a lot of open books on a table

Is Your Story Idea Original? Does It Even Matter?

I’m going to level with you — there are over 150 million book titles in existence, with more new books coming in, so there is a big chance that your ‘original’ story idea has already been written in some form or another. Now, that may sound disheartening, but I don’t say that to discourage you from writing your own. On the contrary, I am fully on your side, and I want to help you make your story as original and personal as possible. 

Do story ideas need to be original?

I’m going to tell you a story.

I remember back in the late 2000s when I was toying with the idea of writing a book centered around infiltrating an underground research lab where every kind of monster that ever existed was kept and contained. I had fun with the concept and tried to push it in different directions. But I was young and relatively new to writing, so nothing came out of it. I figured I’d have time to write it when I’m older and better because it felt like such an original idea. But then 2011 came, and with it, a little movie titled The Cabin in the Woods.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved that movie. The concept and plot differed, but it also had an underground research facility where monsters of every size and shape were kept. I was upset — not only because the writers had a similar idea to mine, but because they’ve used it in such a great way. 

Harry… Skywalker?

Woman Reading Harry Potter Book

Here’s another example: If you look closely enough, Harry Potter and Star Wars have the same basic story structure. The hero’s parents suffer tragic fates. As a result, he gets bundled off to relatives to live in obscurity. Then one day, someone from the other side of the fence shows up and drags our hero into this other magical world.

There’s an introduction to the world’s rules, and then our hero becomes fast friends with a boy (who becomes the hero’s best friend) and a girl. Then they go on adventures and grow close. It’s hinted that the hero and the girl might become a thing, but the girl ends up with the best friend. The hero finds an old, white-haired mentor figure who dies before the story ends. At some point, it’s revealed that only the hero can beat the evil dark lord bad guy, and he does so in the end. 

The similarities can’t be denied, no matter how much Lucas’ and Rowling’s fans disagree. And this story structure and trope are also present in other works, e.g., The Inheritance Cycle and The Wheel of Time. However, the stories have enough differences in the details and originality that the resemblances are easily ignored.

So… is that a no?

In my opinion, every story idea is a retelling of something that has been done before. Remember that characters and settings can be reused. This is not always intentional; it’s just the result of us humans having thousands of years to tell stories to each other. So if I were you, I’d stop worrying too much about my idea being original. 

And this doesn’t only happen in fiction. Take a look at this list of books, and you’ll find several on how to be successful in business and life. They tackle the same topics but provide different insights and advice. They’re also arranged in different styles and structures, and presented with the author’s unique voice.

Now let’s talk about how you can make your story idea as original as possible and apply those techniques to your story. 

How to make your story idea original

Black and Red Typewriter that says stories matter

Writing an original book is a hard task, and the revelation that your story idea might have already been done before can be quite a blow to new and old writers alike. Ideas are our babies birthed from endless hours of thinking and staring at blank word-processing pages. But having an idea that has already been done shouldn’t be the end of the road for your story; instead, take it up as a challenge, and see how you can make yours stand out. Here are a few things that can help you write original, compelling books.  

Read a lot in your preferred category

As usual, doing research is key here. This doesn’t have to be limited to books. You can explore TV shows, movies, radio plays, and any other form of media. Keep an eye out for something original, or try to spot common plot devices and clichés. This is usually not a big problem since most authors write the books they like to read, although that’s not always true. You might be exploring a new type of book or jumping from fiction to nonfiction. In your case, I suggest you look for the bestselling books in your chosen category to discover what they’re doing right. 

Avoid common plot structures and clichés

Being familiar with your genre — and your target audience, by extension — gives you the advantage of knowing what kinds of stories, plots, structures, and literary devices are being overused. Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories examines storytelling’s most common types of plot structures (including their subplots). We’ll discuss each of them, and I’ll even throw in a few examples that you might be familiar with.

Overcoming the Monster

First ActThe monster is revealed, usually through inciting incidents involving the protagonist (most common examples are making the protagonist an orphan, destroying their hometown, or generally making the threat known.)
Second ActThe protagonist prepares or decides to confront the monster after living in hiding or simply just growing up.
Third ActThe journey to the confrontation. Obstacles and confrontations fall from the sky like sleet. This is where character growth happens. 
Fourth ActThe protagonist faces the monster but is initially outmatched.
Fifth ActThe protagonist wins against all odds, vanquishing the monster and reaping the rewards like a boss. 
Examples: David and Goliath, Beowulf, Dracula, James Bond, Star Wars, Harry Potter

Rags to Riches

First Act

The hero starts out poor or otherwise unhappy with their current predicament. They either want riches, status, skill, or another character. Character motivation is established. 
Second ActThe hero works towards their goal and gets it through luck or skill. They may or may not develop negative character traits as a result. Story’s over, everybody can go home. 
Third ActStory’s not over, everybody back to their seats. The hero faces severe problems that cause the loss of their newfound status or riches.
Fourth ActThe hero realizes the error of their ways, gets a perspective check, and realizes the importance of their positive values. 
Fifth ActThe hero either regains their earlier high status or goals, stays in their previously unhappy predicament with a new outlook, or attains a different status altogether. And they live happily ev—
Examples: Aladdin, Cinderella, Slumdog Millionaire, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Way of Kings

The Quest

First ActThe protagonist suffers an inciting incident that reveals the dire need for something (either an object or the completion of a task) — and it’s really far away. 
Second ActThe journey starts. The protagonist faces obstacles, receives vital information, and gains friends. 
Third ActThe protagonist comes within inches of their goal but experiences drawbacks and problems that punts them right back to an earlier point or location in the story. The protagonist may or may not suffer a crisis of faith here. 
Fourth ActThe protagonist finds the will to carry on and pushes through the prior severe obstacle.
Fifth ActThe prize is acquired, or maybe it’s lost. Maybe the real treasure was the friends that we made along the way. (Reminder: this is a cliché to avoid.)
Examples: The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Voyage and Return

Man in Red Jacket and Brown Pants Standing on Brown Wooden Dock
First ActThe story kicks off with the hero experiencing a humdrum life, then suddenly getting dropped (sometimes literally) in a new, unfamiliar world. 
Second ActThe hero gets acquainted with the new world. They either commit a social faux pas or a deadly mistake and are rescued by the locals. 
Third ActTension builds as living in the new world becomes more dangerous, frustrating, or difficult. 
Fourth ActA serious threat pushes the hero to attempt to go back to their own world. 
Fifth ActThe hero makes a daring escape and returns to their world with a bunch of character growth and a new outlook in life. Sometimes they bring back some swanky new toy or power, too. 
Examples: The Wizard of Oz, Coralline, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Time Machine, Back to the Future, Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine


First ActThe readers are introduced to a group of protagonists, or, more commonly, just a hero and a heroine. It’s hinted that they belong together, but circumstances like proximity, communication, or their opposing personalities keep them apart.
Second ActThings get worse and worse as miscommunication, confusion, uncertainty, and/or other characters get in the way of the budding relationship. 
Third ActConflicts are resolved. Everything works out in the end. Cue happy ending noises. 
Examples: Tangled, The Princess Bride, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing


First ActThe story starts similarly to rags-to-riches stories. The protagonist needs something or someone.
Second ActThe protagonist takes steps to gain the object of their desire. Success is achieved. 
Third ActProblems start to present themselves, and things start to escalate. The protagonist starts to make unwise decisions. 
Fourth ActThe protagonist is now in way over his head and continues to commit more questionable acts in a desperate bid to pull themselves out of the water. The situation spirals out of control. 
Fifth ActAll plans fall apart. Things and people are lost. The protagonist is destroyed, either literally or metaphorically. Fun times for all. 
Examples: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Tristan and Isolde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, my love life (just kidding)


Booker skimped out on making an act outline for this one, but he did give us the usual steps. The beginning shows us the protagonist being held under some sort of coercive or destructive power, and the ending gives us a complete character transformation (most of the time physical) and they escape from the clutches of the aforementioned power. 

Examples: Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol

See how formulaic these structures look when presented like this? They’re known as writing clichés for a reason; they’re almost like basic writing prompts. Reading the same book over and over again will bore readers, so take these seven basic plot structures and start thinking of ways of changing things up to write something totally original. 

Take two story ideas and mash them together

light bulb, idea, inspiration

Suzanne Collins got the idea for The Hunger Games while flipping through channels. She passed through one showing people competing in sports and another where people were at war and thought it would be neat to try and put them together. 

J.K. Rowling pulled inspiration from stories about boarding schools and imbued magic into her novel. The result is a little-known book series named Harry Potter.

Brandon Sanderson flipped the “chosen one” cliche on its head in his breakout novel Mistborn: The Final Empire and explores the question, “What if the hero failed and the dark lord won?” Then he combined the concept with a heist plot. And then, he was inspired to write his story’s misty, ashen world when he saw lights streaming out of stained-glass windows during a particularly foggy night. 

You don’t have to focus on just one idea. Don’t be afraid to take two, three, or even a handful, throw it in the pot of your imagination, and see what you can stir up. Write a romance novel with dragons. Tell a story of a human accountant abducted by aliens to work on their financial statements. Take a personal incident and give it a fantastical spin. Unleash your inner crazy. Start smashing ideas together at terminal velocity to create unique combinations. Go crazy with your first drafts, pull from real-life experiences, and sprinkle a dash of imagination to make something new.

Cross no man’s land into a different genre

Genres don’t have well-defined borders. A memoir can become a reference book (On Writing by Stephen King), a fantasy novel can cross into history (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab), a historical novel can both be a graphic novel, picture book, and a flip book at the same time (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick,) and a horror story can have heavy elements of slapstick comedy (Tick-Tock by Dean Koontz.)

Finding two suitable genres you can write about is a lovely light bulb moment. It can be rewarding to explore this path, and it can make your story more interesting, but you must ensure that your book’s appeal doesn’t stop there. Mixing genres is an art form; you need to capture both essences of your chosen category within your manuscript. It will make your entire story feel less predictable. You also need to develop it in a believable way. Don’t try any ham-fisted plot twists just to subvert your readers’ expectations. Writing a straight-faced historical autobiography and suddenly injecting a dose of vampires vs. werewolves without any build-up or foreshadowing may not work as well as you’d like. 

Present your book idea in your own way

sunset, table mountain, landscape

There are two main factors to consider here: voice and perspective. A writer’s voice is the mix of word choice, tone, and thought arrangement that makes their writing flow in a specific way. Every writer has their own unique way of conveying their message. It even goes to the point where semi-experienced readers of the genre can identify a writer with just a single sentence. Finding your writer’s voice is something you need to do on your own, but it’s usually a product of writing and reading a lot. 

Perspective is a similar concept. It deals with your worldview and beliefs, and how you present them to your audience in a way that will make them resonate.  

  • How will you approach the topic you want to write about? 
  • Will you use your own experiences to strengthen your message, or will you reference other people’s work and bank on their authority? 
  • What is the value of the message you’re trying to put out in the world? 

Try to write as you would talk and present yourself. Writers like Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Stephen King bare their personalities in their writing, making their work unique. Once you have perspective and voice down to a T, you can package your story in a unique, personal way that distinguishes it from the rest. 

And don’t forget to, uh, start writing

We authors tend to encounter a lot of roadblocks in writing our stories. Sometimes it’s burnout, lack of enjoyment, temporary creative bankruptcy, anxiety,  or just plain old vanilla writer’s block. It can also be Worldbuilder’s disease, where we get bogged down with every minute detail of our story and setting that we forget to start putting words on pages. Or we’re just worried that we don’t have what it takes to make our book stand out. Whatever the case, you need to get whatever motivation you need to push through these obstacles, because your story won’t write itself.

Your idea may have already been written, but it hasn’t been written by you

Unoriginal stories only stay that way because the writers gave up. To avoid that, you need to push the boundaries of your craft and pull deep from your well of creativity. And look, I know that trying to write something truly unique can be hard, but it’s not impossible. Your story doesn’t have to be completely original — it just has to be original enough, and it has to be yours. So tell the story you want to tell, pull from your life experience, share your unique perspective, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking your story is not worth writing. Step into your author’s shoes with a positive mindset. Present yourself as authentically as possible, and you might just have a bestseller on your hands. 

Oh, and, if you’ve got an original idea but don’t know how to turn it into a book, you can check out this handy guide, or find out how Leaders Press can help you make your dream of publishing a book into a reality.

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