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View Full Version : Does original thought exist in today's SF or is it all just variations of popular themes?



realityfix
05-18-2016, 04:51 AM
Hi all:

Just wanted to throw this bone out there and see what sort of nibbles I get. I am unpublished so perhaps I have no right to state such an opinion but I have always entertained the thought that a lot of popular fiction writing takes ideas/concepts pioneered by others and rework it a bit, add a new twist, and reintroduce it as a new story. Personally, I do not consider this to be the same as plagiarism. Additionally, if done tastefully and if acknowledgement is given, the new author is actually complimenting the earlier author. Let me provide an example that comes to mind.

I like to read Stephen King. When I first read "The Stand", I was blown away by it. A number of years later, I bought a beat up paperback by an author I was unfamiliar with, George Stewart, and it was titled "Earth Abides". Holy Toledo! Were there similarities. Both involve the end of the world due to a rogue virus ravaging the population. Both involve elements of good and evil and the grayness of morality. King added a bit of the supernatural with the walking dude representing "evil" and the old woman representing "good" that Stewart did not have in his novel. I have no evidence of this but a well read person like King must have come across this earlier novel. Again, he did not copy it word for word but he took a plot that a previous author had mined rather successfully and tweaked it a bit to make it his own and he did it quite well. However, if my memory is correct I do not recall seeing an acknowledgement or credit given to Stewart. If there was, my apologies to Mr. King.

Right now, I have about four or five completed short stories and am in various stages of completing three novels. I want to be as original as possible so I spend hours on the internet trying to verify that my story ideas are original. Now I wonder if I am going overboard a bit. As my one above example shows, and there are more, it appears to be okay to take an existing plot element like a virus bringing down society, or time travel, or having human-like characters such as elves, etc. and reworking it enough to make it your own. I would like to hear other thoughts on this. Thank you for reading this.

rwm4768
05-18-2016, 04:55 AM
If you spend all your time trying to make sure your ideas are original, you're never going to write anything. At the idea level, you'd be hard-pressed to find any story that's original. It becomes original in the way you tell it.

Aggy B.
05-18-2016, 05:06 AM
The Last Man on Earth (1964) also dealt with an Earth changing virus. (Later reworked in a graphic novel called I Am Legend, that was again redone as the Will Smith movie of the same name.) So did Romero's zombie genre. In fact, I'd say that's one of the more common plot lines.

Ideas tend to be similar. Details are what makes any story original. And voice. Language choices. And so on.

lizmonster
05-18-2016, 05:14 AM
There is the theory that there are only three stories: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself.

Marie Antoinette is also reported as having said "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten."

SFF uses fantastic elements to illustrate human stories (whether or not there are actual human characters involved). In that sense, of course it's all variations of popular themes.

Stop googling your ideas and write. Nobody will execute the idea exactly the way you do, not even Stephen King.

kuwisdelu
05-18-2016, 05:15 AM
There probably aren't any totally original plot ideas left, but there is plenty of original thought.

How you tell it is what matters. You can always tell an old story in an original way.

realityfix
05-18-2016, 05:16 AM
That was Richard Matheson (spelling), was it not? He was an incredible author! His "vampire" writings were the polar opposite of Twilight. Just my opinion.

Aggy B.
05-18-2016, 05:25 AM
That was Richard Matheson (spelling), was it not? He was an incredible author! His "vampire" writings were the polar opposite of Twilight. Just my opinion.

Yes. There are two versions of his novel, though. The novel, and a graphic novel (which is the one I read) which is more like an illustrated book than what most graphic novels today look like. It did have a rather profound impact on the way I look at heroes and villains, though.

Shalon
05-18-2016, 05:27 AM
There was a blog post I read years ago called "Steal like an Artist" -- I think it got turned into a real book, so I couldn't find it anywhere on the internet now :(

You could google it, but in short, he says that all art is robbery. Nothing is really new. As long as you're not stealing specific ideas from specific stories, then you should be fine.

cornflake
05-18-2016, 06:04 AM
Shakespeare 'stole' from the classics. There are no original ideas.

Roxxsmom
05-18-2016, 08:14 AM
There is the theory that there are only three stories: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself.

What about man against the machine?

There are also people who say there are only two basic plots (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/): A person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Others say there are seven (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots), or nine (http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/basic-plots.html), or just one (the monomyth), or some number that is larger than nine but still very finite (http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/how-many-plots-are-there/).

The freshness or novelty in a story has a lot more to do with how it's written and the way it combines elements than anything about the plot, or even the overall premise or concept. There have been tons of stories about plagues that almost wipe out humanity. There's a whole subgenre called post-apocalyptic fiction that looks at how people survive and cope in the aftermath of civilization-ending disasters.

kuwisdelu
05-18-2016, 08:19 AM
There are also people who say there are only two basic plots (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/): A person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

Well that's definitely not true. :tongue

A common plot in contemporary Native American literature is returning home.

Kind of the opposite of going on a journey.

Brightdreamer
05-18-2016, 08:38 AM
Well that's definitely not true. :tongue

A common plot in contemporary Native American literature is returning home.

Kind of the opposite of going on a journey.

Well, depending on how long they've been away, and what's happened to change them and/or their home in the interim, they themselves could be construed as the stranger coming to town... after they went on a journey. ;)

To the OP: There's a page in Julia Cameron's How To Avoid Making Art (or Anything Else You Enjoy) about this very "need" to be entirely original... and the fact that it's in the book means that it's something best pursued by those wishing to avoid making art or doing anything they enjoy, rather than those who want to produce something. Break down any story, and you'll see very familiar parts ticking away beneath the surface: ideas done a thousand times, themes predating the English language, etc. It's the execution that makes the difference... and if you're spending all your time hunting for reasons not to write your story, you're not executing anything. (Well, you are, but not in the "finishing it" sense - just in the "killing it" sense.)

In other words, if you're going to Google every story you write to death, you're going to wind up with nothing but a pile of dead stories. Which is fine, if that's your end goal. Maybe you'll eventually find that One Original Idea to write, but you'll have wasted an awful lot of potential practice by not writing anything else when you find it...

Dennis E. Taylor
05-18-2016, 08:42 AM
A very common trope is "A bunch of people are stuck in a limited space while a [something] picks them off one by one."

Leviathan, Deep Star Six, Alien, Deep Blue Sea...

VeryBigBeard
05-18-2016, 09:41 AM
Not only do all stories have more or less the same tropes, the underlying mechanics that make stories work--i.e., entertaining, meaningful, the whole nine yards of shared cultural cliche--are more or less the same. Even across genres, even across media--the fundamentals are far more similar than they are different.

So you're not just overthinking it, OP. I'd go so far as to say you might be misinterpreting what makes a story work. It's totally OK to have a strong preference for doing things in your own way--most of do, I'd reckon--but I'd suggest straying far from the language of good and bad because the more you dig into how this stuff actually works the more your mind will be forced to open to more nuanced possibilities.

Good luck.

Roxxsmom
05-18-2016, 11:04 AM
A very common trope is "A bunch of people are stuck in a limited space while a [something] picks them off one by one."

Leviathan, Deep Star Six, Alien, Deep Blue Sea...

Usually involving a "let's split up," or "You wait here and I'll find out what that noise was!" strategy for rooting out the threat.

another one is being surrounded and besieged by horrific enemies who will get through your defenses eventually. That old black and white movie Night of the Living Dead still scares the bejeezies out of me.

snafu1056
05-18-2016, 02:30 PM
Part of the problem is the way our brains work. There are way more memories in your head than the ones you can consciously access. And lost memories can easily be mistaken for original ideas when you're digging through your mental junk drawer. That means you have no way of knowing if that newest great idea is really yours or just a lost memory of a story you read when you were ten. It's a depressing thought, that our brains would screw us over like that, but I think unintentional plagiarism is probably extremely common. In fact I'd argue that most writing contains at least some bits and pieces of unintentionally stolen ideas (as opposed to the stuff we know we're stealing :P). And there's no way to guard against it! You wont know you've done it until someone else notices.

Latina Bunny
05-18-2016, 02:58 PM
Well that's definitely not true. :tongue

A common plot in contemporary Native American literature is returning home.

Kind of the opposite of going on a journey.

Still sounds a journey to me, if they left home in the first place, or are trying to get somewhere, even if it's going back. Also, I think the journey doesn't have to be a literal one, either. There are internal, emotional journeys, too.

It could also be the "stranger comes to town" plot, if the character has changed a lot, or if the home has changed since they left, etc.

ETA: Basically, I agree with Brightdreamer some posts up. :)

Myrealana
05-18-2016, 06:18 PM
There are no new ideas, but that doesn't mean there are no new stories to be told.

It's the execution, not the setup that distinguishes a new work from all the things that came before it.

Stop scouring the Internet to make sure your idea is completely original and worry about executing your deeply derivative setup in your own unique way.

GeoWriter
05-18-2016, 06:42 PM
I'm going to be contrary and suggest that there is indeed both new ideas and new stories--but the elements of newness tend to be very incremental, often buried within other ideas and stories that have been often told. I'm not always impressed with too much effort to be "innovative". Really boring or overly-weird stories may be new--because previous writers recognized them as not very interesting--but that doesn't mean they make a good story now simply because they haven't been told before. I like finding an author who can place the small increment of their innovation into a story structure that engages and entertains us because it reflects the basic similar nature of all human conflict and endeavor.

amergina
05-18-2016, 06:44 PM
There is nothing new under the sun.

Including that line, which is thought to have been written in the last part of the 3rd century, BCE.

Amadan
05-18-2016, 06:54 PM
.... if you are going to accuse King of copying George Stewart's "plague wipes out civilization" idea, you have to go back further than that. Like, Jack London's The Scarlet Plague and Mary Shelley's The Last Man.

Robert McCammon's Swan Song is practically a beat-for-beat imitation of The Stand.

Yet all are very distinct stories.

R.Barrows
05-18-2016, 07:28 PM
Right now, I have about four or five completed short stories and am in various stages of completing three novels. I want to be as original as possible so I spend hours on the internet trying to verify that my story ideas are original. Now I wonder if I am going overboard a bit. As my one above example shows, and there are more, it appears to be okay to take an existing plot element like a virus bringing down society, or time travel, or having human-like characters such as elves, etc. and reworking it enough to make it your own. I would like to hear other thoughts on this.

We're talking SF here, so I'll venture a thought. I've often suspected that if our world were being observed by an alien race, one of the things they'd want most from us would be our literature and media. It may well be as original to them as their's could be to us. On the other hand, maybe there themes are no different than ours, but I rather suspect some major originality could be gleaned from such an exchange. Unfortunately, if they were to approach us openly, they'd be poisoning the well they draw from, and our literature may be the most valuable thing about us. I even drafted a novel about the subject once (and trunked it). And, of course, this isn't an original idea either. :)

JeniferTidwell
05-18-2016, 08:59 PM
We're talking SF here, so I'll venture a thought. I've often suspected that if our world were being observed by an alien race, one of the things they'd want most from us would be our literature and media. It may well be as original to them as their's could be to us. On the other hand, maybe there themes are no different than ours, but I rather suspect some major originality could be gleaned from such an exchange. Unfortunately, if they were to approach us openly, they'd be poisoning the well they draw from, and our literature may be the most valuable thing about us. I even drafted a novel about the subject once (and trunked it). And, of course, this isn't an original idea either. :)

I'd totally read that. :) Actually, I'm writing a series of MG novels now in which the aliens simply don't "do" stories. It's just not in their mental makeup. But they're quite fascinated by our own obsession with stories, and how they guide human lives and actions.

For the OP: have you read TV Tropes on this topic? There's a whole series of pages about story lines, plot devices, character tropes, etc. that are very much not new. These two, for instance:

OlderThanDirt (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OlderThanDirt)
OlderThanFeudalism (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OlderThanFeudalism)

Honestly, if you end up reusing story ideas -- deliberately or otherwise -- you're in very good company.

cornflake
05-18-2016, 09:02 PM
I'd totally read that. :) Actually, I'm writing a series of MG novels now in which the aliens simply don't "do" stories. It's just not in their mental makeup. But they're quite fascinated by our own obsession with stories, and how they guide human lives and actions.

For the OP: have you read TV Tropes on this topic? There's a whole series of pages about story lines, plot devices, character tropes, etc. that are very much not new. These two, for instance:

OlderThanDirt (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OlderThanDirt)
OlderThanFeudalism (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OlderThanFeudalism)

Honestly, if you end up reusing story ideas -- deliberately or otherwise -- you're in very good company.

Galaxy Quest!

jjdebenedictis
05-18-2016, 11:16 PM
Here's a secret: What is a new idea? It's old ideas stapled together in a new way.

Like the airbag bike helmet. Airbags to protect someone in a crash aren't new. Not wanting to wear a clunky, sweaty bike helmet isn't new. But a bike helmet that's only there when you crash? That's new.

http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/r7xgl0opjgtfwksytcz3.jpg

Innovation is all about new connections, not new building blocks. Either you refine the existing tool, or you find a new way to use it. Those are pretty much the only two options.

snafu1056
05-19-2016, 12:59 AM
Here's a secret: What is a new idea? It's old ideas stapled together in a new way.

Like the airbag bike helmet. Airbags to protect someone in a crash aren't new. Not wanting to wear a clunky, sweaty bike helmet isn't new. But a bike helmet that's only there when you crash? That's new.

http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/r7xgl0opjgtfwksytcz3.jpg

Innovation is all about new connections, not new building blocks. Either you refine the existing tool, or you find a new way to use it. Those are pretty much the only two options.

Agreed! There are so many tiny variables in how a story can be executed that the possibilities are pretty much endless. Even if you steal the entire structure of another story, there's still plenty of room to make something new. "It's all been done" is only true in the meta sense. In the micro, every story is as unique as a fingerprint.

Roxxsmom
05-19-2016, 01:30 AM
It's also occurred to me that too much newness, weirdness, and innovation can make something unappealing to many readers. Maybe we like and expect certain story structures, tropes and archetypes because they reflect something we're wired up to repate to. Or maybe we are socialized to expect them and it's cultural. Why, for instance, do stories seem to require some element of conflict? Is it possible to write an interesting story where no one wants anything or encounters any obstacles? Maybe, but it might be so experimental most readers wouldn't like it that much.

I like SF and F, so there's some pretty weird and novel stuff I've enjoyed. But there's always an element that's familiar or comfortable for me too. If a story is too weird or out there, I may not connect with it enough, or if it ends in a way I couldn't have seen coming I might not find it that satisfying. I think I'm a bit more conservative in my tastes (if not my politics) than some SFF readers, because many of the elements that are my comfort food (space operas, aliens that are improbably vertebrate in structure, fantasies set in worlds with horses, swords, thatch-roofed cottages, rain-damp cobbles, and inns with roaring fires) are things other people say are overdone and trite. Some highly praised books in the genre lately take place in worlds that are actually too alien for me to really want to visit, let alone live in. I can appreciate them as art, but not have "fun" reading them or fall in love with their characters.

This of course leads to reflection over whether I'm boring, culturally chauvinistic, have pedantic, unimaginative, blah taste etc., and whether writing the kinds of things I most love to read will ever result in a sale, let alone accolades.

There's no real answer to this. You just have to chug along and write what you love.

rwm4768
05-19-2016, 01:31 AM
Here's a secret: What is a new idea? It's old ideas stapled together in a new way.

Like the airbag bike helmet. Airbags to protect someone in a crash aren't new. Not wanting to wear a clunky, sweaty bike helmet isn't new. But a bike helmet that's only there when you crash? That's new.

http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/r7xgl0opjgtfwksytcz3.jpg

Innovation is all about new connections, not new building blocks. Either you refine the existing tool, or you find a new way to use it. Those are pretty much the only two options.

That is a great idea. If that becomes mainstream, I think you'll see more people wearing helmets.

rwm4768
05-19-2016, 01:38 AM
Some highly praised books in the genre lately take place in worlds that are actually too alien for me to really want to visit, let alone live in. I can appreciate them as art, but not have "fun" reading them or fall in love with their characters.

This seems particularly relevant for me right now because I'm reading Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley. In this book and the Mirror Empire, Hurley displays some of the most imaginative worldbuilding I've ever seen in fantasy. I also think she's doing a very important thing with completely inverting a lot of the standard gender roles in fantasy, including the inclusion of characters who are neither male nor female. In these regards, I think these stories are deserving of every bit of praise they're getting.

But from a personally subjective standpoint, I'm finding reading them to be an okay experience, but nothing special. Hurley's a good writer, but the story is outside my preferred reading and feels very alien at times. I'll attribute that to my tastes rather than anything that's wrong with the books themselves.

But if you're looking for a fantasy that checks all the "different" boxes, you should seek out Hurley's work.

realityfix
05-19-2016, 01:53 AM
Amadan: I was not actually accusing King of literary theft. Poor choice of words on my part. I was implying that if all great writers borrow elements from other great writers then at least acknowledge it in the book's forward or introduction. Still, I believe if you executed a search warrant on King's personal library you might find Stewart's book tucked away somewhere.

Latina Bunny
05-19-2016, 01:58 AM
Some highly praised books in the genre lately take place in worlds that are actually too alien for me to really want to visit, let alone live in. I can appreciate them as art, but not have "fun" reading them or fall in love with their characters.
.

I feel you. ;)

I'm also pretty conservative when it comes to anything that have SFF elements as well. For example, I like those cheesy humanoid aliens that act similar to humans, and so on.

I like some sf alien stuff, but there are times when some SF gets too alien/weird for my tastes and make me feel detached from the characters, due to the extremely alien weirdness of it all.

My tastes are more for "Hollywood" or anime scifi than literary SF, I guess?

King Neptune
05-19-2016, 02:30 AM
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9
New International Version (NIV)

As was true when Qoheleth wrote is still true today.

Roxxsmom
05-19-2016, 04:19 AM
This seems particularly relevant for me right now because I'm reading Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley. In this book and the Mirror Empire, Hurley displays some of the most imaginative worldbuilding I've ever seen in fantasy. I also think she's doing a very important thing with completely inverting a lot of the standard gender roles in fantasy, including the inclusion of characters who are neither male nor female. In these regards, I think these stories are deserving of every bit of praise they're getting.

But from a personally subjective standpoint, I'm finding reading them to be an okay experience, but nothing special. Hurley's a good writer, but the story is outside my preferred reading and feels very alien at times. I'll attribute that to my tastes rather than anything that's wrong with the books themselves.

But if you're looking for a fantasy that checks all the "different" boxes, you should seek out Hurley's work.

She's actually one of the writers I was thinking of when I said this. I read Mirror Empire, and I admire the sheer imagination that went into this and her magic system, and chuckled wryly at the subversion of gender tropes (and it amuses me how many men are complaining about all the weak, ineffectual male characters when this is precisely how women are portrayed in a lot of traditional fantasy). But I really like fantasy better at a visceral level when bears are really bears, and the woods are filled with plants that (mostly) don't try to eat people, and swords don't grow out of people's hands when they need them for some inexplicable reason. I guess I like my fantasy to take place on worlds that feel more like ours in some way, but with some changes in the social situation or history that adds interesting twists (when I want really alien, uncomfortable worlds I read SF).

And it's interesting that pretty conservative writers (in terms of world building and diversity) of the kind that agents and publishers say they're not looking for like Sanderson, Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Weeks, Hobb and so on are still selling circles around these much more innovative, imaginative, and subversive fantasy writers (just look at Amazon sales ranks, and you'll see what I mean).

My sweetest spot is somewhere in between those two extremes, I think, but I haven't found a lot of fantasy in that window.

My point, though (to bring it back to the OP) is that there are different reader tolerances for the amount of novelty in a premise or world, and stuff that's similar to other stuff in certain ways can still be quite popular.

realityfix
05-19-2016, 06:19 AM
I looked up Hurley and a book review of Mirror Empire on the sword and Laser website. Sounds like a wonderful read. It also appears like she might have been influence by reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin in her past. Another example of an up and coming author borrowing plot elements from a veteran author and tweaking it enough to make it her own.

I want to thank all of you for responding to my thread. Basically, I have always known that I should be like Nike and "Just do it" but I needed to hear it from other writers. I am still learning to trust my own intuition and to hell with the critics. Now I can finish the novels and let some editor worry about whether they are original enough.

In response to Barrow and Tidwell's musings of aliens and human story telling, what if our reality is really just an afterlife for an advanced alien civilization in another dimension or timeline? Within the plot would be the explanation that all major psychological disorders like being bipolar or schizophrenic or suffering from multiple personalities in our reality is really due to our alien alter ego not accepting death back in our original dimension or timeline? Is it original or have I read too much Philip Dick material? Would anyone want to join me as a co-author and pound this manuscript out? Let me know. Time for bed as I have to set up the seafood case tomorrow at my mundane job.

Roxxsmom
05-19-2016, 07:08 AM
I looked up Hurley and a book review of Mirror Empire on the sword and Laser website. Sounds like a wonderful read. It also appears like she might have been influence by reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin in her past. Another example of an up and coming author borrowing plot elements from a veteran author and tweaking it enough to make it her own.

I want to thank all of you for responding to my thread. Basically, I have always known that I should be like Nike and "Just do it" but I needed to hear it from other writers. I am still learning to trust my own intuition and to hell with the critics. Now I can finish the novels and let some editor worry about whether they are original enough.

In response to Barrow and Tidwell's musings of aliens and human story telling, what if our reality is really just an afterlife for an advanced alien civilization in another dimension or timeline? Within the plot would be the explanation that all major psychological disorders like being bipolar or schizophrenic or suffering from multiple personalities in our reality is really due to our alien alter ego not accepting death back in our original dimension or timeline? Is it original or have I read too much Philip Dick material? Would anyone want to join me as a co-author and pound this manuscript out? Let me know. Time for bed as I have to set up the seafood case tomorrow at my mundane job.

I think it's up to you to make it your own. I wouldn't necessarily think of these authors if I read a story with this kind of premise, unless it took place in a very similar world and used a very similar voice and so on.

VeryBigBeard
05-19-2016, 09:42 AM
Jazz is widely considered one of the most original musical forms. It's freeing, it's often improvised on the spot. It can, in that way, be kind of jarring to people who don't know it, or even to people who do when that improv is overdone. There's a huge role for tact in jazz.

Take blues, which are the basis for much of jazz soloing. A standardish blues solo is basically seven different notes, with specific modulations, spread across octaves. And an alto sax can really only hit three of those octaves. So maximum 21 notes.

Now consider the amazing originality of a blues solo. Phrasing, tone, riffs, the odd breaking of key thrown in to keep things edgier. Randomly throwing a wrong note into a solo doesn't make the solo original, it makes it sound like crap unless that wrong note is thrown in at exactly the right time for maximum effect, where it's obviously intentional. A lot of this is left to the listener to figure out.

Seven notes. It's all in the execution.