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  1. Mikeyface
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    Mikeyface Member

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    "It's all been done before"

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Mikeyface, Aug 6, 2011.

    I'm going to muse here for a moment on a phrase that I detest. It's not because I don't accept it, quite the opposite, I understand implicitly where it comes from.

    "It's all been done before."

    Sure, okay, certain aspects of every story, when boiled down to their most coherent morsel of digestibility, have been done. Movies devour this ideal with reckless passion, and there is an obvious stagnation at the blockbuster-level where they excise all extraneous hero-story elements with scalpel-like precision.

    Let's talk about books. That's what we're here for right?

    Specifically, I'd like to talk about Game of Thrones (which I brought up on a different thread, and it set my mind in motion.)

    I feel George R.R. Martin set out to upset the status quo, and not just of Fantasy novels, but of books in general. It breaks every "rule" I can think of, and people cherished him for it. There is no clear protagonist or antagonist (in point-of-fact, they switch between those roles so effortlessly we're kept on our toes in the simplest conversations.) I feel a book series like Game of Thrones has not been done before and feel free to disagree with me. I could think of a few political stories that deal in similar themes, but there is a certain distance at which something can sit where leveling "it's all been done before" is distinctly not true anymore.

    Again, this is just me railing against a peeve. But we're novelists, right? We have the one unmolested medium where new ideas can be given to an audience. We should be pushing whatever boundaries we feel like. Does a story need a single (or any) protagonist? Should a story have a traditional structure?

    I only bring this up (dangerously probably, having only been posting here for a couple of days) because I cannot think of a more deconstructive thing to tell a writer starting out. You might as well just tell them, "why bother?"

    We write because we know it hasn't all been done before. There is only one rule that need following:

    Write for an audience.
     
  2. Fullmetal Xeno
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    Fullmetal Xeno Protector of Literature Contributor

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    I agree, i feel like we as Writers can change anything for the audience or the universe they are creating. It's ok to post something like this pretty early, it's not breaking any rules, so it's fine. :D. I always look for new ideas and sometimes go too far ahead of myself haha.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There is a reason I stress "It has all been done before." New members continually show up seeking validation for their story ideas. The story idea is irrelevant. Whether there are similar stories is irrelevant. What is important for them to understand is the the story concept is just that. It is a starting point. The final story is all that matters, and that depends on the quality of the writing.

    I have seen statements that a weak story idea, like waking donwn the street twiddling your thumbs, or retrieving mail from your mailbox, cannot be turned into an interesting story. I have taken both those challenges, and the results, though not stellar, are in my member blog.

    I feel it is important to de-emphasize the notion that a story is made or broken in the story conception. It is far more important to focus on the skills tor progress from concept to finished product.

    And no two writers, given the same story outline, will create the same finished product.
     
  4. Mikeyface
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    Mikeyface Member

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    I agree with everything you're saying, Cog. I find your patience with new members and the "is this story idea cool?" threads refreshing.

    The points you make in the threads are correct, an idea is not a story, and describing a world is not a book.

    The phrase just bothers me greatly. Comes off as condescending to me (which I know you weren't doing.)
     
  5. AveryWhite
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    AveryWhite Senior Member

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    Personally i think it hasnt all been done before but thats just my veiw i could easily be wrong - i can hardly be regarded as knowing alot about this subject if anything; compared to many many other people i havnt actually read that many books. but still i have hope and beleive that it hasnt all been done before :s

    im sorry i cant comment about game of thrones, i have never read it or even heard of it until now but am intrigued; its sounds interesting and i may read it sometime, but i already have a huge stack of books waiting patiently for me to read them :)

    also, even if it had been all done before, i dont think that matters (to me anyway). a subject can be reused over and over perhaps even in the same context; for me its the stroyteller that makes the difference. and the way its written. the subject may be the same but it could be written in a whole new light and perspective that is unique to the writer and new for the reader. :)
     
  6. Mr Mr
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    Mr Mr Active Member

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    I disagree with the last bit you said don't "Write for an audience" write for yourself.

    I agreed with the rest however.
     
  7. Mikeyface
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    Mikeyface Member

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    Yeah, I probably scribbled that note down without enough context.

    The intention there, is to remember what you are writing a story for. I write to entertain, provoke, enlighten.

    Think of it this way: an audience doesn't care about the rules that govern your writing. They care about new experiences.

    We obviously write for ourselves first and foremost, but if we intend to garner any success as entertainers, we must understand what we are offering an audience-- hamstringing ourselves with too strict a rule set can easily hinder that approach.

    Everyone has different goals with their writing. Perhaps I could have phrased it, "write with your audience in mind," to better illustrate that the audience are the ones that will be carried away into new worlds when we finish.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It isn't really that "It's all been done before"; it's more like "Everything relevant to human existence has been done before". What I mean is that for stories to mean anything to readers, they have to take readers on voyages that those readers recognize as possible parts of their own lives. That's why we always see new versions of the hero's journey, or the star-crossed lover story, or the revenge story, and very few others. These are relevant to us, because they teach us lessons and let us exercise emotions that are important to us in our own lives.

    And for that very reason, stories like these must be retold over and over again, in forms that apply to every new generation of readers. We can't just tell people to go back and read all the ancient myths and Homer and all the rest. We can't tell them that they have to read "Romeo and Juliet" because that's the love story that matters (overgeneralizing here, but so what?), because today's readers want contemporary settings, contemporary culture, otherwise they can't relate.

    So we retell and retell, in increasingly modern forms, all the time. We have to keep engaging the readers. We need to present character arcs that they may go through in their own lives.

    It may be possible to present character arcs that never apply to humans, and writers have tried, but those stories usually get classed as mere curiosities, and don't become popular, because they aren't relevant to us.
     
  9. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    That phrase isn't one of the ones that bother me. I don't find it discouraging at all. If anything, it makes me feel a little better. I do understand where you're coming from, though.

    I think simply remembering to make the events in the book mean something to the reader will make whether or not it has been done before kind of irrelevant. Look at real people (Characters are people (or whatever being they are) in their world so I feel this comparison valid), no experience any of us has can truly be said to never have happened to anybody before. Yet we feel emotions when we read stories of real-life tragedies or laugh at real-life humorous incidents. Clearly precedent isn't a factor in what makes something worth reading, it's what the writing does to you, what it makes you feel.
     
  10. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    It all HAS been done before, you're right. But don't you love that feeling when, sometimes, a story pops up that refreshes you? I mean, Tolkien or Rowling weren't the first to write the "young hero, hope of the world" type story, but they took the premise and changed it, made it fresher, newer and their own. I think that's what you have to do more and more often nowadays.
     
  11. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is an interesting topic, one I've pondered upon many times while perusing this forum. And I've come to this conclusion.

    While there may be no broad ideas that are truly unique, there are still certain plots that are unfamiliar enough to most of the world's population to make it appear somewhat novel and refreshing.

    There's a term called High Concept fiction. Now the definition is a little grey, but the simple jist of it is, a premise that's universal(mass appeal), fresh ( or at least a fresh twist on a familiar premise), and the potential appeal for the story can be conveyed in less than three sentences.

    And this is my only gripe with Cogito's and others comments in the plot creation section. The statement: "A story concept means nothing" is false, I believe. Then High Concept Fiction wouldn't exist. Some ideas alone have marketability value. And yes it all means nothing if the novel is not written effectively, but that doesn't mean you can't assess how appealing the initial concept is.

    So every person who comes on to the the plot creation forum and asks what do you think of my idea, I actually consider their proposal. Yes you can turn any idea into a publishable book, but perhaps they really are asking whether their concept has merit all on it's own.

    The problem with most of those threads started is that the answer to their question is no. Most of the premises presented for 'validation' are pretty standard fare, lacking one of the key elements in high concept fiction: to be able to convey the premise's appeal in 3 or fewer sentences. They lack that certain freshness. I'm sure I've missed a few really good pitches, but I'm waiting for the day some forum member posts something in plot creations that is a truly fresh, inspired high concept idea and I can say you, my friend, have a very marketable premise. They do exist. There are plenty of published books which can catch you with the idea alone, which means an idea must mean something. If somebody pitched ideas like these for instance, I wouldn't say your story concept means nothing.






    Uglies - Scott Westerfeld

    Uglies is set in a world in which everyone has an operation when they turn sixteen, making them supermodel beautiful. Big eyes, full lips, no one fat or skinny. You might think this is a good thing, but it’s not. Especially if you’re one of the Smokies, a bunch of radical teens who’ve decided they want to keep their own faces. (How anti-social of them.)




    Midnighters - Scott Westerfeld

    THE RULES
    Okay, this is how it works:

    There aren't really 24 hours in the day, there are 25. Got that? The extra one is rolled up too tight to see, and it flashes past most people in an instant. "Most people" means boring, normal, daylight people. But people born exactly at the instant of midnight (all together now: "midnighters") get to walk around while the rest of you suckers are frozen.

    So check your birth certificate. If you were born at the stroke of midnight, you might be one of us. By the way, this is real midnight, not lame-time-zone- or daylight-savings-time-adusted midnight. Every spot on earth has its own exact moment when the sun is right under our feet. Suffice it to say that if you were born anytime between about 11:30PM and 1:30AM, you could be a midnighter. Confused? .

    Also, the secret hour doesn't seem to happen everywhere. Bixby is the only place that time freezes, as far as we know.

    Oh, and one more thing . . . midnight isn't empty. There are slithers, which are sort of like snakes (except they fly, sometimes) and darklings, which are pretty much any shape they want to be--as long as it's a big and scary shape. That's one thing you'll definitely notice about midnight: being number two on the food chain is a big change from being on top.

    If you do find yourself walking around in the blue time, bring something made from stainless steel, and have a thirteen-letter word in mind. Darklings hate new alloys like steel, and have this epilepsy when it comes to 13s.
     
  12. J.P.Clyde
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    J.P.Clyde Prince of Melancholy Contributor

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    I think that the next thing to write needs to be set out of human conscience.
     
  13. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I might read Midnighters, that sounds good. :)
     
  14. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The-Joker, I haven't read either of the books you mentioned, but what you've described aren't plots or characters, they're just situation ideas. I still don't know what Midnighters is about. Is it a romance? An adventure? A war story? A hero-versus monster tale? A revenge story? Alien invasion? The situation you describe is unusual (though I've heard of similar ideas), but what's the story about?

    The movie "The Magnificent Seven" is basically a retelling of "The Seven Samurai", but in the American Old West. That doesn't make it a new story; it's pretty much the same thing in a different setting. The essential story, the essential human conflict, is the same. That's what Cogito means when he keeps saying it's all been done before. The details of the setting or unusual situation don't make it original. You could do the same story in outer space, and it would just be The Seven Samurai in space.

    There are two movie comedies, "Captain Ron" (Kurt Russell, Martin Short) and "What About Bob?" (Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss), that look different on the surface but are basically the same. "Captain Ron" takes place on a boat in the Caribbean Sea, and "What About Bob?" mostly takes place at a cottage in New Hampshire, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that each one is about a family with a husband, wife, teenage daughter, and younger son who meet a quirky but fun guy. The whole family likes the guy and has a great time with him, except that the father is very uptight and hates him. Also, the father has a position of authority over the guy - in "Captain Ron", he's the boat owner who hires fun guy Ron as the captain, and in "What About Bob?" he's a psychiatrist who has fun guy Bob as his patient. Both movies exploit the conflict between the uptight dad and the fun guy for the same kind of jokes. The endings are different, but that's a detail. The stories are essentially the same, even though they appear to be very different on the surface.

    There are many, many more examples of movies and novels etc. that appear different, but when you get down to the human interaction, are very similar. But it doesn't matter - the fact that the basic story has been told before does not invalidate a new retelling, one that may highlight a new feature of it or bring in new insight. That's why Cogito keeps posting his "everything has been done" post. The story concepts really do mean nothing, or at least very little.

    What you posted about Midnighters isn't really a story concept - it's just a situation. I come up with those all the time. "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." and I'll amaze myself with a situation, but at the end I still have to ask myself "Who are the characters? What are they doing and why? What are their relationships?" and all the other actual story questions. The "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." bit is not a story concept, and it isn't enough.
     
  15. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of course it isn't enough. I don't think writers should ask for 'validation' at all, but I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of a perhaps young, new writer. I used to lack in confidence when it came to my writing... now we are going back a number of years, but I still remember those times well.

    In any case, if someone joins here & sees a Plot Creation forum exists, then of course they will assume it's ok to post their would-be ideas, and ask for feedback. Right?

    Finally, I think there are story concepts that work better than others, or at least are easier for a new writer to have a go at.
     
  16. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Minstrel, maybe we're getting bogged down with semantics here, but to me a story concept is exactly that, just a concept. It's not a plotline. It's an idea that you can base a human story around. I don't believe they're meaningless. And I stand by my opinion that some are simply better than others. To illustrate, I just went about two years back and pulled out a member's proposed story idea:

    If this was written well this might very well be the next bestseller, but on it's own this concept doesn't really present anything fresh or exciting.

    Now take the example of "Uglies" above. A society where children at the age of sixteen are forced to have plastic surgery so that they become beautiful and exist harmoniously in a world filled with only attractive people. A rebel group of kids who like their face the way it is. A main character who eagerly awaits her sixteeth birthday so that she may join the ranks of the glamorous, unaware that the 'pretties' have a different plan for her.

    Yes this is a situation, but it's an interesting situation that can generate instant appeal based solely on the premise. Perhaps there are other stories that deal with a world where plastic surgery is compelled on teenagers, but the idea is a lot fresher than that of a secret group of children with superpowers that are the product of witchcraft done by thier ancestors hundreds of years ago. Do you see my point? Some concepts are better than others.

    Some concepts are appealing, and some are bland(but with good writing can turn into an excellent book). There's nothing wrong with making that distinction.
     
  17. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    @The Joker-That story concept WAS turned into a bestseller. Well, not it, exactly, but something like it. Read "Secret Circle" by L. J. Smith. That was a great book, but I nearly threw up when reading the concept.
     
  18. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    "It's all been done before" shouldn't be understood as some kind of discouragement, as to throw in the towel on ingenuity, but rather as a pat on the back when you discover that that awesome scene which fits your story so well has a twin in some other peice of writing. And that pat is needed, often, because if you read a lot of books, you will find scenes that somehow resemble your own ideas, and beginning writers can be deeply discouraged by that discovery (but shouldn't be).

    A story could be compared to a dish of food. Although the ingredients are the same old, their combination and preparation can be either novel or same-old. "It's all been done before" might here serve as a reminder to not get too hysterical about ingenuity and end up adding napalm to the soup for the sake of being innovative.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    People are looking at this from two different viewpoints - the broad and the narrow. "It's all been done before" is true in the broad sense, and certainly not true in the narrow sense.

    In the broad sense, you have over-arching themes, the larger view of the story, the type of story, and what the author is trying to say. The narrow view concerns the details of the story.

    You go to the bookstore and look on the shelves. Those stories haven't been done before - not in the narrow sense. If that were true, there would no longer be a need to write fiction. But in the broad sense you'll find themes that have been with mankind since stories were told verbally and passed down from generation to generation.

    Joseph Campbell wrote that he was raised as Roman Catholic, and he came interested in myths as he studied the culture of American Indians. He came across the same stories that he'd been raised with as a Roman Catholic. Then he studied Hindu mythology and again saw the same stories. He worked on Arthurian legend and there were the same stories again. He said the themes were timeless, but the inflection was to the culture.

    To give my own twist on Campbell, I'd say when it comes to fiction, themes are timeless, but the inflection is to the writer.

    When you write, you will be dealing with themes as old as humanity, but your story, the words you are putting on paper are borne out of you and have not been done. Don't let anyone tell you they have :)
     
  20. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    This brings me back to how it's written though... I read this book and though the concept may be more fresh than some, the book did not blow my mind or resonate with me long after reading it. That of course may be just me, but had it been written differently would the same concept have been more impacting? Maybe. :)
     
  21. Mikeyface
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    Mikeyface Member

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    Drawing this back to more of my original post, as we're now discussing around the point I was musing on.

    1) I was making a point that posting something akin to the phrase is not helpful to someone that is excited about starting to write. They don't know the pitfalls and just how damn hard it is to turn an idea into a book.

    and more importantly:

    2) If people post story ideas, there actually is something to that. Ideas can be sticky, and can appeal to an audience. Yes, that is not a book, but if you have many ideas and are trying to find out which ones people would be interested in-- that's not a bad thing. Word of mouth, back covers, etc... these all rely on the stickiness of the idea presented. Hollywood calls that the "top line" idea. It's a smart way to make a decision on what to put your weight behind based on an audiences sway towards a particular idea. Sure, literally anything can make a good book, but that is not what people are looking for feedback on. They want to know if their idea is sticky to an audience.

    Just my thoughts. We should support the guys starting out and wondering if they're onto something. You know what, they just might be onto something.
     
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  22. The_NeverPen
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    The_NeverPen Member

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    I think it's more important that people learn to create the nuances of a story from any starting point. Beginning writers shouldn't be worried about selling their ideas, they should be learning how to create stories from ideas. By pandering to the "How do you guys like this idea" thread, people are just learning to criticize their muse. That's a bad habit, and one that will lead to a lot of frustrated non-writers.

    If some gimmick in the setting or characters sets off fireworks in the author's mind, that should be all they need to start writing. At that point, the only questions they should be asking is "how?". That's the craft, not broad ideas.

    I think the point of "It's all been done before" is to stop people from trying to reinvent the wheel before they can ride a bike. They shouldn't be worried about doing something new, especially if they haven't wandered the trodden path yet. The just need to do something that excites them. That means writing, not asking for permission to write.
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    It's also a crutch. People need to be able to judge their ideas on their own.

    But most often, the person starting such a thread already has his or her own opinion of the idea, they're just seeking validation because of insecurities, which are common among writers. It is bad to feed that as well, in my view.
     
  24. Jessica_312
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    Jessica_312 Contributing Member

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    I think there's some truth to the phrase "It's all been done before". Someone has already written a novel about a sympathetic serial killer, or a vampire love story, or a cross-dimensional time-traveling story. So really, it doesn't matter that it's "been done", because most likely, the basic premise will inevitably draw comparisons to another story that's already out there. But I think it's how you present it, your unique style as a writer and your ability to bring a fresh perspective that is what's important. So, yes, "It's all been done before" may be accurate to some extent, but really, the point is pretty moot.
     

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