Suppose you want to write a science fiction novel. Ideas are brewing along with the coffee. You sit down at your computer, typewriter, or notepad, and begin to write. It’s all going very well! You have twenty pages down so you decide to take a break and read. You choose a book from your bookshelf of unread science-fiction (SF) novels and descend into horror as you realize that you’re reading the exact same plot you just began to write.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry. This is a common phenomenon in any genre: rehashing a story that feels like it’s been done a hundred times. The thing to remember when writing is that although many stories may be similar within a genre, it is the author that makes each novel unique.
In his book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Crawford Kilian identifies some subgenres common to science fiction. Acknowledging Utopia/dystopia, world disasters, and post-nuclear holocaust as three of the common subgenres in science fiction, Kilian gives tips on how you can still write the story you’d like to write without worrying about beating a dead horse in terms of your plot.
“Does every story need a totally new idea? No. Every basic SF and fantasy idea has been done many times, and your readers are familiar with countless variations on those ideas. So the variation you come up with should be distinctly different,” writes Kilian. He cites Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker as an example: Although the post-apocalyptic theme is very common to science fiction, Hoban had written it in the language of his new world. This added twist made it very distinct from the other books in the genre.
If you want your book to have a political undercurrent, be careful not to let your personal beliefs influence your writing. “Why should we suppose that our political institutions and values will be suitable to the societies of the far future?” asks Kilian, and the question is a good one. Looking at the political volatility of the twentieth century all over the world, it’s easy to imagine that the political situation could change even within five years let alone a hundred or a thousand. Be creative. Pull from other cultures or create your own.
Being creative in this way will contribute to the success of your novel as a unique retelling of a common tale. Adding twists to make your story unique will set you apart within your genre as unique, making an old theme seem brand new again.