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I'm not delusional about the nature of the science fiction novel I'm (very) slowly working on. A brief run down might be as follows:

  • Set 10's of millennia in Human's future but in a neighbouring galaxy
  • Discovery of ancient artifact
  • Artifact turns violent on the discoverers
  • More discoveries by different people
  • Non-human race who built them come back to claim ownership of the galaxy from inhabitants (through violence, they believed they "owned" it and placed beacons when they left due to their own reasons)
  • Seriously technologically advanced
  • Benevolent race who lived around the same time appear to aid humans as they foresaw this happening
  • Bilbo Baggins lives happily ever after to the end of his days.

This isn't a review of my particular story/plot, but I was wondering if it's really so bad to end up (by accident, you might say) with a plot that, while unique, has been done similarly before? Even though I feel I could do my particular idea justice, I can't help but notice it becoming more and more generic as I think about it.

Should I try to differentiate it as much as possible to the "generic" or just get on with it?

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When the question is phrased in that way, the answer is nearly always "Get on with it!" –  Sean M Dec 17 '10 at 14:10
    
Now just to somehow make the time to get on with it... ponders –  Nick Bedford Dec 17 '10 at 21:29
    
I'm a actually re-reading The Hobbit now and I didn't see it until I got to the last bullet point. ;) Cross-genre "retelling" probably isn't as likely to elicit the "I've read this book" response. –  Travis Christian Nov 7 '11 at 15:58

8 Answers 8

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Everything has been done before. Seriously. I've taken two Ancient Literature courses and it's amazing how many plots are basically recycled versions of older plots. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Harry Potter - their plots all model older books and plays from hundreds of years ago. Even parts of the Bible are found in manuscripts that predate Christianity by many many years. As long as the plot isn't a carbon copy of another book, you're pretty much good to go.

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+1 I was going to post more or less this same answer. –  Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 6:18
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for what it's worth, the Bible predates Christianity to (the bulk of it makes up the Jewish Scriptures). –  justkt Dec 17 '10 at 13:15
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@justkt But certain parts of the Bible come from the story of Gilgamash wish predates the Bible and all modern religions. –  Ralph Gallagher Dec 17 '10 at 15:33
    
I wasn't arguing the similarities between the stories in the Christian Old Testament/Jewish Bible and other books. It is interesting. –  justkt Dec 17 '10 at 15:40
    
@Ethan: Funny... –  Christopher Mahan Jan 6 '11 at 0:48

You will find, if you look over all the novels you have ever read, there are key similarities. These will not be in the specifics in the individual plots, but in the paths they take. How many movies do you think encorporate 'Boy meets girl. Something bad happens and it looks like it isn't to be. They reconcile. Cue credits'.

The reason this happens is because that is how plots tend to lend themselves to concluding. It's only natural, really. There can be either a happy ending, or a sad ending, and anything too far removed does seem out of place.

I'm not suggesting you have to stick to cliche storylines, but if that is how your plot unfolds, let it happen.

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There are no new plots. You can't be original. You wouldn't want to be. True originality, if it existed, would be nearly unbearable.

The thing is to take an old story that's been told a million times, and tell it again. But tell it so brilliantly that it seems like an entirely new story that no one has ever heard before.

In your case, don't just make your story sort of like 2001. Actually retell 2001, but so imaginatively that it's unrecognizable.

People say about a book or movie, Oh it was crap because it was just a ripoff of this or that. That is such a weak and lazy criticism and it amounts to nothing. Of course it's a ripoff. What isn't?

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You can be original (it has been done). And it can be bearable (maybe not for the "unwashed masses", but...). It actually can be very enjoyable. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 17 '10 at 10:38
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You can be original, but no plot is 100% original. When you boil the plot down, it's going to be the same as thousands, if not millions, of other books. The trick is to add an original take on an old plot. –  Ralph Gallagher Dec 18 '10 at 2:57
    
"This is a ripoff" can also mean that the author allowed themselves to be too heavily influenced by the "this or that" work, quite possibly inadvertantly. Consider something like a detective story. It's basically been told again and again, with minor variations in the plot. That doesn't necessarily make people go "this is a ripoff of Sherlock Holmes". However, if you use so many elements from Holmes and nothing from elsewhere that the result feels like it could just as well have been a Holmes book with a few names changed, then you are in ripoff territory IMO. –  Michael Kjörling Oct 22 '13 at 7:28

Oh no, it's not bad at all. As many other people have said, it's all be done before, what really matters is HOW you do it. Find some interesting ways to put the pieces together and interesting characters to go along with it.

In the end, sit down and get it written. Once you have it down you can see how the story flows and what might need to be changed or rewritten to make it stand out as more then just the same as whats come before.

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Take a look at Joseph Cambell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and you will see that most myths and most religions are basically the same story told with small variations. The same applies for a lot of epic modern stories already mentioned here (LOTR, Star Wars, Harry Potter).

Good stories a driven by characters, and if the reader gets involved in the characters, they won't even notice (or at least mind) that they are being told the same story one more time.

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Maybe what you feel is "story is unrealistic." If a race is so advanced, why would it need war? If they can build robots, they can build a self-replicating plant on some planet and wait until the robots have overwhelmed the enemy be sheer number. A million can't do it? You can build billions from the material of a single planet and that number is so low because you don't mine for every speck of ore. And if one planet isn't enough, take ten. Or a hundred.

I've always felt that "advanced" means "can't be forced to kill/harm/hurt." So how about this twist: Artifact appears friendly but starts to corrupt humans. Old race comes back to fix its mistake but the humans (dumb as they are) try to stop them, supported by the sentient artifact that doesn't want to "die."

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That's an interesting idea but I've settled on my story (it's more detailed and possibly slightly different in areas that my run down). Also, there's a lot I haven't figured out too :P –  Nick Bedford Dec 18 '10 at 0:44
    
May I suggest you try to answer in a more relevant way? –  RolandiXor Jun 22 '11 at 12:14

Take Disney. They make a bunch of wonderful stories, but a great deal of their old (and in my opinion, best) movies were based on mythological stories and old fairy tales.

The Beauty and the Beast was based off of Eros and Psyche.

The little mermaid was based off of a Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name.

And there are many others. They're presented differently, though, and that is the key. To make something that is essentially the same feel so new and different by the subtle ways you change it. Change motivations, characters, and delivery. Make something to give it a new feel.

Think about it this way, they make movies and stories all the time based on real events. Do you think that just because you heard about what happened in the news would make a story or movie about it less interesting? You know the story. You've heard of that plot before. But your receiving something completely different.

That's what you need to make sure you're doing.

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Just do it. If you always top to focus on the negative aspects, you never get anything done. Chances are some random person will always find some random correlation between your story and the Queen of Mar's wedding ceremony... you get the point.

If you ask me, so long as you trust your own story to be worth the read, go for it.

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