I sometimes pine for the Golden Age era of sci-fi, when everything was new. Each story idea shone with fresh brilliance, and many of the tropes we still use today were just being invented by Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury and others.
Sure, it was pretty much a white-men-only club (with a few notable exceptions). Yes, you had to write everything on a typewriter (they didn’t even have correction fluid until the late fifties), and there was no such thing as self publishing, or home computers, or Amazon, or the web in general.
Still, as a sci-fi writer in the late Thirties and Forties, you could sit down at your old Remington Portable typewriter (comes with its own leather case!) and chances were your idea had never before been set to paper. Think Asimov’s three laws of robotics, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Bradbury’s iconic Fahrenheit 451.
In the intervening decades. we’ve advanced by leaps and bounds, technology-wise. Much of our tech is not so different from what many of these writers envisioned all those decades past (where are my flying cars and jetpacks, dammit?). Our cell phones are way better in many respects than the Star Trek’s tricorders, though they still can’t scan your body for injuries. And we’ve been to the moon and back, multiple times.
My point is that we live in a much different world today. So many amazing ideas have already been written down, made into TV series and movies, and pervaded the general consciousness. In this crowded field, it’s hard to come up with something truly original.
This is not only true for science fiction. All of fiction benefits from an amazing abundance of writers and ideas, which often makes it hard to stand out in the crowded field. In addition, most traditional publishers really aren’t looking for something truly revolutionary. They want the last bestselling thing, repackaged with a slightly different twist, that they can turn around and sell to the same people.
So what’s an aspiring writer to do?
First, write what you are passionate about. Your enthusiasm for the genre and the story are one of the things that will set you apart from authors chasing the trends—almost always a losing battle. believe in your story and commit to it wholeheartedly.
Second, read widely in your chosen genre(s), and figure out what folks are reading and liking these days. It’s not so you can replicate the trends you find. It’s to help you buck those trends ad write something different, while being aware of what editors and agents have been looking for in the recent past.
Third, try to come up with a different take on what’s already out there. There are several ways to go about this.
Try mixing genres in an unexpected way. Zombies plus Jane Austen? Been done. But what about werewolves in the time of King Arthur? Or Witch-powered spacecraft? Or the invention of computers in Ancient Rome?
You can also flip a trope—take something expected and turn it on its head. The Chosen One finds out they are the chooser, instead. Or maybe the Sword of Destiny turns out to be something entirely different. Ever read the Sword of Shannara (spoiler alert)? In Terry Brook’s original book, the sword turned out not to be a weapon of power, so much as an exposer of the truth of a death long denied.
Finally, try to come up with a simple and clear explanation of what your story is about, something that encapsulates the cool new angle you’ve come up with that will set it apart. The best ideas can be explained succinctly, and that explanation can help guide you while writing your story.
In Dropnauts, it was “Humans return to the Earth from the moon, after a planet-wide apocalypse.” In the fantastic film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, it’s even simpler” “A teenaged boy stuck in a time loop discovers he’s not the only one.”
Idea creation these days is less a matter of bold new invention than the more subtle—but still satisfying—act of finding a niche that excites you. Try to blend some different combination of fiction ingredients and the world might just love it. If you can pull it off. In the end, it always comes back to the quality of the writing.
In 2013, a new band called Bastille put themselves on the musical map with a new song about… Pompeii. How? It was unexpected—a blend of Roman history and catchy pop music—and they had the skill to just make it work.
So go forth and read, take notes, and think about how you would tell the story you’d want to read.
Then sit down and write it.
To my writer friends – how do you escape the trap of the expected with your story ideas?