Almost every story has been told before in one form or another. If you’ve ever heard of a story about a spaceship that accidentally lets an alien on board that proceeds to kill the crew members one by one and seems impossible to stop, you might think of “Alien,” but that same plot came decades before in 1958 with the science fiction horror movie “It! The Terror from Beyond Space.”
So rather than try to create something truly original, it’s often much easier to combine two different elements and that combination will create something more distinctive than just a single good idea by itself. For example, consider “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” Both are space operas (the X factor), but what separates them is how they tell their space opera stories (the Y factor).
“Star Wars” is a space opera (X) told using swords & sorcery (Y) based on light sabers and the Force. “Star Trek” is a space opera (X) told within the structure of naval battles (Y). The USS Enterprise starship is nothing more than a battleship in space.
“Avatar” is another science fiction story (X) but combines it with the idea of natives (Y), much like science fiction meets the Old West. The Terminator series is a science fiction story (X) about machines that start a nuclear war to wipe out the human race (Y). Compare this to “The Matrix,” which is a science fiction story (X) about machines that imprison humans in a virtual reality to use their bodies as a source of energy (Y).
This X + Y formula for coming up with a distinctive idea is nothing more than choosing a genre for your story and then a sub-genre to define how you plan to tell that story.
“Camelot” is the story of King Arthur and his knights (X) told from a dramatic point of view (Y). “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is the exact same story of King Arthur and his knights (X) told from a comedic point of view (Y).
There’s a popular video game series called “Fallout,” which is about human survivors after a nuclear war (X) told with a darkly humorous 50’s perspective (Y). That’s a lot different than the same idea of surviving a nuclear war (X) in the novel and movie “On the Beach,” which tells the story of surviving a nuclear war from a dramatic point of view (Y).
So come up with your story idea (X) and then combine it with how you plan to tell that particular story (Y). This X + Y combination will likely help you come up with unique, distinct, and creative ideas quickly and easily.