Overdone Story Ideas?

Below is a link to a website listing overdone story ideas.

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam:

I don't totally disagree with many of the “cliches” on this list. I think some are obvious, but others leave me scratching my head. There aren't a lot of ways to write a story and everything has been done before. Maybe these things are done more than others, but I have to ask, so what?

75 things not to do when writing a fantasy novel. I'm under the impression this list was made, at least partly, to be funny (or fun). Some of the advice must have been said in jest, for it doesn't seem to make sense otherwise. It does make me laugh at times.

“Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?”

Some things make sense, like #70's advice: Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?

Or #71: Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?

Obviously #71 would be outright theft of another's work (haven't you read “The Chronicles of Prydain”?) And #70 makes sense for the simple fact that if a villain did that, he'd soon run out of henchmen...except....except....

What if the villain is making a point to someone much more important to him, that if he messes up, death!

Other things make far less sense to me. #2: Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?

That's a basic story idea, and it's been done quite a bit (“The Princess Bride”, “The Chronicles of Prydain”, “Star Wars”), but there's something about reoccurring stories which readers like. 

Generally, readers want what is familiar, what they've read before. As well as that, most readers aren't voracious in the sense that they've read everything there is to read. A writer can get away with the farmhand opening simply because most readers won't have read it five hundred times before. And if a writer can bring his own unique flair to the tale, he can pretty well fool those who have.

Also, if you're a writer and write a lot of stories....certainly one of them will begin this way. Your character may not be a farmhand, but in some basic form the idea will exist. You'll have a character living a ho-hum existence, not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen (but perhaps hoping for the unusual), then be thrown into an adventure and find he has just what it takes to win the day, or at least survive, yet learn something. 

Uh, isn't that MOST stories?

Writers break these rules all the time, and readers gobble it up. These rules are meant more for editors than for readers. But the irony (or the idiocy) is that editors are more likely to take something filled with well-done cliches than well-done originality, for the simple fact that the cliches have at least proven to sell.

“Harry Potter” is in no way original. The entire series falls back on many fantasy cliches, but J. K. Rowling had the ability to combine them in new ways, to create new forms. Perhaps all she accomplished was to make it harder for future writers to use the same cliches, but I still don't believe it's impossible.

Nothing is original, everything is a cliché.

But the kicker is this: I read through this list, and most of what is on it seem like great ideas. I'd love to read about these things. I enjoy stories about these things. But the writing has to be good, and the writer has to at least provide his own personal elements, so as not to simply retell another story.

There is a danger, though, in using rehashed material. If you're falling back on Tolkien or C. S. Lewis to help you find things to write about, how can you be sure the parts of your story which should be original are? Is your dialogue different? Is the plot different? Will the conflict vary?

I'm tempted to write a story about a child who grows up to avenge her fallen people just to prove I can do it with at least some originality...oh, wait, I am writing that story. The Czar Chronicles series I've begun is just that. In my own little way.

I guess we'll see if it's any different from “Conan The Barbarian” or any of the other stories containing a revenge element.

It's a good thing stories aren't made of one single element, but several or even dozens.

I suppose if you used all 75 of these “don'ts” in your story you could be in trouble. But dare to use some of them, and dare to own them. Don't just copy, make them yours.

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20 Responses to Overdone Story Ideas?

  1. Good points. It's pretty much impossible to completely avoid any reliance on things that have been "done before." Too much originality risks alienating the reader entirely.

    Personally, I love reading original work that uses plot styles and themes I've never seen before, but I know that doesn't necessarily hold true for the so-called "average reader."

  2. How difficult it is to find an original topic. That said, taking on a trope or topic that has reached the point of cliche can work if you tell the story in a new way. I'm working on a book about a serial killer. Yawn. Been done to death. BUT, I have a twist (which I won't yet reveal) that makes the exploration of serial killers unique. If I feel I'm falling into cliche, I will stop and retrench. It can be done, but it takes effort and talent. Hope I have enough talent to make it work.

  3. Some authors have done well repeating plats with every book they write, then when they stray from the norm readers are at a loss. I find this type of series boring, yet predictable and great for those times when I am lost myself and comprehension is low.
    I like originality in a story as well, but there are few out there as you say that haven't borrowed a plot or character type.

  4. Thanks for the link, it's a great list, fortunately my story doesn't fall under too many of the clichés. Although I am guilty of writing a "prequel" before the actual story is done.

    To be fair though I'm trying to lay out all of the lore in my story before I get a novel out, that way I don't have to retcon too much of it if something changes down the line.

  5. I agree with you, I think it's the same for other media films and games for example. Many parts of the Harry potter films remind me of star wars and lord of the rings but so what? I do however enjoy when films give cliches a twist, 28 days later or the novel breathers.

  6. Tim, that's an excellent point about alienating the reader.

    Betsy, good luck!

    Jan, A is for Alibi. James Patterson does that too. Some authors become their own cliches! haha

    James, that's a good idea. Get the back story out first, even if it goes unpublished, so you have a sense of direction to go in for the real story. I think you're going about it the right way.

  7. Hear, hear!

    A story I have simmering on the back burner is supposed to be set in the ultimate fantasy cliche. The only one who realizes it is the narrator. And so, I'm going to use it as a checklist, and it will amuse me.

    An English teacher once told me there are three basic plots: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. The rest is just details.

  8. I believe you are correct in stating the editors gobble up the cliches. They really don't want to take a chance on something novel.

  9. It is true that there really isn't an original idea out there; most stories tend to be the same even in real life. Just they have a twist on them or some different element. We can try to write original, and we can succeed to some extent but I think we are always influenced somewhere in the back of our minds by something we have read or some film we have seen or some experience in real life either we have encountered or saw around us. So is this really original? Yes, Hollywood is afraid to take big risks and rely on cliches, unforunately. This is because they don't want to lose money and these same formulas or cliches always work. However, once in awhile, we actually get something fresh, new, and original that slips through and that is the story that can really impact us. It makes us wake up and take notice. I love it when I find something new or different and it forces me to listen, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. I do respect great writers and great talents as well as great minds. Sometimes that is why some of us have to become independent filmmakers-- just to get something new and bold out there that can wake up the masses. We need to stop being sheep and start being the full humans that we can be. Let us all take a chance and dare to be original in our writing. That would definitely be a change of pace. Thanks, JR for a very interesting blog! It is very thought-provoking today. Take care!

  10. Right on, Alice! And I've heard those three basic plots before. It's really easy to break everything down into a basic soup like that. Which is why it's weird to listen to people talk about cliches and what-not, because in the end we're all basically writing the same thing, a little differently. Unless you're writing some Bizarro stuff, but I'm sure they even have cliches :P

    Mari, that is sad but true. I hear time and time again from people IN the book industry, agents AND publishers talk about how they're hamstringed by the market. They're running a million dollar business, they can't afford to take too many risks. They've got to stay within well defined boundaries. That's repeating a selling formula. Still though, they have great platforms....

    Lena, Your comment is awesome! It is true, sometimes something really new and different comes through. When that happens, if it's a strong enough idea, it shifts culture.

    Still, I think we can be original enough by being ourselves, I don't think anyone needs to especially try to be different.

    George Lucas reached heavily into others' work to create Star Wars, but most people view Star Wars as very unique. If you can track it down online, watch "Everything's a Remix"!

  11. That was interesting. I think plagiarism is ok if you have the permission of the original author... but it's definitely not alright when you just copy/paste their work into your book. After all, nothing is completely original, and certainly nothing written is.

    Good luck with your book!

  12. I give you a stand ovation for this post! It was excellent, if not a little cruel towards that website at the same time. In truth, "there is nothing new under the sun."
    I read the Chronicles of Prydain! I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style. His ability to place a scene in the mind is admirable. Now, to develop that ability in my own writing, but not to mimic, to excel.

  13. John, if you're thinking of rewriting someone else's work, I'd say go for it, just disguise it well enough and never, ever, in a million years, lift from Harlan Ellison :P

    Josh, I LOVE the Chronicles of Prydain! That was what got me hooked on reading as a kid. "The High King"! Lloyd Alexander was a great dude.

    My first reaction to seeing the above website wasn't positive. I was very skeptical. But to be honest it's a good site if only to remind us to be conscious of the cliches. That at least is important.

  14. Hi J.R. One of my favorite acting and writing teachers was super strict about teaching us not to read any lists, or rules or books that teach people how to write or how NOT to write. Of course I have broken that covenant many times over, but I got what he was trying to say. He believed that the purest writing was like an oil spill. Unpredictable and potentially devastating to the senses. He felt that getting bogged down with too many rules could spoil the broth.

    I think as a writer when you are true to your voice, you have to listen to it whether it's saying something that has been said before because no one can say/write it like you can. Just my take. Nice post!


  15. Thank you, Tameka.

    Your teacher must have embodied the Tao. I like it, but then I wonder how one could NOT read how-tos or how-not-tos....still good advice. Take everything with a grain of salt.

  16. Great post.It's hard, if not down right impossible, to be totally original with an idea. This reminded me of music as well...Writers might gleam ideas from other writers but it is up to them to inject their own style and unique contributions to an already existing idea, making it truly their own.

  17. Just look at all the success authors have had been telling tells of zombies. I can't think of too many topics over the last decade; except for vampires, that have been told more. And yet, a lot of these stories are made fresh.

  18. Totally, Jessica!

    K.W., isn't that something? Or look at all the different takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. There's so much out there to work with, so many combinations can be made from it all.

  19. Story elements are to musical notes as novels are to symphonies.


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