This Has Been Done Before!

Hello, readers. Today I want to critique a particularly annoying review that every author will eventually encounter. Regardless of content, genre, or originality, you will undoubtedly come across a review that claims that your book is derivative or that your story has already been told.

Let me start this article by putting that assessment into perspective:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.

In case you don’t recognize it, that is a quote by Andre Gide, a French author who passed away in 1951 after making one of the most profound statements of all time. To paraphrase, there is no story that hasn’t already been told. Therefore, the mere concept of a book being derivative or a story already having been told is preposterous. You can test my assertion by thinking of any subject matter. Once you have something in mind, try to think of every book you’ve read or every movie that you’ve seen that centers around the topic.

If you’re thinking of space sagas, then the list is long – Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Gallactica, Firefly, Interstellar, and the list goes on and on. If you were thinking of murder mysteries or crime thrillers, then the list is even greater – Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie novels, Sam Spade, and so many others that I dare not try to list them all. Regardless of what you were thinking, someone at some point in time has already written about the subject matter. I dare you to try to think of a concept that hasn’t already been written about. Killer clowns from outer space? Already done. Giant tomatoes attacking the world? Already done. Emojis coming to life and pillaging cities? Already done. Zombies? Done. Clones? Done. Time travel? Done. Alternate universes? Done. You name it, it’s been done.

At this point, I think that it’s important to note the difference between plagiarism and creativity. By definition, the former is portraying someone else’s ideas as your own. Creativity, however, allows you to expand on the underlying concepts without infringing on their rights. If I want to write a book about vampires, I’m not stealing from Bram Stoker so long as I make the story my own. Likewise, if I write about a zombie apocalypse, that doesn’t mean that I’m using The Walking Dead as a crutch.

With any story, the goal is to make it uniquely your own. While it may deal with common ideas like death, romance, time travel, or even an apocalyptic event, that does not make it derivative. Following in Gide’s footsteps, I’ll leave you with a quote of my own:

Since everything that can be written has been written, make your version of the story unique.


  • John Hazen

    I had an English professor who said that nothing original had been said in a thousand years of literature. How it’s said is what makes it original. We recently saw the musical Hadestown, which is a retelling of the story go Orpheus and Eurydice. This is a myth that goes back at least to 3-400 BC. But, as Wikipedia notes, the subject is among the most frequently retold of all Greek myths, being featured in numerous works of literature, operas, ballets, paintings, plays and more recently, films and video games. Or as Hermes sings in Hadestown,
    It’s an old song
    It’s an old tale from way back when
    It’s an old song
    And we’re gonna sing it again and again

    We’re gonna sing it again.

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