Do you really and truly want to write something that’s not only been done before, but done to death? Ick. And suddenly, an imagined protest from one of my students pops into my head: “Gimme a break! I’m no genius. How d’ya expect me to come up with something totally new and different? It’s all been done already!”
Though tempted, I won’t merely lean on the alleged quote from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 to then President McKinley, urging that his department be closed down since “…everything that can be invented, has been invented.” (The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, by the way. Sorry, Chuck. Sucks to have been you.)
Instead, I’ll quote the inestimable Martin Varsavsky: “What we need is not just intelligence, it’s mutant intelligence, mutant thinking, mutant thoughts. We need to combine the ability to reason with the ability to ‘morph’ a thought into a whole new proposal.” And lo, the words were spoken, and they bore the imprimatur of truth. I should have set the word mutant in italics. Mutant. (I feel better now.)
If we hope to create something new, we must attempt a bit of mutant thinking, perhaps even use some mutant logic. When a stereotypical option rears its ugly head, we need to divert our thinking onto a different path, one that’s so less traveled as to be pristine — new. So, how the hell does one do that?
Simple. One fractures the paradigm.
Instead of “boy meets girl,” “boy meets boy,” or even “human meets non-human,” we need to stretch still further. How ’bout “boy meets god?” (Note lower case “G.”) What form(s) might god take in such an instance? What if god lived in the boy’s sock drawer? (“Can ya hear me, God? It’s me, Doober.”)
What if god were another kind of animal? What if god was a parrot? Or an insect of some kind? (Watch where you step!) Before we wander too far into Kafka-land, let’s stop and consider the concept of mutant thinking. Go somewhere unexpected; do something unplanned; experience something that shouldn’t happen. This is how you morph the commonplace into the creative, how to re-make something obvious and overdone into something original.
Like… I dunno. Robot sex!
Okay, I admit, that’s creepy. And I’m not sure where one would go with it. But then, what might someone do with it? If there are robotic consorts, why couldn’t two of them meet and, who knows, fall in love? Imagine the conversations they might have, comparing notes on all the wretched humans with whom they’ve had to deal. What if someone recorded their conversations? What if…
And there it is: “What if?” The fiction writer’s raison d’etre. What if the hero is really a schmuck? Nah; everyone owns that t-shirt. Maybe the hero’s girl isn’t true blue? Again, nah. The problem here is that Hollywood has been digging in this dirt for so long, that all the easy role reversals have already been reversed. Think “Star Wars.”
So where does one go from there? Options abound, believe me. Leave the good guy/bad guy roles in their traditional forms and find your mayhem elsewhere. How ’bout the stock market? Consider an IPO (initial public offering) for shares in a company that grants wishes, or overturns dictators, or resurrects extinct species? Hm. I think I hear the theme music from “Jurassic Park.”
Here are a few What Ifs off the top of my head:
- How ’bout a history book that allows readers to actually see into the past as if they’re watching events in real time?
- How ’bout a highly trained rodent that can conduct espionage?
- How ’bout an athlete (actor, politician, teacher, cop) who’s really an alien from the seventh planet? (No Clinton/Trump jokes, please.)
- How ’bout a pair of shoes that’ll take you anywhere you want to go, instantly?
- How ’bout a pair of earmuffs that allows the wearer to eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere?
The point is, you don’t have to rely on old tropes and tired themes. You just have to dig around a bit to find some turf that hasn’t already been plowed a gazillion times. And, if you can’t think of something, there’s still hope. Tell the old story better than it’s been done before. Hollywood’s been doing it for years.
Now, go thou, and be fruitful. Or write. That’d be even better.