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So You Want To / Be Original

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"Don't copy, improve".

One of the biggest obstacles for creators of fictional works is originality. Many works, despite being made by different people, are very similar or even almost identical and some people don't like it, because they only try to replicate past success with minimal differences, and because they are often unable to create new ideas by themselves.

Finding a Definition for Originality


One of the most important things to learn for being original is to learn about three paradoxes:

Paradox 1: It Is Impossible To Be New Anymore

The first paradox is that it is impossible to create anything truly "new". You cannot create something from nothing. Every fictional work (with a few exceptions, and even then, Internet Rule 22To wit...  is in full effect here in addition to The Tropeless Tale) is based on previous works. In fact, all works use "elements" from previous works to make something new. That's basically why this entire website exists.

Think of the periodic table. Everything that exists is made from that finite number of elements, and the only distinguishing factor between those elements is the number of one of the three main types of subatomic particles in each atom. And yet the variety of biological life-forms and inorganic substances is virtually infinite. The source of all fiction is Real Life and the very first fictional works took their elements from Real Life; all "new" works are simply derived from those original works.

For instance, taking one popular element of fiction, dragons are apparently "made from nothing" given that they don't exist. However, they are, in fact, a mixture of different kinds of reptiles that together make something new. These new combinations are mixed again to create even more combinations like a chain reaction. Here's a slightly more specific example:


  1. First the Sitcom Bewitched inspired both the creation of another show I Dream of Jeannie and the Magical Girl and Magical Girlfriend genres.note 
  2. Then the Magical Girl genre coupled with the sentai genre inspired Naoko Takeuchi to create Sailor Moon.note 
  3. Finally Sailor Moon redefined the Magical Girl genre and created the Magical Girl Warrior subgenre.

For an even more in-depth analysis, this Cracked article uses Star Wars and Santa Claus (It Makes Sense in Context, trust us) to construct a "cynicism cycle" framework that successive consumers/aspiring creators go through regarding works of fiction. To quote the article, the more you dig into it, the uglier it looks, until eventually it...isn't. Since Weblinks Are Not Examples, here's the cycle in a nutshell:

  1. First, you're entranced by the works you love as a child, perhaps to the point where you might even be an unwitting Daydream Believer;
  2. Then, you grow up just enough to realize they're fictional (as far as we know, anyway) and had Doylist factors at work behind the scenes during their creation, mostly involving maximizing profit, which usually means following the leader in at least some capacity;
  3. Then, you grow up enough to realize the true scope of said Doylist factors in the creation process and conclude that profit was all it was really for. This is where this paradox begins to make itself known, but it doesn't really occur to you until...
  4. Then, your Nostalgia Filter (and inner cutie) breaks when you look back and realize this didn't get started when you were a kid; it was already active back then and has been going on literally since storytelling was born. All works of fiction in existence have been recycling elements from those that came before. This is the stage at which you truly realize and grasp this paradox, a realization that hits you like an Anvil on Head (except now you know Toon Physics won't let you off with just a Cranial Eruption, oh no, you know your skull of creativity has just been bashed in but good.)
  5. BUT... if you can resuscitate your creativity with some perspective and (ironically) your Nostalgia Filter, and realize that:
    1. The works that you hold dear and got so much joy out of did, in fact, let you get so much joy out of them;
    2. Those same works are thought by others to be cheap rip-offs in the same way you think some more recent works are;
    3. That still others hold dear and get so much joy out of those same more recent works; and...
    4. This cycle of "X hates A and loves B, Y hates B and loves C, Z hates C and loves D..." is going to keep right on going like this,'ll then be in position to help do just that.

Contrary to how that last point sounds, this is a good thing. Those who scream "It's the Same, Now It Sucks!!" at a work are somewhere within the middle three stages, and will likely get stuck somewhere in there. The cycle itself is an order of Knights in Sour Armor: they have gone through its breaking grind, but in the end are part of a handful of their generation who have not gotten stuck, have risen above the paradox at the cycle's core and are now creating works that will groom the next generation so that a handful of them will make it to where they are, and can then create works to groom the generation after that for the same. And thus it will continue. But the only way to rise above the paradox is to make it to Stage Five of the cycle. And then you can do battle with the next two!

Paradox 2: Freedom Is Paralyzing, but Restriction Breeds Creativity

The second paradox is to realize that unlimited creative freedom actually puts limits on one's ability to create a story. Conversely, narrowing one's creative options actually helps to make creativity unlimited. To illustrate this, here's a quick exercise:

  1. First, on a sheet of paper, write an original short story. You can't use anything from previous works, even from past works you have made yourself.note  All the characters must be created by you.
  2. Now write, on another sheet of paper, a piece of fanfiction based on your favorite fictional work.

Which story was easier to make? You probably struggled more with the first one than you did with the second. When the human brain has unlimited creative freedom, it is unable to actually create anything until its options are more rigidly defined. Instead of thinking, "I want to make a cool story," think "I want to make a Magical Girl series about a girl that is also secretly a singer". The reason why there is so much more fanfiction than original stories is because it is easier to create new stories based on older ones than from scratch.

An undeniable corollary to the aforementioned paradox is the fact that rules and limitations can actually help in the creative process.note  For example, Executive Meddling and those pesky Moral Guardians often put limits on what themes and topics that TV shows are allowed to depict, but writers try to find loopholes and disguise hidden meanings in seemingly innocuous concepts. Say you want to put an Aesop about peer pressure in a children's television show; specifically, you want to explain why Drugs Are Bad. The network won't allow any explicit depiction of substance abuse on a show for kids, but you shouldn't let that stop you; just make up a plot device for that episode that has similar effects to many misused substances. Try to focus yourself and your ideas as much as you can. For example, giving a hero a fatal weakness can create a variety of new potential conflicts and plots. On the other hand, too many limitations might also discourage you from creating new stories.

Paradox 3: Copying Others Makes It Easier To Not Copy Others

The third paradox can be summed up in one of George Santayana's most famous sayings: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". If you don't see how people before you made stories, it's very likely that you will unwittingly repeat the same ideas. And even worse, you might think that you were the first to come up with those ideas.note  If you see how past stories were made, you will still want to put your own spin on it. Tropes Are Flexible, so even if you rip off another work's concept, you can bend to fit the purposes of your story; the originality in this case is not the trope itself, but how you played with it. For instance, an Unwanted Harem is not very original, even if it does contain some non-human characters. A twist on this particular genre would be making the main character bisexual, enabling both male and female love interests. A Magical Girlfriend story is also rather unoriginal — after all, there are only so many times you can use ghosts, aliens, angels, etc, before it seems redundant and uninspired. In this case, originality stems from making the girlfriend a different type of non-human, a troll for example, or a creature made out of fire. Or perhaps you could take the plot of a Hentai anime and remove the porn, creating a story that's much different from the original.

When you get down to it, these little tweaks and spins are really what make fiction interesting. More than one person has observed that the basic plots of most BioWare RPGs are Strictly Formula... and yet, BioWare's video games have consistently ranked amongst the most highly-praised and well-loved in all of history. How is this possible? Simple: because of the wrinkles in the formula. BioWare take this basic story skeleton and then hang all sorts of interesting, well-thought-out, compelling details onto them, filling in the spaces to create worlds and characters that feel real, alive, lived-in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that almost all stories can be boiled down to descriptions that make them sound downright idiotic. "Couple fall in love; man dies on boat." Does this sound interesting? Because, when directed by James Cameron, these eight dumb words became Titanic, the first film in human history to earn more than $1 billion at the box office, the second to earn more than $2 billion in total (after Avatar), and sharing records for the most Academy Award nominations (14, with All About Eve) and wins (11, with Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Speaking of Avatar, what's its dumb premise? "Man pilots blue cat and decides to go native"; or, to quote a satirical X Meets Y, "Dances with Smurfs." How could such silly ideas possibly turn into the two highest-grossing films ever? Because execution matters... and, arguably, it matters a lot more than the premise itself. History is full of good story ideas that turned into crap products, and of ideas to which people said, "It Will Never Catch On," before they went onto become runaway successes. And that's good news for you, because it means you don't need a new idea; you just need a new idea about an old idea.

Additional Ideas

Multiple Geneses

While TV Tropes typically describes stories as having a single, linear plot, multiple authors have spoken out about the fact that their best stories (or at least the ones that they're most proud of) were born of a fusion between two disparate ideas.
  • Orson Scott Card was reading about Child Soldiers in the American Civil War, and wondering about what it was like to be such a person. He was also conducting thought experiments on how one would train infantry for combat in deep space, eventually arriving at the idea of zero-G laser tag. The resulting story, Ender's Game, combined the two.
  • Stephen King had the idea of a girl who gets bullied by her classmates when she has her first period and doesn't know what it means... and also doesn't realize that her Psychic Powers have awakened as well. He combined this with curiosity over someone he had known in school, and of what her mother must have been like. Carrie combines the burgeoning psychic with My Beloved Smother.
  • J. Michael Straczynski was juggling two ideas: one for a space station that served as a trade hub, and the other for a massive war between good and evil. When he realized they were flip sides of the same story, he was able to write out the entire storyline of Babylon 5, the first use of Myth Arc in American television and one of a very small number of American science-fiction shows to hold their own against Star Trek.
  • Shadowrun stood out from its other Cyberpunk role playing game siblings by introducing Tolkien fantasy elements; basically combining the two most popular settings for TTRPGs. Creating all sorts of room for speculating how money hungry megacorps might try to exploit fantastic elements, and Post Modern Magick.
  • And of course we scarcely need mention Shaun of the Dead, the Zom Rom Com.

This is one of the few ways to Be Original, but it's enough. All of these stories were seminal in their genres... and all of them are unique, because — to go back to the Periodic Table analogy from before — they combined elements that had never been combined before. This creates — to extend the analogy further — a completely new alloy of the materials, and gives you a lot of room to play as a storyteller.

Now, the problem with multi-classing this way is that it's double the work. As Ron Swanson reminds us, "Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing." And, in this case, you have to whole-ass two things. You can easily say, "Oh, I'll glue a half-assed" (say) "Standard Fantasy Setting to a half-assed Alien Invasion story, and I'll just leave off the halves that lack asses," but this is not how writing works. A half-assed Five Races fantasy, cut in half, equals a quarter-assed short story; combining it with a similarly quarter-assed Alien Invasion short story gets you... a half-assed story. No, you have to write two fully-assed stories and then leave half of them on the editing-room floor.

Consider trying to combine elements that can still complement each other:

  • Carrie has the relationship between her and her mother tie into the stress caused by the bullying.
  • Babylon 5 (the eponymous space station) provides a specific anchor point for a universe-spanning story via the people passing through, allowing the show to essentially tell a Myth Arc via Monster of the Week
  • Shaun of the Dead uses the juxtaposition of a rom-com and zombie fiction as foils for the cliches: the zombie outbreak is the source of tension which brings the strained relationship between Shaun and his ex to the fore, the romantic comedy hijinks cover the friction most zombie fiction has between the characters. The absurdity of the two apparently conflicting elements provides the comedy.
  • As mentioned, Shadowrun uses cyberpunk to deconstruct classic Tolkien tropes (e.g. orks are quickly forced into an underclass; pro human racist groups spring up; techmancers live in fear of being Strapped to an Operating Table) and use magic as a metaphor for the social issues the genre likes to tackle (e.g. a CEO of one mega is a literal dragon who sees the company as his horde; changelings are split between those who can "pass" or don't mind being fetishised, and those that don't).

Multi-Narrative Dissonance

In a video essay on The ABCs of Cinematography, Film Crit Hulk mentions the following:
"...[M]ost filmmakers understand the language of cinematography. They understand that certain shots, angles and colors don't just show you what you're seeing: they communicate how you should feel about it too."

Multi-Narrative Dissonance is when these two things — Plot and Tone — deliberately work at odds. For instance, you could have a video game that presents you with Mooks and tells you to kill them all, but then asks whether your willingness to do so makes you a Complete Monster (Spec Ops: The Line, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty). You could have a Elton John song with jaunty, upbeat piano, but lyrics about being Driven to Suicide ("I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself"). You could have a novel about the Idle Rich who have achieved The American Dream, but then show how a Social Climber kills himself trying to get at it... and that The Beautiful Elite who have achieved it are morally bankrupt (The Great Gatsby). You could have, in short, a story that says two different things at once: what happens to the characters, and whether their feelings on the subject should be the same as yours.

Multi-Narrative Dissonance is a spin-off term for "Ludonarrative Dissonance," which was crafted to explain this kind of thing in video games: specifically in the narrative provided by the gameplay and the narrative of the story; what TV Tropes calls Gameplay and Story Segregation. However, while video games can certainly do the most vivid job of this kind of dissonance (primarily because the player chooses to engage with the game — if you don't want to kill the Mooks, you could just turn the machine off), it is by no means limited to that medium, and for that reason we prefer this term over one which specifically refers to them ("Ludo" = "Ludus" = Pretentious Latin Motto for "Games").

Avoiding Mode Lock

One of the biggest problems in a story is crafting conflict, which is when two parties have a disagreement and it doesn't get resolved. A story lacking in conflict is boring; there's no tension. But a story where the main characters are stuck in their dilemmas and can't resolve them... well, those characters look kind of weak. Not to mention that, if you (deliberately) leave every plot thread unresolved until the climax, well... That's gonna be a busy climax!

So what's the answer? Have multiple conflicts that take different amounts of time to resolve. Got a tech genius who's bad with the ladies? Have him constantly snapping off technobabble solutions to things, but simultaneously stuck on What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?. His best friend can be someone who Really Gets Around and a Walking Techbane who needs to learn how to use a computer. And of course you have a third character who is a great musician but Drives Like Crazy and is about to lose their license. Each of them has things they're good at, but also things they're bad at. This not only makes them Rounded Characters, but it also allows you to reduce the story's overall tension at various times by presenting them with stuff they're good at — it also makes the story more like Real Life, where people — guess what — have things they're good at but also things they're bad at.

Another problem is personality. In general, most characters can be boiled down to a general trope: "Bully Hunter." "Blithe Spirit." "Love You and Everybody." "Martial Pacifist." The problem is that, for some characters, this is overly reductive: Aang, the Hero Protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender, is all of these tropes at once, and boiling him down to just one of them is to ignore significant and important facets of his character. Having said that, what's worse is when the description isn't overly reductive. Sometimes, "Love You and Everybody" really is the entirety of the character. And that can get really boring, really fast.

There are two basic answers to this situation.

  • The first is Deconstruction. Jane Bennet, Deuteragonist of the Ur-Example Romantic Comedy Pride and Prejudice, is indeed definable solely by the "Love You And Everybody" trope... and it causes disaster. What happens when she's around the other member of the Beta Couple, Mr Bingley, with whom she had Love at First Sight? Absolutely nothing. She doesn't act as though she thinks Mr Bingley is anything special. And, for that reason, Bingley's Romantic Wingman, Mr Darcy, concludes she's a Gold Digger and forces the two apart. (It's a romcom, so it all works out in the end.note )
  • The second answer is, well, to just add more personality. The fact that Aang is a Martial Pacifist and also a Bully Hunter means you never quite know how he's going to react in any given situation. And one of the best things you can do for yourself is create a character who could respond in several different ways and have all those ways still be in-character.

Parting Words

Try to get ideas straight from the source of all art: Real Life. Don't be afraid to Write Who You Know; there are far, far more real life situations and people than will ever appear in fiction. Remember that funny thing that happened to you on the bus? Or that cool weird friend you met at school? Real Life has an unlimited amount of ideas; so much, in fact, that you don't need to use ideas from previous works in order to find something truly "new".

Some agents recommend that you read works published in your chosen genre in the last five years. That way, you will know better what is still fresh and what has been done to death and is not longer used.

And the best advice of all is to always remember to write what you love and never be afraid to create something that has never been done before. Never forget to have fun and you will create "original" works in no time!