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But it’s Been Done

I came across a discussion on social media recently, where a friend and promising young author was talking about a story idea he was working on. In the conversation, another person came along and said “oh, that’s been done already.” My friend was deflated and discouraged, but immediately fired back up, angry for this human raincloud having come along to drip on his parade. Which was good, because Joseph Capdepon is a name you’ll see on book covers soon and they will be worth reading (I have had the privilege of beta reading some of his work).

Here’s what Joe said about it (the man has a gift with words):

ย trying his best to push someone away from writing a story because someone already used the tropes I will be using.

Reading his comment still pisses me off, especially coming from him.

You want to piss off, or at times, seriously crush the will of a writer? Tell them someone else wrote what they are writing. Because when I am brain storming an idea, what I really want to hear is how another author has already written my story, thus inferring that I shouldn’t write it.

Well, you can go fuck yourself, because I’m still writing it.

But my comment on the thread, and then the genesis of this post, was:

Write it. Write it better.ย 

It doesn’t matter if ‘it’s been done’ because there is nothing new under the sun, and that isn’t intended to be a depressing blanket statement of ‘why should I try, anyway?’ Every author brings their own voice to a story, weaves their own elements in that make that story new and unique and good to read. Yes, even if it has been done before. If you ever take part in a conversation like that and are seized with the impulse to say something like ‘it’s been done’ bite your tongue! Young writers need encouragement, not to be discouraged from writing out the stories in their heads. My daughters talk to me sometimes about fanfiction, and that’s sort of the epitome of ‘it’s been done’ but still I don’t tell them to stop reading it, or the one that attempts to write it – heck, I encourage her to write. She’s got fans of her bits of tale, and it’s not nice to leave fans hanging for the next chapter forever.

I digress. I see this a lot in reviews – or just in casual comments about my books (and others, but my own carry that personal little sting) that ‘oh, this is just like…’ and you’re sitting there thinking ‘but I’ve never even read/watched/played that!’ And that happens because there are common tropes and themes to any fiction that parallel human character and history and other influences. But the reviewers and discussions are not (usually) meant to disparage the book, it’s just that being human, they look for patterns and points of comparison. Humans aren’t always the fans of originality they say they are. The readers like (I know I do!) what they like, and they enjoy seeing certain themes in books. Like the bad guys losing, and the hero getting the girl, and… you catch my drift.

While I was looking up something for the Arthur Clarke article I wrote yesterday, I ran across an WH Auden quote that suited this topic beautifully. I memed (meemed? Memify’d? mememememe…. ok. enough of that) it so it could be shared. Because this is something I want all writers to keep in mind.

In short (and it is short, sorry. I’m dealing with something that feels like the flu, although hopefully isn’t. It’s just annoying) write what you want to write. Infuse it with your own voice, bring it to life, and remember – plots are like empty suits of clothing. They may delineate the form, but it’s what’s inside that brings the full thing into the world.

Or maybe that’s just the fever talking. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Your authorial voice is yours, and you shouldn’t change it for anyone. If you want to tell a story, write it. Make it your own. It will be better for that.

 

67 Comments
  1. paladin3001 #

    Good points about “It’s been done before”. I could reference many stories that share the exact same theme and style. One of my stories “has been done before”, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good story.
    Knowing it has been done before, and knowing the other story doesn’t mean that your story will be different. And if you know what you have drawn upon, you can even easter egg the other story. ๐Ÿ™‚

    December 16, 2017
    • Zsuzsa #

      “One of my stories โ€œhas been done beforeโ€, doesnโ€™t mean it isnโ€™t a good story.”

      Arguably the reverse is true. If something hasn’t been done before, in the 10K years or whatever it is of humans telling stories, then it may be because the idea is nonsensical and could never work. Sort of like the discussion the other day about “places of power” and “places of evil,” if there’s some plot that no one has ever written before, there’s probably a darn good reason for it.

      December 16, 2017
    • Just look at romance novels (or don’t, if you prefer, LOL!). There is a trope that has been done and done and ought to be so done you can’t even stick a fork in it. And some of them really are so predictable that they aren’t any fun to read, but every so often I come across a new writer who does romance well. An example is Kari Lynn Dell, who writes contemporary western romances set in the world of rodeo — she knows her background well from personal experience, and she’s a good writer. I’ve read all of her books so far and look forward the the next one. I can think of a few other authors whose books I look forward to, even though they are writing the ‘romance trope,’ which has been done to death. (And for sure I wish Georgette Heyer had had time to write another forty or fifty of her books!)

      December 16, 2017
  2. If you couldn’t put out variations on a theme all writing would have ceased with the rise of Greek civilization at the latest.

    December 16, 2017
    • Maybe a little later than that? Since fiction (at least acknowledged fiction, since ‘histories’ of the time were fairly fictitious) didn’t really come along until much later. But yes.

      December 16, 2017
      • Gilgamesh. ‘Nuf said, everything’s been written already. ๐Ÿ˜›

        “plots are like empty suits of clothing. They may delineate the form, but it’s what’s inside that brings the full thing into the world.”

        Wonderful analogy. Take an off-the rack suit, plain black, generic as can be. Put it on three different guys… a young nerd, an aging used-car salesman, Ahnold. Let each accessorize it according to his taste and whims. It’s still the same suit, but now it sure looks different, and everyone carries it different. Not to mention that the nerd’s pocket protector leaks (and that’s not ink, it’s baby dragon pee!), that paunchy salesman is wearing a loud red shirt under it (hides the bloodstains), and Ahnold flexed a couple times and ripped out the shoulder seams.

        Fiction is the garment. Genre is the style. But you’re the tailor, and you pick the runway model.

        (And the author is that weird dude whose brain ran away with this, and forgot to finish getting dressed. Pants? what pants??)

        December 16, 2017
        • Baby dragon pee. I’m dying. Must. Steal!

          December 16, 2017
      • Indeed – Shakespeare borrowed right and left.

        December 16, 2017
        • And yet we see Shakespeare as the source of tons of plots, new words, new ways to use old words… And people are finding new layers of meaning in his works all the time.

          One of my favorite thoughts in this matter is a comparison to learning to play an instrument. If you want to write a lovely new composition you must practice the old stuff.

          December 16, 2017
      • Wouldn’t you count Greek theater as fiction?

        December 16, 2017
        • I would, good point. I was thinking novels. I have some great Greek plays on the shelf, will grab them when I feel up to reading again (fever makes concentration impossible).

          December 16, 2017
    • snelson134 #

      Long before that.

      When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
      He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
      An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
      ‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

      The market-girls an’ fishermen,
      The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
      They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
      But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

      They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
      They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
      But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
      An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

      Kipling knew better.

      December 16, 2017
      • Zsuzsa #

        Of course, Homer’s kind of a different case. Not only did he steal from the old stories, he was counting on his audience knowing that he was stealing. I’ll admit that I’ve never actually read the Iliad, but the Odyssey at least more or less depends on the audience knowing the story of the Trojan War, including the parts that Homer didn’t bother to include in the Iliad. In many ways, Homer was one of the early fanfic authors: for people who knew and liked the original work, he offered an expansion of a couple of particular parts, and a more detailed look at some of the characters.

        December 16, 2017
        • Mary #

          It can really be interesting when you WANT them to know what went before so they recognize your riffing off it.

          There are hundreds of thousands of fairy tales. You better riff off of one of the Pop Top 20 if you want recognition. And I still remember the online writers’ group critique where I quoted Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale to cue in readers, and still got someone asking me if that was a real Shakespeare play.

          December 16, 2017
  3. No matter how many times “it’s been done” it is worth doing again – maybe better the next time.

    December 16, 2017
  4. Needed to be said. Thank you for saying it.

    December 16, 2017
  5. A while after I’d introduced my husband to TVTropes, he was a little depressed. “I don’t go, ‘oh, wow, what happens next!?’ anymore,” he said. “I go, ‘Ah, Plot Mandated Friendship Failure followed by Misfit Mobilization Moment.'”

    “Well, yeah,” I said, “but… it’s not WHAT happens next, it’s how they handle it. Like, ‘Wow, that’s a really GOOD High Heel Face Turn.”

    He didn’t believe me at the time, I think. But about a month and he came around. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s not the structure, it’s what you put in it.

    When I was going through convention panels on YouTube to speed through my data-entry job, I found Jim Butcher covers this topic super-well.

    December 16, 2017
    • paladin3001 #

      I avoid T.V. Tropes as much as possible. ๐Ÿ™‚
      That being said. Back in the dark ages I was usually able to tell the plot of a made for t.v. movie in the first 30 minutes. Okay, that was the bad ones. Annoyed a few people when I nailed the entire story like that. ๐Ÿ˜€

      December 16, 2017
      • A while back I was listening online to an old radio show and came into it either in the middle or toward the end… and commented to myself that “$X did it.” (and no, I had not heard that particular episode before) due to the obvious tropism. Was right. It was a bit annoying to later hear the start of the show, only to realize I’d already heard – and predicted – the end.

        December 16, 2017
        • Mary #

          It can be a problem when you start to recognize the tropes. Sad, really. Even Doyle had a Holmes story where I fingered the culprit not on the evidence but the trope.

          December 16, 2017
      • Just remember, they’re tropes because they work. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        December 16, 2017
        • Mary #

          Respect cliches. Cliches are old and wise and powerful.

          December 16, 2017
        • Joe in PNG #

          Or as they say, Not All Tropes Are Bad.

          December 16, 2017
      • I don’t read it as much as I used to, but it’s a handy thing for finding out if a manga is still ongoing, for example. And if I hadn’t read it, I would never have discovered The Dresden Files. See, at the time I was pretty much at “I can’t find anything good to read,” and was on the verge of foregoing Western fiction as empty and depressing for good.

        December 16, 2017
  6. I’ll admit that I have a tendency to react to people sharing ideas with a search through my memory for stories that contain similar ideas, but it’s not my intention to discourage anyone. Instead, I want to introduce authors to possible sources of inspiration. Seeing how someone else has handled a particular theme can be a big help in working out a new approach. I always advise people to read as much as they can find that is similar to what they are working on, to see what works, what doesn’t work, and where they can diverge from earlier works in order to make the theme their own.

    December 16, 2017
    • Well, obviously it’s good to read widely. However, the midst of inspiration is probably not the time to consult other authors, for what they have done on the same theme!

      OTOH, I admit that it’s hard not to remember the other cool books and stories on a similar theme, and to burst forth with them. Perhaps I am not a living encyclopedia, but I may just be a living list of Amazon “Also Read” recommendations. Perhaps I need to dampen this a tad, when talking to authors instead of just readers….

      And geez, there’s no end to the retellings of basic folktales. So how can there be an end to any other kind of plot or setting?

      December 16, 2017
      • But yes, it might be appropriate to do that Tom Simon “not the first or second idea cab” thing, so that you don’t pick the obvious twist.

        December 16, 2017
      • Mary #

        Reading lots of variations on folktales gives you good ideas about what you can do to them and still have ’em work. 0:)

        December 16, 2017
  7. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    On the other hand, IMO it helps to be familiar with the genre that you’re writing in so that you are aware of “what has been done before”.

    I suspect plenty of us have heard of people who proclaim “nobody has done this before” while others say/think “it’s been done hundreds of times”.

    It may be possible to do the “Adam & Eve were from other space” idea in an interesting story but it would be unlikely to be done if the writer thinks “nobody has done this before”.

    December 16, 2017
    • Oh, absolutely. You have to read and read a lot in order to write. Because you are more likely to do it better and in your own voice if you know what has been done already.

      December 16, 2017
    • Then there’s the old “nobody has done this before because its fricking stupidity.” There’s tons of ideas out there, but per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crud. The performance art universe springs forcibly to mind: 4:33, four minutes and thirty three seconds of a guy sitting in front of a piano and -not- playing it. Might have seemed a little clever the very first time, but never again.

      People are smart. If you have an idea that isn’t obviously crud, somebody probably thought of it before. But who cares? This is not a race, you don’t get a prize for being first.

      In fact, the prizes are given to political suck-ups. Not getting one is a good sign.

      December 16, 2017
      • I vaguely remember a skit where someone (Chaplin?) sat in front of a piano for quite a while, trying to play it.

        All depends on how you approach it.

        December 16, 2017
  8. Draven #

    Ok, but i need to point out it is perfectly legal to carry a loaded firearm in a vehicle in Alaska. ๐Ÿ˜€

    December 16, 2017
    • Well, yes?

      December 16, 2017
      • Draven #

        Yes, but a pixie said it wasn’t ๐Ÿ˜€

        December 16, 2017
        • Huh. I’d forgotten that. Ah, well, we can hardly expect a pixie to know Earth laws ๐Ÿ˜‰

          December 16, 2017
          • Draven #

            yeah, so another item on my ‘writing guns’ thing should be ‘check the gun laws in your setting’

            (something NCIS writers are incapable of)

            December 16, 2017
            • Yep. And that would have been an easy check – a PM to one of my cousins.

              December 16, 2017
            • snelson134 #

              “Laws? We don’t need no Steenking laws!”

              Hollywood writers don’t care what the laws are; they just know what they want them to be.

              December 16, 2017
              • Draven #

                No, they just usually know what they are in New York and Los Angeles and assume it is the same elsewhere. I just specifically have a problem with this in NCIS because a lot of their crimes are supposedly in the Tidewater area in VA (where all the trees went to i don’t know) but someone commits a crime with a gun adn its “the pistol is registered to blahblahblah ” and i am at the point where i go “No, it isn’t, VA doesn’t have handgun registration at all “

                December 16, 2017
                • snelson134 #

                  Like I said, they know what they want them to be.

                  “See how easy it is to convict killers when all guns are registered? Shouldn’t it work that way everywhere?”

                  December 16, 2017
                  • Once upon a time,there was a Perry Mason recycle set in Boston, which is a fine idea. The writers knew nothing about Massachusetts law, so they had witnesses sworn in individually, not en masse at the start of the day. The hero and his interns are then seen walking into the halls of the Great and General Court, to speak to the Supreme Court. The great and General Court is our *legislature*. We do not have a “Supreme Court”, unlike New York, where the Supreme Court is fairly far down as a level. We have the Supreme Judicial Court.

                    December 17, 2017
  9. The automobile has most certainly been done before, yet every year there are new models. Funny, that.

    December 16, 2017
    • aacid14 #

      Cattle trailers stay pretty consistent though.

      December 16, 2017
      • You seem to have a peculiar fascination with such.

        December 17, 2017
  10. And I have never cared that much about plot and what twists it has, except for that bit that there are some plots I quite dislike – the hero turns out to be the villain, the good guys lose thoroughly and no hope is left, the hero never gets to fulfill what seems to be promised (the story seems to build towards an awesome confrontation and the hero doing some awesomely heroic stuff, but the whole thing dries up and nothing much really happens) and so on.

    I’m afraid I kind of like predictable too, the hero’s journey and so on.

    What matters to me is the execution. Not the big plot twists but what happens during them, the smaller stuff, whether I like the characters or not – I do need to care about at least one or two of the characters at least some or the story doesn’t matter much (in movies pleasurable eye candy can compensate to some extent so if the actors are nice to look at, the action and the environments it happens in also and there are enough explosions and stuff I might still like it even if the characters are bland). How it is told matters.

    Which is one reason why I don’t mind spoilers at all, in fact often search them out before I decide whether I want to use money on something.

    (BTW, as an example of what I like and don’t like, my biggest problem with Star Wars, the original trilogy, and Luke’s role in it, is that he actually doesn’t seem to accomplish all that much after the first movie. It’s mostly personal, he saves his father, and then his father kills the emperor, and maybe, if all that hadn’t happened the rebels would not have been able to blow up the second Death Star because the Emperor would have been able to see what they were up to and stop them. But otherwise, when you think about it, he seems pretty much just one of the resistance, not the One or anything close to it, while the premise and the beginning of the trilogy seemed to paint him as the crucial individual without who the rebellion was doomed to failure, and I sort of kept waiting for his big moment the whole time. Okay, he sort of does it, but he doesn’t do it personally. And from what spoilers I have read of this last movie seems he doesn’t really get any big moment in that way now either. So, yes, I find that disappointing.)

    December 16, 2017
    • Ouch. That’s true, now that you mention it. It’s like the real hero of Return of the Jedi is Han or Leia or a generic Rebellion, whereas the first movie and the second were much more directly about “Luke and his friends.”

      Although yeah, Luke did do a sort of martyr thing as the climax of Return of the Jedi, which does count. It’s just that Darth is the one who really ended up getting martyred, so Luke sorta fades back into the background.

      I guess you could argue that Darth was the real protagonist of the trilogy, and everybody else was just foiling him or encouraging him….

      December 16, 2017
      • paladin3001 #

        Someone told me once, back around 1999 I believe, that the original Star Wars trilogy was about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. So of course George has to go and tell the story of the Fall of Anakin in the prequels.

        December 16, 2017
        • Yes, that is what Lucas started to say at some point. But it seems more like an afterthought when you saw them in the order they were made and with what information was available then. So I was primed for Luke as the hero after the first movie, which pretty much gives the impression of being an origin story for a hero. But yes, then the hero never has any other stories where he is the true main character but fades and becomes just one of a group.

          Maybe the problem is that Lucas wasn’t really thinking in terms of a series because he thought he was probably making just one movie, maybe it’s because he really isn’t a particularly skilled storyteller after all but just had a couple of good somewhat accidental hits (or it really was mostly due to his then wife’s editing skills and influence in the beginning, as some claim, and once he lost that…) and then never could repeat them because he didn’t quite understand why those couple of movies worked so well himself.

          December 16, 2017
          • Or maybe he went with what audiences seemed to like, and what toys sold best. So Darth and Han were more popular than Luke – let’s increase their roles in the next movie… everybody seems to love Darth. You know what, it’s actually his story! Yes, this is the way I planned it from the beginning. Really. ๐Ÿ˜›

            December 16, 2017
    • Joe in PNG #

      Don’t forget this crucial conversation in “Empire Strikes Back”.
      Yoda: “Told you I did. Reckless is he. Now, matters are worse.”
      Obi-Wan: “That boy is our last hope.”
      Yoda: “No. There is another.”
      The real “hope” of the Rebellion is not Luke, but Princess Leia.

      December 16, 2017
      • Doesn’t matter to me, as far as I am concerned the story doesn’t really work. Not enough foreshadowing for what happens, while there is lots for what doesn’t happen. As said, the end result was that while I liked the movies and was a fan, they still left me disappointed, I started thinking they were great but there was always something which left me feeling a tad disappointed with them, and it took me years before I was able to figure out why.

        I think they become the phenomena they are because there was a dearth of good fun adventure movies at the time the first one came out, and they looked damn good, with groundbreaking special effects the likes of which had not been seen before, not on the strength of the story. But due to those other reasons – and a story which was told reasonably well even if not perfectly – they managed to become so big that the franchise will be probably be able to survive for quite a while longer just on the strength of being a phenomena. The fact that there were all those years between the first trilogy and the prequel trilogy, and then before the last movies, probably has helped too. If Lucas has started pushing out a movie every second or third year the franchise would probably have died by now.

        So, a case of something coming out at JUST the right time, when something like that was wanted and there were no competing movies of equal quality out.

        December 16, 2017
  11. You grind off the serial numbers and keep writing.

    December 16, 2017
    • Mary #

      Filing off serial numbers being a skill like any other. It improves with skill. There are a couple of stories where I can’t figure out what I ripped off.

      December 16, 2017
  12. Or, sharpen your pencils (and your teeth), find the most prominent/best known example of your trope, and retell it, same characters, same world, same story line, your words, your twist. Show the SOB whoโ€™s boss.

    December 16, 2017
  13. Kissing. It’s been done before. But I ain’t gonna stop just because of THAT, because it’s still fun.
    Also, In a couple of the Man/Kzin Wars books, one of the contributors takes ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ and puts it on Wunderland. I think there is another classic movie done that way, but I disremember, and there is a cat on my lap, and I’d have to stand up and look, because those books are on the top of my bookcase.
    And Scott Huggins takes ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ twists it, and comes up with “A Doctor to Dragons.”
    And in all of those cases, it’s much enhanced if you know and love the original.
    And some books are good to read over.
    And kissing.

    December 16, 2017
    • Robin Munn #

      There’s also Treasure Planet, which is Treasure Island with Kzin instead of pirates.

      December 16, 2017
    • Terry Sanders #

      For Heaven’s sake, they did **CASABLANCA** with Kzinti! “Harold’s Terran Bar,” indeedโ€ฆ

      December 17, 2017
  14. And there’s always history. Yes, everyone knows how the Napoleonic wars went, but… dragons? Regency England with… shape-shifters? WWI with… mechanical AT-ATs vs. genetically engineered blimps? (Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy.*)

    *I didn’t really care for the books, but the younger set seemed to enjoy them greatly when they came out.

    December 16, 2017
  15. Was it Clamps? Because that was pretty much all he ever said to anyone discussing story ideas, and he would always do it with the intention of discouraging people from continuing, especially since most of the people he targeted were ‘conservative’ or ‘friends of a conservative’. He was the kind of idiot that thought that if a general plot had been done before, it should be DMCA-ed as it was ‘unoriginal.’

    December 16, 2017
  16. On a different note, a good example of “Screw the ‘it’s been done before” theme is two acting shoujo manga I deeply enjoy reading: Glass Mask and Skip Beat. Both of them have the main female protagonist use rather extreme forms of method acting, but hoo boy, how the stories are done are vastly different – enforced method acting, and acting being the theme is about all that’s similar… Skip Beat is much more wacky; Glass Mask is much more serious.

    I found out that of the two, Glass Mask is so much older, (and still unfinished!) that it established a lot of the shoujo manga tropes in use today, and is still a very popular manga. I didn’t know it starting the series, and the howl of frustration upon hitting the last chapter was mitigated by knowing that it was still going to be continued by the mangaka. (Hopefully, some scanlator will continue it!)

    December 16, 2017
  17. OOO! OOO! I remembered what I forgot earlier!
    In my praise of re-doing stories that have been done before, I also wanted to mention something that was original.
    In “The Chaplain’s War,” Brad Torgersen comes up with a new approach to the Bug Eyed Monster, which isn’t a throw away; it’s a major plot device. And wasn’t this his first novel? (Although expanded from short story The Chaplain’s Assistant, which is totally legit.)
    In some review somewhere, I said I thought it was original, and didn’t get challenged, so I win.

    December 17, 2017
  18. Excellent points. In defensive of which, I relate this story. Back in the early ’90s, I enthused on a ComuServe forum about Heinlein’s Friday. And author Jack L Chalker, who claimed Heinlein as a friend, sourly pointed out that it was a recap of the earlier “Gulf.” Which could be said to be true only inasmuch as the opening scenes bore a family resemblance. Jack should have known better,really, having been accused ot similar recycling in his Nathan Brazil stories, but… I guess the temptation to take potshots a perceived tin gods is universal.

    December 17, 2017
    • Mark Alger #

      All typos acknowledged and should be taken as corrected.

      December 17, 2017

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