I’ve lost count of the times I thought I had exceptional story ideas, but they didn’t produce the literary success I had anticipated. Does that mean I was wrong? How do you know whether a story idea is indeed, “great.”
It seems obvious that J.K. Rowling had a fantastic story concept with the Harry Potter series, since each novel was an international bestseller, and they were all adapted as blockbuster movies. The first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, however, was rejected by twelve publishers. If J.K. Rowling had given up after eleven rejections, would it have meant the story concept was flawed? No, but a manuscript with significant potential might have been lost forever.
What about originality? Can a story idea that has themes like those found in other books or movies, still be considered original? The television series Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were set on space stations, and for five years (1993-1998) both were on air at the same time. The movies White House Down, and Olympus Has Fallen were both about a terrorist attack on the White House and released in the same year, 2013. Can you imagine telling animation companies that they must stop producing movies with talking or singing animals, because it has already been done? A story idea must have some distinct elements, but writing a story that is absolutely unlike anything else that has been previously written, might be an impossibility.
The reason so many stories can have similar themes yet retain aspects that set them apart from other stories, is because they flow from the minds of unique individuals. Two writers will not image the same characters or create identical worlds. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien and the A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R R Martin both include dragons, and battle scenes, but you’d never get them confused.
Perhaps exceptional story concepts are distinguished by how many ways they are adapted. The novel, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo was adapted as a feature film The War Horse (2011) by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. It is also a play, adapted from the novel by playwright Nick Stafford.
Although it’s not something you can anticipate while writing, the possibility exists that you won’t know you have a great story idea while working on a project. Writer Stieg Larson died in 2004, before his crime trilogy, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, became international bestsellers and were later adapted as feature films.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee publishing companies will accept your manuscript, even if it’s based on a great concept. Scarcity is a reality that affects all aspects of life, including literature and editors are forced to reject manuscripts with great potential, because budget constraints limit how many books they can publish.
The most important question, however, is whether you’re going to write. Your story idea might result in a bestselling novel, an Oscar winning screenplay, or a Tony (Antoinette Perry Award) winning play. It might be an eBook forgotten in an endless sea of thumbnails, or another screenplay that’s never produced. Is it worth it? Absolutely! What I’ve observed in other writers, and experienced myself, is there’s sense of accomplishment when you finish a writing project, and joy in the process as you let the creative juices flow.
I’m starting a new project. I don’t know whether publishers or producers will think my concept has potential or if they’ll just ignore it. Nevertheless, I will be writing, because I think I have a great story idea.
Copyright © 2023 by J. Paul Cooper