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Monday, August 28, 2017

"Everything has already been done before" -- Has it really?

You've probably heard the idea voiced in the writing world at some point that "Everything has already been done before." Is that true? Has everything really already been done before?

I'd argue no.

And I might even be a little passionate about arguing it.

Now, before I get further, I think it's important to acknowledge that there is a difference between saying "Everything has already been done before" and saying  "It's okay to do this again." Sometimes when I hear people say "Well, everything's already been done before," they're using it in a way to grant permission to do something again. But there is nothing wrong with doing something again, as long as you make it your own, bring something fresh to the table, and don't plagiarize (or base everything off the same source). Using the excuse that "Everything's already been done" though, causes a couple of problems.

For one, it's saying that in order for your work to have value, it must do something no one has even seen before. And that's just not true. Having something new in your story that people haven't seen before can definitely make your work stand out, but it is not the sum attribute of what makes a good story. Besides, you can have something fresh, new, and original that actually hurts your story or makes it worse . . . because it's not an appealing idea, it doesn't fit the story or genre, or it's too strange and bizarre for the intended audience.

The second problem is that when you use that logic, you limit yourself. When you say and believe "Everything's already been done before," you give yourself a ceiling, a limitation. If you don't believe there can be any new ideas in the world, then you can't really come up with new ideas, can you? And if you do, it will be by accident (which is very unlikely).

This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with someone. We'd gotten on the topic of spirituality or the spiritual realm and if it could ever be scientifically discovered. The person I talked to said, "But how can it be discovered if it can't be measured?" I replied, "How was anything ever discovered?" To which he replied, "You have a point."

Obviously my response was an exaggeration, but the point is, there have been things discovered in science that we previously thought could never be discovered. I mean, we can freaking tell the elements in star by looking at its light spectrum. We've discovered things that no human eye can see. We've "discovered" dark matter, which is still literally undetectable to us (we only see its effect on things). My point of this conversation is that, whether or not you believe a spiritual world or afterlife exists, when we accept the idea that if it did, it can never be discovered, we vastly limit our abilities of possibly discovering or measuring it.

But if you look at history, time and time again, new things were discovered--even crazy things that vastly changed human perspective, that led to persecution, to religions renouncing sciences, to powerful opinions and thinking, to shaming and banning--and we gained access to new sciences. Whenever we believe humankind has already discovered everything there is to discover, we largely curb our learning abilities.

Remember that once most of the human population believed the Earth was the center of the universe--and if anyone could say they could actually measure where and how it fit into the universe, they would have been laughed to scorn, and worse.

Imagine people back then saying, "Everything has already been discovered," or "Every school of science has already been invented," or "Everything that can be measured has already been measured."

When we learn of these things and attitudes in history, we laugh. But honestly, today, people are no different.

But my point is, if we choose to believe that everything we could write has already been written before, we vastly limit our abilities.

And it's not true.

Look at time machine stories.

How many time machine stories do you think exist? Probably tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But someone came up with the first one (The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell). Eventually someone came up with one that was so mind-blowing, it infiltrated far corners of the world. Now everyone knows what a time machine is, even if they don't exist.

If everything has already been done before, then how were genres like cyber punk and space opera started? And how are we able to trace back to their beginnings?

Sometimes such groundbreaking work does not happen on a huge scale. As a lot of you probably know, I'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar. When making the movie, they worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne, who gave them the most up-to-date information on black holes. No one had created a true black hole in television before. Not even Kip Thorne had seen a rendition of a true one, and he's spent his life in astrophysics. Interstellar was the first movie to accurately depict what a black hole would actually look like. Even Kip Thorne was stunned to see it.

It had never been done before.

Years ago I started reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I didn't have to get far into it to see why it was so popular and such a phenomenon. And while I've seen a few concepts that may overlap with it (and as I've mentioned before, some weirdly overlap with my own (and here I thought I'd been so clever)), it was vastly its own story--largely original. I'd never read anything like it before. And I've never read anything like it since. And it just wasn't in a few aspects here and there, it was all over. And it was clever. Philip Pullman created something that hadn't been done before.

There are many other examples I could go on about. Of course, there is Harry Potter and there is Lord of the Rings and there is Star Wars and there are many more.

Guys. Everything has NOT already been done before!

Some stories have completely new concepts--and yes, those are very rare--while other stories do something that's never been done, like Interstellar. Still, there are other stories that take something already done, and carry it out in a way that's never been done.

You can crisscross concepts in ways that haven't been done. You can play with tropes and outcomes to make something no one has seen before. You can push the limits and twist ideas into something that has never graced the bookshelves.

When Indiana Jones was still in its very early stages, during a brainstorming session, the filmmakers were talking about a chase scene. Chase scenes have been done a million times. But during the brainstorming, they come up with the idea of using a camel in the chase scene. They'd never seen a chase scene done with a camel. Horses, cars, and on foot--yes. But a camel? Never.

They took a common scene and tried to think of a way to put their stamp on it, to make it different. (Unfortunately I don't think that particular chase scene ended up in the film, but you get my point.)

You are different than other people in the world. You have different experiences, and a different perspective.

You can do something that has never been done before.

Is it difficult? Yes, it can be very difficult. But honestly, it can also be a skill developed like any other. You can work on it the same way you work on learning punctuation, style, plotting, or character. The problem is, we never teach how to do it, or try to do it, because,

"Everything has already been done before."

The. Ceiling.

The ceiling we've placed on others. The ceiling we place on ourselves.

Doomed to be borrowers and copycats.

Now, as I said at the beginning, stories don't have to be "new" to be good. And not everyone wants to write something completely revolutionary. That's 100% acceptable. Say, "It's okay to do this again." Don't say, "Well, everything has already been done before."

Whichever writer you want to be, though, I do recommend leaving something of yourself in every scene. We don't want to be complete copycats and plagiarizers. I also don't recommend repeatedly borrowing from the same sources--unless you are a writing hobbyist or fanfiction writer who is doing that intentionally for the sake of doing it (i.e. "What would it be like if my character went to Hogwarts when Harry did?")

But please, be good to yourself. And remember what I've said in posts past: People who teach that something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

Don't put ceilings on yourself. It's perhaps one of the most successful ways to sabotage yourself and keep yourself from reaching your potential.

If you truly want to learn how to create something that hasn't been done, you can. Learn to develop an eye for when others do it in books or movies . . . and when they don't. Go over to tvtropes.org and study hundreds of story tropes--you usually need to know what's out there and how it works in order to make new combinations, alternatives, and concepts.

Here are some of my past posts that overlap and relate and may help too (particularly the first one):

Flipping Story Stuff
Writing Micro-concepts
Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles
Honestly, a lot of my Interstellar posts may help
Why Rowling Rocked the Briefcase Mix-up and How You can Rock Your Own Tired Tropes
Tips on Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts
Leaving Your Stamp on a Scene
Starting a Scene: Two Important Questions
Playing with Foils
The Real Key to Brainstorming: Restrictions

1 comment:

  1. I've been contemplating starting to write for the past month or so, but it seemed like every time I had an idea it was already done. Even though it felt original to me in my head, when I looked it up it was already done. It was really quite depressing. Thank you for writing this and lighting the spark within me once again. I appreciate you.


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