‘Everything has already been written before, there are no new stories.’
If you are a writer, and heck even if you aren’t, I bet you’ve heard that at some point. It’s one of those pieces of ‘advice’ I hate so much that loiters around getting in the way of making people ever feel good about themselves.
I don’t really think of myself as an advice type person – I am chronically unsuited to give such, seeing as all I have is my own experience to talk about (which, I know, is sometimes the best qualification, but still…).
That said, on the occasions I wander online to this little corner of the internet to have a disembodied chat with anyone who stops by, I would like to go on record for how much I kinda hate this line.
I guess there is something in the vague idea of most ideas being old hat. Humanity has existed for about 3.2 million years in one form or another, and a significant portion of that time has been dedicated to ‘why are we here? whats for dinner?’ and other questions about the human condition. (Which reminds me, I really must review Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sometime.)
You could say we’ve had some time to think about being human, and sentient, and written a lot of it down (or drawn/sang it) in hopes other people will either agree, help or at least empathize.
In that regard, there aren’t many new ideas out there, even when we speculate about the future, because our lens on reality is always going to be strained through our own natural condition – being human.
Yep, in that regard, there is nothing new.
EVERYTHING Is New
Now let’s talk about why the above section doesn’t matter.
Yes, being human hasn’t really changed much. Maybe one day, in the vast and distant future of another 10 million years from now, people will be so different we wouldn’t even recognize them, but as a species, we are young and pretty consistent. And the change won’t happen in my lifetime.
But everything else is changing all the time. While what it means to be human is pretty constant, what we know about the universe around us is in a constant state of flux, and even things we thought were facts are want to change at the drop of a hat.
Once, people thought our health was controlled by humors and only full body treatment to keep the balance could cure you. Then we discovered the vascular systems, the operation of bits of the brain, what on earth the spleen actually does, and came up with far, far better treatments.
And now we’re also back to understanding that full body care is actually still really important too.
Everything changes, and that changes writing too.
Imagine, if you would, that it is 1871. A story in a newspaper has just made it into your hands, called The Case of Summerfield. It is a tale about two men blackmailing the world, with a powder that can turn water to fire. It is a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, and you have never heard of anything like it before in your life.
Now flash forward to 2018, where we are all groaning every time someone says ‘North Korea’, in a very blase depression over the absolute saturation of WMDs across our entire globe, a lot of them nuclear.
When William Henry Rhodes published his story, he could not know what the future would hold, but what he did know was what people were newly discovering. He applied his imagination to it, a certain degree of forward thinking about human nature, and thus wrote one of the first ‘terrorist’ stories.
The same can be seen with time machine stories (everyone knows what a time machine is, and they aren’t even real!), colonization of space stories, and it’s not even limited to hard sci-fi. I adored Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern growing up, which mixed fantasy and sci-fi on an indelible level that made anything seem possible.
The past also offers new ideas for writing, as we unpick more of it. One of my favorite worlds as a child was Dinotopia, where the authors imagined a lost world still populated by the great beasts, living alongside people. The illustrations and descriptions relied entirely upon the new species and fossils being discovered at the time to paint a vivid world of yester-millenia, again mixed in with human experience.
We find new stuff, or new knowledge about old stuff, all the time, so of course there are new ideas, every day, and writers trying to express them. Which brings me to the biggest reason why everything is new…
The Human Filter
All of us are different.
And I don’t mean it in the special snowflake way that ended up with a large population of people disappointed when they grew up and found out that society cannot function if everyone gets to be a high flying career bod, and there’s no one left to clean the toilets and stack the shelves.
I mean it in a much more real and reasonable way. We are all different because no two people will live the exact same life, not even twins. The filter through which the world passes for all of us is unique, and inherently changes how we each perceive the human condition – that is why we didn’t run out of stories to tell back in the Babylonian period.
I can see very clearly in myself how I could have gone down so many different paths, and learned to think differently. How would I view the world if I had stayed at the all-girls school I attended for a year, and hated? How different would I be if I had never discovered Sir Terry Pratchett and his incredible work/outlook on the world? (I wouldn’t be a writer now, that’s for sure.) What would I expect of people, if my parents had never divorced, or been in a situation where that was the correct course of action?
Everything changes us. Not necessarily a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, just a true thing, and when you then sit down to write, to pour out your truth and thoughts in whatever form you choose, you are naturally doing so through the filters of life that make you… you.
Thus, the same thing written by two people is going to be very different. The quickest example I have to mind is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, compared to Laurell K Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. Both books deal with a female lead engaging with a vampire and a werewolf and struggling to work out her emotional feelings, but both are radically different in how they handled it, and how their series’ each went on as a result.
Every work has a chance to be new, and the story inside unique, because the focus is individual to the person writing it. Which finally brings me to…
Tales as Old as Time
Most books are re-tellings, I suppose. Especially if you are looking at the human element to each. But re-telling a story in your own way is still new, so long as you treat it that way and don’t use ‘everything has been done before’ as carte blanche to ignore your own creativity and just try to avoid plagiarising whoever did it before you.
Maybe you’ll create the next big idea, something as ‘new’ and unique as a time machine, and I can’t wait to read the next novel that does something like that. I know that the characters inside experiencing the New Thing (TM) will be old hat, of course, but that’s not a negative, and how people react to new things is one thing that makes stories really compelling.
There will always be, I think, your Frankenstein stories, your Undead, and your Dragons. There will be tales of The Great Unknown, Lost Worlds, and Replicants. There will be stories about what it is to be Human, Die, and fall in Love.
But every single one will also be new, so long as the author is true in what they say, how they say it, and their own unique flavor.
So far as I’m concerned, ‘Everything has already been written before, there are so many new stories.’
Happy creating folks.