September 20, 2012
"There is nothing new under the sun." Solomon said in Proverbs. The same goes for story ideas.
As a writer you may have selected the topic or background for your story and now found out that hundreds of books have been written on that topic. Do you go ahead and write the story? Maybe.
Let's take prom, for instance. In a quick check on Goodreads, Laura "The Zealous Reader" posted 34 YA novels with a prom topic. If we were to look up "prom" in Bowker's BOOKS IN PRINT by subject, I'm sure there would be many, many, many more novels on that topic. Obviously not all these books are the same. They don't have the same characters, the same voice, or necessarily the same story problem. Even if they had similar characters and story problems and resolutions, the story plots would not necessarily be the same.
For example, let's look at PROM by Laurie Halse Anderson and PAPER TOWNS by John Green. Without giving away too many spoilers, I'll talk mainly about the characters and the setups. In both PROM and PAPER TOWNS the main characters do not want to go to the prom. This is their external plot problem. It also makes them reluctant hero/heroine.
Both novels are told in first-person single point of view (POV). Yet the voices are distinctly different, and not just because they are different genders. Anderson's main character (MC) is a street-smart urban girl who rides the bus and is from a blue-collar family in Philadelphia. Green's MC is a suburban boy who drives a mini-van, his parents are college-educated, and they live in Orlando.
Both PROM and PAPER TOWNS involve a plot problem where the main character cares very deeply for a neighbor girl. In PROM, the neighbor girl has an eccentric grandmother. In PAPER TOWNS, the neighbor girl has a younger sister. The similarities continue in that both characters have a small circle of friends who want to attend prom.
However, the two YA novels, PROM and PAPER TOWNS, are extremely different. Anderson's story is a straightforward, streamlined, sequential telling of her main character's story. Green's novel, PAPER TOWNS, becomes very complex, including a mystery and a journey. In the layers of complexity, Green plays off of "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. As a result, Green's story runs more than 100 pages past prom, extending the timeline to graduation.
As a sidenote, I never attended prom and never cared that I didn't attend prom. Still, I enjoyed both Anderson's and Green's books and recommend reading them.
So, as a writer, do you go ahead and write the story if there seems to be already a lot of stories on the market with the same theme? Yes, if your telling of the story is unique from all others published.
One question I'm often asked, "Do you read the other books on the market before you start your own book?" I can only answer for myself. I write the first draft of my own novel first. I will also do several heavy revisions before reading other stories on the same topic. Not only do I not want to subconsciously borrow from another author's plot, but I don't want to get stuck where I can't see my own plot and characters differently.
Nonfiction (NF) is different. Obviously I have to do research before deciding on a topic, or deciding how I want to address a topic. During this reading I brainstorm ideas on how to write my book with a different slant than books already written.
What are the advantages to reading other novels with the same topic? To make sure that yours is uniquely different.
Coming-of-age events such as prom are universal experiences in U.S. high school. How can we YA writers not write about prom? Lampoon it, dis it, enshrine it — it's a rite of passage.