I’ve spent a significant portion of my writing life discovering that my brilliant ideas have already been done. I wanted to write a fantasy epic, but J.R.R. Tolkien beat me to the punch by 50 years. I wanted to write about a socially challenged consulting detective only to find that not only was I a century too late to the party, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written his character far better than I ever could. Stepping back, it’s easy to get the sense that the bulk of mankind’s stories have already been told.
After all, humans have been doing this storytelling thing for a while now. Scholars generally agree that the first written epic was penned 4,500 years ago. In the millennia since, we’ve pretty much exhausted our supply of material, from quests for ancient treasure to tales of revenge to stories of the empty promise of the American Dream. No matter what story you want to tell, chances are someone has told it — probably dozens of people every couple of centuries. There are simply no more new stories left that the world hasn’t heard.
I guess that means we should all put down our pens and pencils. Shut our laptops and content ourselves with the books that exist instead of making new ones. There doesn’t appear to be anything more to add.
Or, we can spin new cloth from old thread. Instead of trying to be brand new, why not focus on original execution of old ideas? Sure, there have been plenty of novels written about war. But if you give it a modern spin — take your soldiers off the battlefield and instead put them in a cubicle waging cyber warfare — you can take something old and give it a breath of newness.
There’s nothing wrong with recycling old ideas into new forms. George Lucas created an international phenomenon by taking an old story — rescuing a princess from a heavily guarded fortress — and setting it in space. The concept was around for hundreds of years, but with a few tweaks, it felt brand new. That takes serious creativity to pull off.
You don’t have to be as obvious as Lucas about where your inspiration comes from. The trick is to approach a story that may be as old as the invention of fire and find a novel way of looking at it. That isn’t rehashing the same old thing. It’s finding the angle that no one has thought of before. That’s the challenge that faces writers today. All of our stories are old, but they all have the potential to be new again.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA who dreams of one day taking George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play “Arms and the Man” and setting it in the present day. When he isn’t figuring out how to do that, he can usually be found on Twitter. Thanks for reading!