Original Ideas Considered Harmful?

It’s an oft-repeated maxim in writing that good ideas are overrated: a good writer can make a good book out of an awful idea, and conversely, a bad writer will take a great idea and usually turn it an awful book. A common story, first brought to my attention by Brandon Sanderson, tells the origin of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. To quote Wikipedia:

The inspiration for the series came from a bet Jim was challenged to by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop. The challenger bet that Jim could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and Jim countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion”, and “Pokémon”.

The moral of the story, aside from “don’t make bets with Jim Butcher ‘cuz he really takes that shit seriously,” is: don’t spend too much time worrying about whether your ideas are good or not, when you could be using that time to write (and thus becoming a better writer in the process).

There’s a flaw in this story which I’ll elaborate on later, but overall the utility of this advice is obvious. Just consider the structure of a typical novel: if the average novel contains 30 chapters, each of which contains 1-3 scenes (or more if you’re feeling frisky), and each of these scenes requires at least a few ideas to make them interesting (to say nothing of the ideas needed for characters, the setting and the premise of the book as a whole), it’s clear that a professional novelist absolutely must be able to generate a lot of ideas quickly to stay in business. Of course, we don’t want to write books by always chaining together the first things that pop into our heads (at least, I assume we don’t; who knows, I haven’t tried it), but we can’t afford to spend hours or days deciding what path to take on every little detail either. So for the most part, once we have the “big picture” laid down the way we like it, it’s better to just take what your brain will give you and trust your writing skills to paper over any residual lameness that’s left over.

Now, all of the above is pretty standard craft-talk, but it’s a subject that’s close to my heart, because I was a longtime sufferer of the “is my idea good enough?” syndrome. In my particular variant, I had an unhealthy, often subconscious aversion to any idea which I perceived as “cliché” or overdone. And I wasn’t alone either: I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people post variants of “how do I get past the feeling that everything has been done before?” to various writing forums.

It’s easy to understand where this feeling comes from; literature, if not society as a whole, places a high value on originality. How many times have you seen a critic quoted on a movie poster or book jacket describing a work as “dazzlingly original” (or “brilliantly original” or “wonderfully original” or some similar adverb)? Conversely, re-using ideas that have already been done is associated with plagiarism; do it too much, and you might be labeled a hack. Sure, maybe there’s really no use in trying to be original since everything has been done before, but we don’t want our books to be like everything else, do we? We want to be special, and if that means we have to try a little harder, then so be it.

It’s a convincing fiction, and an easy trap to fall into, but for the rest of this article I’m going to make the best argument I can that the exact opposite of the above statement is true. Originality is not necessarily any better than being unoriginal, and in many cases may actually limit the potential audience for your work.

The basic tenet of my thesis is this: when consuming media, most humans are hard wired to desire familiarity first, and novelty only in small doses.

Rather than speculate on how this came to be (I have some ideas, but I’m not an evolutionary psychologist and this post is going to be long enough), I’ll start with the example of my 3-year-old son, for whom we purchased a Netflix subscription a few months ago (ah Netflix, ultimate tool of the lazy parent). Right now, he’s on a massive Spiderman kick–every time he sits down, it’s Spiderman, Spiderman, Spiderman, which is fine since Netflix has approximately 10,000 Spiderman cartoon episodes available for streaming. Except, he doesn’t want to watch 10,000 Spiderman cartoons; he wants to watch one cartoon, the first one he ever saw, where Spiderman fights the ice monsters. Over and over and over. It’s a pattern he’s engaged in ever since we started letting him watch TV: unless you demand that he watches something else, he will ask to watch the same thing again and again until some sort of threshold is reached and his brain switches and says I don’t want to see this anymore, give me something new.

Of course, that might be typical for a toddler, but what about an adult? I’d argue that the degree to which this behavior changes as one enters adulthood is highly dependent on the individual. Some people will watch the same movie 200 times or read the same book every year for their entire life, while others are put off by anything that isn’t very different from what they’ve seen before.

Personally, I’m probably in the upper quartile of novelty seekers; I hardly ever see movies twice and I never re-read books, which might account for some of the anxiety about originality mentioned above (and it would be interesting to see how many other creative-types feel the same way). However, my unscientific viewpoint is that the majority of humans actually fall closer to the familiarity-seeking side of the scale than the opposite. Just look at popular music: remember the Four Chord Song? Those with a background in music theory know that this video isn’t just a clever joke: most rock songs really are very structured very similarly, drawn from a small set of intervals that people are used to hearing, which in turn makes those intervals sound pleasing to western ears. Then there are genres where the differences are even more shallow, like the blues; there are blues fanatics who would gladly listen to blues every day, even when almost every song uses the same twelve bar progression or the same minor pentatonic scale[1]!

In terms of print, the amount of novelty the average reader seeks also varies by genre. Some genres (i.e. Gothic romance) are so predictable they could almost be written by filling in character names on a Mad Lib. Literary fiction sits on the opposite end of the spectrum, because almost anything is acceptable as long as the prose has good “style” (which in itself is subjective). There are some forms of science fiction where the goal is to come up with completely new ideas, and others where the same concepts are recycled over and over (space opera, etc.). But for the most part, if you survey the most popular works from any given genre, you’ll find that they borrow liberally from popular books that came before.

And here’s the key point: this is not a bad thing. On one level, a genre is nothing more than a set of promises made to a reader: the reader goes to a particular shelf and selects a particular book cover because they think they already know what’s going to happen in that book. Of course, you as the author want to surprise them, toss them a curveball once in a while the same way a good songwriter will sometimes change up and add an accidental or put in that iii chord before the V-IV-I turnaround. But if you examine the above-mentioned popular books, you’ll see for yourself how light of a touch they tend to use with originality: they pick one, maybe two existing tropes and invert them, or inject one completely new concept, but leave the rest of their genre’s conventions alone. And that’s what most people crave: to have their hands held, then be shaken up just a bit before being gently placed back into their comfort zone.

And therein lies the flaw in the Codex Alera story: “Lost Roman Legion” crossed with “Pokémon” isn’t a lame idea at all. It’s actually an awesome idea, because it re-uses two concepts that most people are already familiar with. If you don’t believe me, try pitching a book to an editor that doesn’t have some obvious comparison to another book which readers are likely to know already. Or, try doing an elevator pitch for a complex, completely original story and watch an agent’s eyes glaze over, then repeat the process by saying “it’s X meets Y!” (example: Tale Spin in the Warring States Period) and observe the result.

So, if you’re going to be anxious about something, be anxious that maybe your ideas are too original to sell, and you need to dial it back and start stealing more. Start with the Tale Spin thing. That one’s free.

-W.W.

P.S. Please don’t interpret this article as me encouraging people to defy their own artistic sensibilities for the sake of sales. If your ideas have rarely or never been done before and that’s the book you want to write, then go for it. But you can still be aware of humanity’s propensity for familiarity and use that to understand your audience: you’re aiming for the experimental noise-rock listeners, not the people that listen to Justin Bieber. On one hand, there’s a lot less of the former than the latter, but on the other, if you can find those core fans and really speak to what they crave, you may find yourself with a truly devoted fanbase. After all, there’s so little out there for a true novelty-seeker to enjoy.

1. With apologies to any blues fanatics I have offended.

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4 thoughts on “Original Ideas Considered Harmful?

  1. Such an interesting topic. I think of what you call “familiarity” as “repetition”. Humans get bored easily but also have a strong tolerance, and for some (including young children)m a desire for the comforts and security of repetition. I personally never watch movies more than once and have read very few books more than once, so you see what side I fall onto. Yet in real life I don’t like risk or change, so that’s a contradiction.

  2. Very interesting. Mostly when I read about writing, I find so many people who appear to be committed to their genre of choice, while editors exhort writers to remember to fulfill their audience’s expectations. Myself, I find the conventions of genre to be limiting, if not downright boring, and I prefer to read the wackiest, weirdest books I can find (Mason and Dixon, anyone?) while listening to experimental noise-rock. Now it all makes sense. Thank you.

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