bit different.
Have you ever watched a movie and wished it had turned out a bit differently?
What twist would you have added? What direction would it have gone?
(For Distant Horizon, one of the major changes of typical superhero stories was the idea that the supervillains won the day during the age of superheroes, and now the villains are secretly in charge of what otherwise seems like a perfectly functional society).
We enjoy the familiar, but we enjoy seeing how a different author spins the tale.
A while back I was reading a superhero book, Elevated by Daniel Solomon Kaplan (a fun book–I recommend it if you like YA superhero stories) in which the main character is in school (high school), preparing for a potentially life-changing event (getting her superpower–or choosing not to), and then she goes to a history lesson (which benefits us readers into knowing what’s going on in the world and how she feels about it), before moving on to the day of the big event.
At the time, it got me to thinking about the book I coauthored, Distant Horizon. The main character is in school (college), panicking about a potentially life-changing event (testing to see if she has a hallucinogenic disease… but the event secretly tests for super powers), and then she goes to a history class (which shows a little about the world so the reader knows what’s going on), before moving on to the day of the big event.
At first I was discouraged by the similarities, but when I started thinking about it, I realized that those similarities weren’t a bad thing. They help the reader get their bearings before going two completely different plot directions. Those starting events are tropes of the genre. Even the similarities were different (example: both characters have an interest in plants, but the difference is that the main character gets plant powers in Distant Horizon, whereas in Elevated, the main character gets a completely unrelated (but interesting) ability (I’m not going to spoil the book for you).
In Distant Horizon, the big day is secretly testing for superpowers in a world where people don’t know superpowers exist. In Elevated, the big day is a rite of passage where people are zapped for powers in a “Russian Roulette” of sorts (which is instantly different, and automatically leads to different plot twists). In Distant Horizon, powers are genetic. If a parent has a specific power, the odds significantly increase that the child will, too. In Elevated, the powers are random (though the book hints that there may be an unseen pattern). Both stories involve radiation in the explanation of powers, but hey… so do quite a few other superhero stories.
Where does this lead us?
Both stories have a similar start (albeit in different locations–Distant Horizon is dystopian, Elevated feels more near-modern day). It’s a result of both having superhero elements. But those similarities are what drew my interest into reading Elevated in the first place (which I again recommend reading if you like superheroes and young adult fiction. It’s a fast, entertaining read). These similarities are why I read other similar books in the genre, like Minder by Kate Kaynak, though it has a much heavier romance plot.
Do writers often have similar ideas at the same time? Certainly. Do writer’s absorb ideas from other books they’ve read and movies they’ve seen, then delve into them with their own twists? Yep.
Try not to be discouraged if you read something that reminds you of something you’ve written or plan to write. Look to see if the differences are great enough to constitute being their own story. If so, you’re good. (And beta-readers can help you here).
How about you? Have you read something that reminded you of something you’re working on? 🙂