Become a student of movies and you’ll find that there’s rarely a completely original idea that hasn’t already been done before. “Alien” is about a space creature that sneaks aboard a space ship and starts killing the crew members, one by one. Yet that’s the exact same plot of “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” which came out twenty years earlier.
Don’t worry about creating a completely original plot that’s never been done before because it’s likely an earlier movie, novel, or short story preceded your idea. What’s important isn’t an original plot but the specific details of your plot, setting, and characters that make your story unique and appealing.
When “Die Hard” became a hit, Hollywood rushed to create similar movies with the same “one guy against an army of terrorists” formula. Most of these “Die Hard” copycats failed because they simply duplicated the action of “Die Hard.” Why bother watching a “Die Hard” copycat when you can just watch the much better “Die Hard” instead?
One successful “Die Hard” copycat was “Under Siege,” which pitted one man against an army of terrorists, but set on a battleship. That unique setting alone helped make “Under Siege” different enough from “Die Hard” while still remaining faithful to the nearly identical plot.
When coming up with ideas for your own stories, don’t just copy the latest hit movie or best-selling novel. Ask yourself what’s different enough about your idea?
There have been plenty of revenge movies involving hit men, but “John Wick” created an unusual world where hit men follow principles in an underground society that includes a luxury resort where they’re not allowed to attack each other. There have been lots of love stories but “Her” posed the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system.
Change the setting, change the characters, and make those changes an integral part of your story. That’s how you can take the same plot and turn it into something that nobody has ever seen before. There’s a reason why sequels tend to be far weaker than the original because sequels rarely show us anything new while recycling the same plot.
“Ghostbusters 2” didn’t offer anything different from the original “Ghostbusters” except less structure and far less humor. “Paul Blatt: Mall Cop” created a comedy about a shopping mall security guard who becomes a hero. Then “Paul Blatt: Mall Cop 2” repeated that same idea except put the hero in a casino while offering nothing else that we hadn’t already seen before in the original movie. All those “Star Wars” prequels and sequels still fail to offer us anything different that we hadn’t already seen in the original movie.
Watch most sequels to see why you can’t just copy an existing story and hope that it will succeed. You can’t duplicate something familiar because it’s been done before. You can’t give us something totally unfamiliar because it won’t make sense. Instead, you must walk the fine line between giving audiences something familiar while still offering something different.
To do that, make your story unique in some way. If your idea is just a copy of a popular story, find a way to change it and make it unique. Whatever’s different about your story should make us want to know more, and that’s the key to coming up with a great idea.