I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a notebook of plot ideas. Sometimes these are just fragments; other times I’ll fill up pages of brainstorming. I leave all these ideas to simmer a while and then make a point of revisiting them later to see if any still appeal to me.
What I’m finding more often than not: it’s tough to come up with a completely original plot. Or if I think I’ve come up with an original plot, then I’ll come across a painfully similar story in the bookstore just a few weeks later.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. People have been writing stories for a long time, after all; no wonder all the basic story patterns have already been used. In Where Can I Find An Original Plot, Richard Young theorizes that there is really only ONE plot in literature:
‘The central character needs something, very, very badly. Failure to get this thing or do this thing will have dire consequences for this character or his or her loved ones. To begin with, every effort she or he makes to get this thing only adds to the complications and makes success look even less likely, but in the end there is a resolution, and either the protagonist gets the thing, and avoids the dire consequences, or doesn’t, and the feared dire consequences come to pass.’
Another tip: if you see a book out there with a story similar to yours, try not to assume that someone stole the idea from you.
Instead of investing too much energy trying to find The Unique Plot That Has Never Been Done Before, focus instead of making your story original through other means, like:
Setting: Choose an unusual or unexpected setting. Writing a zombie story? Don’t have the zombies attack your heroine in the graveyard. How about a shopping mall instead? Or a Tupperware party? A writers’ conference?