Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Such Thing as an Original Idea

The Six Neighborhoods of Tropes *
Science Fiction is a genre that puts a premium the Original Idea, but I think its worth clarifying what exactly that is, especially for writers.

Often, after I get a kernel of an idea, I go over to TV Tropes to see how it's been handled in other places. If you don't know, TV Tropes is a massive wiki that catalogs storytelling conventions and devices across all sorts of creative and popular media. But be careful! It's dangerous territory. Every article links to several others, creating a maze more labyrinthine than anything Daedalus could have imagined. Seriously, that picture on the top is a map of TV Tropes links. According to Uther Dean,
TV Tropes will Ruin Your Life. So, consider yourself warned.

I don't shy away from this kind of thematic research, because, as Solomon said:  

That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 NKJV

And I find this comforting.

When I'm working up a new idea I find it useful to see the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of approaches to an idea (trope) that I'm working with. I'm not there to steal, though there is nothing wrong with stealing if you do it right. Austin Kleon has written a whole book about how to Steal Like an Artist.
by Austin Kleon

And filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch explains it much better than I can:
"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”"
No matter what you're creating, it's not about coming up with an Original Idea, because it's not really about the idea at all. It's about the idea + you.

Take any old idea that's been expressed a million times over and dig deep inside yourself, find and reveal your own personal, human experience of it, and people will call it "original."

Jean-Luc Godard
* In the information is beautiful, but the subject tangential to this post category: check out this multi-part study about the nature of information on the Internet, using TV Tropes as its model. Here's the opening quote:
"HP Lovecraft popularized a certain type of malevolent force, something so massive and powerful and unconcerned and out-of-scale with humanity that we could not even understand the whole of it.  Instead, his characters would–before inevitably going mad–only experience a small portion of these beings, typically some kind of horrid extrusion into our reality.  There is much that these Eldritch Abominations have in common with the kind of massively peer-produced content that floats like icebergs in the Internet."  

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