I have recently been reading submission guidelines from several magazines, anthology groups, and book publishers. The recurring theme in almost all the guidelines are requirements that the author submit completely original ideas. Often they add that while traditional themes or story tropes can be used, they should be approached in a unique way. I understand the need and request for an original idea because nobody likes copyright infringement lawsuits, and the typical reader usually doesn't want to buy a book that is exactly like one they've already read except with a new title. But it does present the question of what exactly constitutes an original idea?
I know personally, the original idea has been something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I am typically one who usually has about six or seven story ideas swimming about in my head at a time. These ideas are not often fully fleshed out (hence being only ideas rather than stories), and sometimes they may not translate as well when I start to actually work on them. The one thing I often find myself obsessing about, is pondering if the idea is actually truly original or something that has already been formed into an exciting and readily read tale. I've read many articles about successful authors who find themselves thrown into a lawsuit, because some mostly (often) unknown author feels his/her work had been blatantly ripped off. Lets say that one day my dream is fully realized, and not only do I get a novel published, but it is positively consumed by the masses thus making it a bonafide hit. I now find myself with money to toss towards my mortgage and the purchase of dancing bears. Suddenly, Mr. Buzzkill arrived with his horde of demon lawyers, brandishing his 10 year old novel, claiming that I completely ripped off his unheard of masterpiece, and even accusing me of lifting his exact words from his text (such as 'the', 'a', 'or', and 'penguin'). I am left in a stupor only able to say words like 'duh' and 'uh' -- which may not be entirely different from now. My money is no longer tossed towards my pleasures but rather to fight my brand new nemesis. I would be lying if I claimed this is not a small fear that occasionally crosses my mind when I'm in a brainstorm session (of course, since I have absolutely nothing resembling a book to be published, it could be said I am getting ahead of myself).
It leaves me with the huge question, what exactly is an original idea? Are there completely original ideas that still exist? How much of a story really needs to be original? I look at some of the greatest works or some of the most successful stories (which can be a different thing), and I can definitely see pieces that contain common themes or characters or story elements. One may even argue that many readers like some of these recurring theme or elements, such as the love triangle or a young person who is destined for a great quest.
It is probably very likely that many of your favourite stories can not be considered 100% original with nothing borrowed (intentionally or unintentionally) from other tales. Shakespeare (who for the record, I completely adore) is considered one of the greatest and is the most well known playwright of all time. It is a complete fact that not a single one of his plays are an original story. Every single of his plays were either entirely based on an already known story or was borrowed heavily from a commonly known story of the time. Yet, he is considered one of the all time greats and his works are often used for archetypes for modern stories. In the defense of Shakespeare, he did make these stories his very own by adding a poetic flair that no one before or after him could succeed at. He was the master of the pen, and he made very memorable plays, but the reality is, they can not be considered completely original.
Even in modern times, many of the bestselling novels or the blockbuster movies are not completely original ideas. Avatar, which is now the highest grossing movie of all time, has been accused of essentially reworking the Poncahontas story. One of the best selling young adult novels Twilight, apparently is nothing more than Romeo and Juliet with sparkling vampires (and the lack of the main characters dying). You can also look at other huge hits like Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Road, Indiana Jones, or Weekend at Bernie's, then quickly realize they all borrow heavily from other well known works. You could leave out the names of the characters when describing these stories and the description could almost be perfect for another well known tale.
So, I return to the question, does a truly original idea exist? Or is it a matter of taking a well known story like King Lear, but this time its about manatees that live in space that have a craving for goat cheese (note to self, totally copyright this idea). Even a movie like Reservoir Dogs that was hailed as a truly unique film, actually contained a very common and unoriginal story, but was presented in a very unique format. It wasn't the story that was so groundbreaking, but rather the gimmick of presenting it in a non-chronological way (though in reality, this also was not the first creative work to do this). Then the very next film by Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, followed the exact same format and with a story that still dealt with the world of gangsters. I am saying this as one of the biggest fans of both movies, but they aren't completely original tales. Now, even the 'original' way of presenting the story is actually very far from being unique in cinema or even in novels.
In the end, it seems that one shouldn't really be so focused on trying to be completely original. Instead one needs to come up with an idea that sparks creativity and makes the writer want to take that writing journey to see where the characters and events takes him/her. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my own lack of creativity and hackish tendencies.