It’s All Been Done Before. But Only You Can Do It Your Way.
What makes a story original? The question seems simple enough until you try to answer it. Plot alone certainly can’t make a book feel unique. Most writing resources agree that the world’s stories can be distilled into one of a distinct set of archetypes, though the exact number varies from as low as three, according to author William Foster Harris, to as high as thirty-six, as Georges Polti wrote. Genre categories won’t help you stand apart from the crowd much either. The tropes and themes readers expect mean that your story will inevitably be comparable to a neighboring book on the shelf—either that, or it’s likely been sorted onto the wrong shelf.
In the art world, a movement known as “postmodernism” suggests that, in fact, creating something entirely original is impossible. The concept was born around 1970 as a reaction to modernism’s utopian visions of the future and belief in progress, according to the UK’s Tate art gallery. In its stead, postmodernist art no longer embraced defined characteristics and expectations; instead, it broke down barriers and borrowed from the past. Art could be anything, and its originality stemmed as much from the individual experiences of the artist and the viewer as it did from the piece itself.
Authors can view their work in the same light. “With human history dating back hundreds of thousands of years, it is safe to assume that someone, somewhere, at some point in time has done all of this already,” wrote Melanie H. Axman in a 2012 article for Business Insider. Plenty of famous stories have come from older versions of the same tale. The modern-day Cinderella came from the Greek story of Rhodopis in the sixth century BCE. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles came from Homer’s The Iliad. The Lion King came from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which came from the Norse legend of Amleth.
Every book will encounter similar themes, characters, or plot points to another that already exists. Stories will be retold under new names and by new authors. Every book will come from the same twenty-six letters, shuffled and reprinted in a new order.
Yes, the story you’re writing has already been told. But no one will tell it the way you will. That’s why you write it.