Okay, the title of this post is misleading, but bear with me.
The issue of creating a unique story used to constantly plague me while I was writing Aza. I could see so many connections to my favorite books at the time– the tribes came from Warriors by Erin Hunter, the camouflaged cloaks were from Ranger’s Apprentice (even though I came up with the idea before I read that series) by John Flannagan… the list goes on. There were times when I considered giving up just because of Aza’s lack of uniqueness.
Luckily I didn’t, and now I realize something: no one can write a truly unique story. Here are the reasons why:
1. Ideas don’t come from nothing, and
2. All stories have to follow a basic formula, or they cease to become stories.
Let me explain. In my experience, ideas are a bit like dreams. You can’t dream about something you’ve never seen or heard of, so all dreams are just garbled bits of information we already possess. The more we experience, the crazier our dreams will be. If we think about this in terms of writing, the more books we read and cool places we see, the more information we have to mix up when we create our own stories.
The basic formula for all stories is this: the main character/s want something, but something else (or someone) is standing in his/her/their way. Bad things happen along the way until the main character/s confront the evil something/someone and achieve his/her/their goal.
Let’s try some examples:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry wants to belong, but the Dursleys are standing in his way. Bad (and good) things happen as he trains to become a wizard until Harry confronts Voldemort and protects Hogwarts and his new friends.
That one works, even though at first the end bit doesn’t appear to be the goal from the beginning.
Let’s try a non-fantasy book:
The Fault in Our Stars: Hazel wants to be a normal teenager and not die, but cancer is getting in the way. Very bad things happen near the end as Hazel comes to terms with death and, in some ways, feels lucky.
This one is definitely more abstract. The ending is more bittersweet than triumphant, but Hazel still seems to be happier at the end than at the beginning.
As I hope I’ve shown, there are many different interpretations of this formula. Some books take it literally, others go for the abstract approach. Sometimes the goal at the beginning isn’t the goal that gets achieved at the end. The shorter the story, the more subtle the formula usually becomes.
Because of this, no story can be completely unique. The differences come from the plot twists and how the character/s deal with the sequence of events. That said, readers like it when books are a little similar– if they know they like Harry Potter, then they also know they might like, say, Septimus Heap (which also happens to be about an orphaned boy wizard).
While on the subject of “uniqueness,” let me point out that there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction. Borrowing another author’s characters to have some fun with is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable. The only issue is that you can’t publish this type of writing. There is actually one exception to this: some older novels, like Gulliver’s Travels, are in the Public Domain and belong to everyone. This means that it’s perfectly acceptable to write a story or a novel using the books’ worlds/characters and publish it.
In summary, creating a story that stands out as “different” just requires some clever jumbling of old ideas and showing them in a new light. Add some fascinating characters and write!