Is Your Story Unique?

So many times we feel we have the most amazing idea for a story. We are bursting with the beauty of our idea. Then we read a novel or watch a movie and realize it's already out there. It's been done. What do you do once you realize your story is not unique?

It's important to realize that pretty much NO story is ever unique :). There are stories about people falling in love with people. Stories about people being betrayed by people. Stories about people struggling against odds. Stories about people triumphing - or failing - or just hanging in there. Yes, the particulars change. One time it's in Boston, another time it's in Los Angeles. One time the husband is fatally stabbed with a sword, while another time he's shot with a gun. But the basic story is the same.

This is simply going to happen. Especially, in our modern world, with us all exposed to the same discussions / movies / shows, it makes sense that common thoughts bubble up. Look at how Ants and A Bugís Life both came out in 1998. Look at the dueling Robin Hood vs Robin Hood (Costner vs Bergen) in 1991. In 1947 both A Gentlemanís Agreement and Crossfire came out, contending with each other to tackle Jewish discrimination issues. This must happen over and over again. We donít notice it when it doesnít happen Ė and we latch onto the patterns when it does.

You might think that the Harry Potter story was unique - but many find quite specific similarities between this book and The Worst Witch which Jilly Murphy wrote back in 1974. The Worst Witch was a well known classic in England, so it's very likely that J. K. Rowling would have read it. Both involve a young magic-user in a boarding school with an array of teachers and rivals. Looking at some of the similarities, it's quite striking. Some characters look similar. Some aspects of the schools are similar.

Still, one could say that there are probably thousands of stories set in boarding schools since they are such intriguing locations. Some involve magic use, some don't, but most probably include rivalries, nice teachers, hostile teachers, friendships, betrayals, and romances. These are the things people tend to write about.

It would be fascinating if there was an AI program which had access to every single story written in every language. You could feed into it your story and then see the countless stories that were similar. Maybe I've written a murder mystery set in Massachusetts involving someone being shot. It could be that someone in Hungary wrote a story based in Rome which involved someone being stabbed - but that the motivations and relationships are all pretty much the same. With a million monkeys all typing at their keyboards, it's very likely that patterns will cross somewhere.

So, what's the use, if we can't make our own story unique?

The answer is that we CAN.

A story's uniqueness generally doesn't come from a plot. Even if it's a guy riding on a dragon, vs riding on a horse, the story is still about his relationship with this other being. Even if it's a woman transferring her soul into a computer matrix, it's still about exploring new landscapes and how one deals with different cultures. The plot remains the same in its essence. What makes or breaks a story is how it is TOLD.

Why did J. K. Rowling thrive when so many others before her had similar stories? First, she had perseverance. I think she was turned down over twenty times by different publishers before she found the right one. Most people would have given up after the third rejection letter, or the fifth. She kept at it until she found success. And, second, she had a way with words that touched her readers.

You could ask twenty different authors to describe a specific scene and get twenty wildly different results. J.R.R. Tolkien might write flowery text detailing the color of the bugs and the texture of the leaves. Stephen King might focus on the crackling noise in the leaves and the pungent smell of rot coming from a creepy hollow log. Agatha Christie might zoom in on the elderly woman taking steps along the path, her bright blue eyes looking for an orchid. Each author has their own view of the world. Each uses his or her own words to convey the scene. It's THAT which makes a story unique. That view, that connection, that "looking through the eyes" which is specific to the one particular author.

That is what makes your book shine. It's your view, your words, and your emotional connection that you create with your reader.

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