“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.
I just learned from The Myths and Legends podcast that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was derived from a traditional story called Amleth (listen to story here). That’s right. Shakespeare moved the H, changed a few details, and wrote one of his most famous plays.
I am personally terrified of writing unintentionally derivative stories, but this made me consider how many other stories are derived.
Tolkien and Lewis, for instance, gleaned most of their ideas from folklore, mythology, and legends such as Beowolf, Sir Gawain, or The Knights at the Round Table.
Greek, Norse, and various other mythologies have inspired countless media, including super heroes like Thor or books like Percy Jackson series.
The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, and episodes from Clone Wars and The Mandalorian were inspired by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. In fact, Star Wars was inspired in part by Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a retelling of Macbeth. (Side note: My husband and I are on a Kurosawa kick)
Pretty much every Disney cartoon is based on an existing fairytale, book, or story (including Hamlet in The Lion King) that has been retold again and again in various times and settings.
How many books have you read that were inspired by Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or Beauty and the Beast? Or how many stories have your read about a farmer finding a dragon egg or being called away by a wizard?
Everything is derivative.
And that’s okay.
While I do think there’s a difference between an influenced story and a total remake, I am writing all this down to remember that having a 100% original idea is not the point.
I used to wonder how songwriters continued to discover new melodies and lyrics despite the billions of existing songs. But the combination of notes and voice and words and instrument are never ending. In the same way, most inventions are really innovations, and the beauty of photographs and paintings isn’t just about the subject but about the way that subject is seen through angles and lights and motion.
The same is true of stories.
I strive for originality in my stories, but no matter what I do I end up finding a story with similar elements. But the elements don’t make the story. Stories are a tapestry of character, setting, details, voice, and plot.
Many stories come from blending the familiar and the strange. For instance, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson has the classic master-apprentice storyline, but the magic system, characters, and conflict make it unique.
A Bug’s Life is similar to The Seven Samurai, but it’s still a vastly different movie, just as The Lion King is different from Hamlet. (Why we needed a new, word-for-word version of The Lion King, or any other animated Disney movie remake, is lost on me, though it seems like an elaborate money-making scheme).
When we write, we draw from several pools of knowledge and experience–real or imagined–to make something new. We need to widen the pool by consuming more stories.
I’ve found that podcasts like Myths and Legends help me come up with ideas. So does learning new things about history, culture, or nature. For instance, I’m writing a fantasy story with a setting inspired by Santorini, Greece. While I am changing elements to make it original (familiar + strange), I’m drawing from it like an impressionist painter draws from a landscape.
The more input I take in, the more output can flow out. I think this is what it really means to “write what you know.” Keep learning, and you’ll have more to write about.