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I have been writing a book, and often times I feel like a lot of the elements in my story are just Freudian slips. I'm not plagiarizing or anything, but sometimes I will go back and read through my drafts, only to remember another story I read/watched with similar elements.

A related problem: How can I take things I've written that are a little to cliche / unoriginal and make them original? Also, how can I avoid this in the future?

  • Great question! – Lauren Ipsum Jan 27 '15 at 1:02
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    The underlying question seems to be, "how can I avoid showing my influences," yes? – Neil Fein Jan 27 '15 at 3:17
  • Yes, but mostly unconscious influences about plot. – Keychain1 Jan 29 '15 at 2:44
  • Any advice is still good, though :) – Keychain1 Jan 29 '15 at 2:45
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    I really liked Quentin Tarantino's view on originality. He believes there is nothing original but always derived of someone else's work. Its just some can mask it better than others. – mad max Jun 26 '15 at 8:55
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Let me answer this in a more practical fashion:

Let's say you've written a Hero's Journey, which has a standard pattern. And as you read over your work, you realize "this sounds a lot like Star Wars!" (Not unreasonable, since Lucas followed Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces pretty closely.)

Find the first element which strikes you as unoriginal, and change it. Let's say your protagonist is a farm boy.

  • Make him a city boy.
  • Make him a nobleman's son.
  • Make him a factory worker.
  • Make him an astronaut.
  • Make him a woman.

and so on. (Choose as many as will fit into your scenario.)

Then take the next element: Her parents were killed, launching her quest.

  • Her parents are absent, and she was raised in an orphanage.
  • Her parents are present and loving, and she chooses to go.
  • Society allows for group marriages, so she has three fathers and five mothers. Some want her to go and some don't.

Et cetera.

If you change enough of these items, and then carry the changes forward throughout the story, it should deviate you from your visible influences. Your changes can also spark new ideas — for example, if you go with the group marriage idea, that can significantly change the "hero gets the princess" ending, because now the heroine can get the princess, the prince, and maybe a neighboring duchy, and what does that do to inheritance and alliances? And that creates a new, wholly original set of plot problems you can work with.

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Have you ever read a few words, or heard a description of a plot twist, and thought, "that sounds like something thus-and-so would have come up with"? We all have, and that's because the writers we love have visible hallmarks of their style. Themes recur in their work, and they favor certain kinds of language.

Wearing your influences on your sleeve, both with phrasing and plot points, is a common problem with new writers. The only solution is time and experience.

As you continue to write, you'll develop your own styles of plotting and phrasing. Similarities with stories you've already consumed will, in time, melt away. They'll be replaced by your own voice.

When you have several manuscripts under your belt, you'll have the confidence to phrase things in a way that pleases you, not a way you've read before. You'll have the courage to try plot twists that are not established tropes, or at least not as common.

What if it turns out that you're not a new writer, that you've been writing for years? Then I'll suggest that you need to develop confidence in your own abilities.

  • I do not think that originality has anything to do with experience. Experience will help you to cover your influences, but it will not give you original ideas. – user5645 Jan 27 '15 at 8:38
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    Experience as a writer boosts originality in the same way an aspiring artist will spend years doing still life and such like before finding their own style and accessing their latent creativity. +1 Neil – CLockeWork Jan 27 '15 at 13:06
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In contrast to Neil Fein (in his comment) I understand the question to be:

How can I be more original?

When it comes to originality, there is a continuum, with plagiarism (and fan fiction) on the one end and originality on the other. But why is not all art original? Or why is not all art derivative? In my opinion, the two tendencies of the originality continuum are the result of two different artist personalities, or two different motivations to create art:

  1. One artist loves and is inspired by the art he perceives, and wants to create more of the same.

  2. Another artist is interested in certain personal or social issues and uses art to deal with these issues (e.g. art as self-therapy or art as propaganda for certain political or social ideas).

The first type of artist, who is inspired to create art by his love for certain individual works, artists, or genres, will always and forever have the problem that his art looks and feels like it was inspired by something else. It cannot ever be original, because its whole purpose is to recreate.

The second type of artist, who is inspired by his experiences or the life around him, will often have the problem that his work falls outside of genre conventions and audience expectations. It may be so unique as to be incomprehensible or irrelevant to any but a few select audience with similar problems or views.

The solution – and ideal work – to me is art that combines both these inspirations and finds a middle ground:

Art that uses a genre or conventions to deal with social or personal issues.

Since, like most authors, you seem to find yourself closer to the end of plagiarism, how can you shift your art more towards originality? The answer is clear, if you agree with my theroy of what causes originality:

Put more of yourself into your work

You do have a life beyond your love for certain artworks, I suppose, so take the blueprint that you have learned in your reading and use it to tell stories from your own life or about the things that you care for in reality.

Sure, even the topics that interest you in real life have been the subject of many books, movies, paintings, choreographies and so on, and no life is so dissimilar of all others as to be totally unique. What will make your writing unique lies in the word "deal with" that I used to describe the original extreme of the originality continuum above. Originality is not that what you write about has never been written about before. But that you

Use your writing to deal with what concerns you

If you are concerned about the safety of your community, or the state of your marriage, or the drought in California, or whatever, use the blueprint of the writings that you love and emulate to find solutions to those problems. And I mean: Don't take the topic and find literary examples and emulate those. But take your reality and try to solve the real problem in writing.

Let's take an example:

Maybe you love fantasy. And maybe, in real life, you have a small child. Now, you notice how in fantasy the heroes are always single young men unbound by familial responsibility. They can just up and go. But you can't. You can't even party with your friends anymore. So you write the story of a man your age with a child your child's age who hears the call to adventure. He must go (or his world will be destroyed by whatever evil you enjoy), but he must take his child along, because the mother was killed / abducted / is busy with doing the laundry. I don't know if you would want to write or read that story – I have and I would –, but it would certainly be original. And I'm sure you can come up with something that interests you.

Have fun!

  • Thanks a bunch for this reply. My goal when I started my piece (or maybe a little after) was to create like artist 1, but to examine things from another perspective. I guess I should be like artist 2 because I like to take things from different perspectives in everyday life. Dunno if that make sense, but I think your advice will help! – Keychain1 Jan 29 '15 at 3:05
  • I would quibble with equating plagiarism and fan fiction. I would also quibble with the assumption that fanfiction is uncreative (although most fanfiction is typically differentiated by its misspelling). There is some great fanfiction that in some cases is better than the original work. – hildred Jun 26 '15 at 20:53
  • @hildred I don't remember what I wrote in my answer and I'm too lazy to reread it, but what I mean is that fan fiction is uncreative in what matters most to me, and that is findimg your own personal starting point. What I write grows from who I am and what my life is about. I do use a genre to express myself in, but every story I wrote is unlike anything I have ever read. And the same is true for the books I enjoy: they are original and personal and unique in everything beyond the basics of genre. Fan fiction lacks this private origin and the feeling of me reading a person. It is not you – user5645 Jun 26 '15 at 21:19
  • Indeed there is a lot of ff that your comments apply to (although some of it is because the person writing has the personality of a turnip so their voice is stolen, don't worry most people grow out of this), but some of the ff is written by people who see opportunities for improvement in other people's stories so they write stories in the holes. Most of these authors have their own voice, and some of them are great. – hildred Jun 26 '15 at 21:26
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    I understand and I agree. My point was not that fan fiction writers are uncreative or bad writers. I'm saying they don't come up with their own "starting point", but start from someone else's work. The difference is that between the inventor of the automobile and the person taking that invention and building a better car. It is a different kind of ingenuity and creativity. – user5645 Jun 27 '15 at 4:40
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There's a couple practical things that can help. First, try keeping a dream journal --anyone can learn to remember their dreams, and it's a direct connection to your own personal subconscious.

Second, try exposing yourself to a different form of creativity --music or visual art. At least then if you're influenced, it will be by someone who isn't working in your own field.

Finally --it has often been said that "Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal." We are all influenced all the time by what we see and read --the question is to what extent are you making something truly your own. After all, even Shakespeare's plots were far from original. Worry less about whether something is reminiscent of something else and more about whether it's good enough to justify using it.

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Embrace what you cannot avoid. All writers are the products of what they read, seasoned with small dashes of what they care about or have experienced in the real world. None of us can escape it and I would venture that there is little reason to try.

Even the authors we love are victim to this recipe. Their writing borrows from the talents of those authors whom they admired and enjoyed.

This is not an act of theft. It is a process of immitation and enhancement. It cannot be theft, because writing is many-faceted and hard. What you write while thinking about another's scenes, is not a plagaristic duplication of their work (unless of course, you copy their work word for word). Your writing will be weaker than theirs in some ways (immitation) and could be stronger than theirs in others (enhancement). It will never be the same.

Quite often, I deliberately steal from the writers I love. I have a bookcase behind me and the top shelf is full of fictions which I have reread so often that their stories are hollow to me now. Each of these novels is full of earmarked pages and scribbled margin notes. They are my pirates booty of stolen treasures, each crafted by a more talented writer than I.

Whenever I get stuck in my writing, (for me that's usually fighting scenes, love scenes and scenes that are emotionally dark) I will sacrifice some of my writing time and just read one of these masterworks. Using my page folds and notes, I can usually find a scene that is similar to what I'm trying to write. Just by reading through the scene, perhaps including a few pages before and after, I remind myself of my favorite techniques for handling this particular writing challenge.

These stories are so old and warn out for me that I don't get caught up in their story telling. Instead, I'm free to pay attention to their word choice, their sentence length and their metre. By drinking in the structure of another author's hand, I'm usually able to find my best voice for the scene I need to write.

This technique has gotten me through those horrible times when without it, nothing I wrote seemed to work at all.

Is it thievery? probably.
Plagerism? no.
Does it help me write my stories in the manner I want the written? definitely.

I wouldn't spend much time worrying about your originality. There is very little opportunity for originality left. Instead, invest that time in reading. Fill your mind with beautifully written scenes and masterfully crafted characters. Then steal everything that is worth taking from them, and pour it into your craft.

Your readers will thank you for it, and if you are lucky, someday they will steal a few scenes from you.

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