“Original Story” Is An Oxymoron

Lately, you may have noticed a trend in the media towards franchises — prequels, sequels, and remakes. This has led to the perception that Hollywood is a place utterly bereft of creativity. You’ve probably heard the joke that Hollywood is where ideas go to die.

A promotional image for Total Recall (2012)This has caused a lot of frustration for many people. I don’t know about you, but every time a new remake or “threequel” is announced, my Facebook feed is suddenly filled with angry rants about the lack of originality in our culture.

I think this frustration is misplaced. Not wrong necessarily, but misplaced.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my life studying the art of storytelling. I’ve read books on the subject, and I have a great deal of firsthand experience from reading literally hundreds of novels and even writing a few myself. Not to mention all the movies and television shows I’ve watched, the video games I’ve played…

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in that time, it’s that there’s no such thing as an original story.

WritingThis is well-known among professional storytellers. When you strip away the peripheral elements, there are only a handful of potential stories out there. Different people have different ways of defining what the potential stories are, so the numbers vary, but even the most generous estimate puts the number of stories at a dozen or less.

Think about that. There are less than twenty stories in the entire world.

If you start to analyze the core components of stories, you realize how true this is. If you strip away the extraneous details of character and setting, what’s the difference between the original Star Wars trilogy and Harry Potter?

There isn’t one. It’s the same story. A young “chosen one” goes on a journey of self discovery, faces peril, learns to master great power, and confronts an evil father figure.

I could come up with a thousand other examples, but I’m sure you get the idea.

A promotional image of Mark Hamill as Luke SkywalkerThat’s not to say creativity is impossible. You can come up with new takes on old ideas. You can come up with interesting ways to combine different elements and stories.

Ultimately, though, it’s execution of the story that matters. Are the characters compelling? Is the story well-paced? Is the world believable?

And here’s the important lesson here: neither a creative approach nor good execution require an “original” story. A remake/prequel/sequel/whatever is every bit as capable of accomplishing those things as a “new” story.

Want proof? See the massive acclaim from fans and critics alike for Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot.

This is where all the complaints about the current franchise trend miss the mark. Our media is lacking in creativity right now, but it’s not because studios aren’t willing to take a chance on an untested intellectual property.

An image of Carl "Helo" Agathon, created for a graphics contest at GalacticaBBS.comThe problem is that these remakes and sequels are being churned out as a cash grab more often than not. They’re not being made out of a desire to tell a good story.

But there’s nothing innately wrong with remakes or franchises. You can tell a perfectly good story this way. And the problem of people churning out generic, uninspired stories to make a quick buck?

That could happen just as easily with so-called “original” ideas. It’s worthy execution that matters. The so-called “originality” of a story is almost completely irrelevant to its ultimate quality.

“Twilight” is what most would define as an original story. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was a remake.

Think about that the next time you’re complaining about Hollywood’s franchise fixation.

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2 thoughts on ““Original Story” Is An Oxymoron

  1. I think this is one of my biggest hurdles as a writer. Every time I get an idea, I’m always worried that I’m ripping it off of a book I’ve read before. But then I’m thinking about it and that was ripped off something before it – intentionally or not. Eventually I guess I need to just write it and see what happens.

    • You shouldn’t let that get to you. Next to self-consciousness, that’s probably the worst reason not to write. That I can think of off the top of my head, anyway.

      If I’d worried about originality, I’d never have written anything. In my entire writing career, I’ve come up with only two ideas I’d consider even remotely new or creative, and neither is big enough to build a story on alone, so I’ve got to combine them with other, unoriginal ideas.

      So rip-off away!

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