I frequently counsel writers who are stuck in the early stages of book planning because they are paralyzed by anxiety that their plot or premise has already been written before – and better – by another author. I’m here to tell you what I tell them: stop worrying because the devil is in the details.
The devil in the details is a phrase often trotted out to discuss how easy it is to come up with an idea, and how much harder it is to execute it. And this is true. Many a brilliant book has been planned but never published.
But here’s the beautiful thing: if you can beat back the devils of writing – the desperate dance of procrastination, the terror of the blank page, the slog of revision – then you do not need to worry about somehow writing the same book as another author because the difference is in the details – all of those concrete words that you battled to get on the page.
If you zoom out far enough, stories can be grouped into just a few categories or tropes. Whole genres seem to be rehearsing the same story over and over again: A body is discovered and a skilled sleuth solves the crime. A girl meets a boy; they overcome difficulties and differences to live happily ever after. An ordinary person must discover their hidden inner strength to defeat an oppressive force and save the world. (If you are interested in reading more about archetypal plot and universal tropes, the work of Joseph Campbell is a good place to start.)
But zoom back in and The Hunger Games looks totally different from Star Wars. Hercule Poirot and Lisbeth Salander share little other than the ability to solve complex crimes. Paul Vidich’s spy novel The Good Assassin is set in Havana in the late 1950s, just like Graham Greene’s classic spy novel Our Man in Havana, and yet Vidich explores a political, psychological, and emotional landscape that overlaps only slightly with that explored by Greene. (Read about Vidich’s own anxiety of influence here.)
Let’s look more closely at a specific example, the familiar trope of the poor kid in the rich kid’s world. And for that we need to go straight to the ’80s. Remember the John Hughes classic Pretty in Pink? Andie is the daughter of an underemployed, working-class father; she drives a beat-up Karmann Ghia painted an on-point pink; and she sets out to navigate the treacherous shark tank the rich kids are living in.
Now, let’s look at a recent novel that seems to explore exactly the same territory: My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix. We’re back in the ’80s, though in Charleston rather than suburban Chicago. Abby is the daughter of an underemployed, working-class father; she drives a beat-up car named the Dust Bunny; and she sets out to navigate the treacherous shark tank the rich kids are living in.
Both works share a basic premise that can be traced as far back as Jane Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park. To survive the shark tank, the poor kid needs to draw on her superior moral clarity and strength of will and simply sit back and watch as the rich kids destroy themselves through in-fighting and self-sabotage.
Even with all of these similarities, Hendrix and Hughes take entirely different paths to get from point A to point B. While Hughes uses the love triangle of Andie, Blane, and Duckie to explore the shark tank, Hendrix zeroes in on female friendship and, well, demonic possession. (Hendrix’s irresistible GoodReads description of the novel: “like Beaches meets The Exorcist, only it’s set in the Eighties.”)
If you need further examples of authors persevering through a seemingly impossible task of differentiation, go read half-a-dozen Regency romances. These supremely clever authors manage to craft plot after inventive plot all set in a narrowly defined time and place, all of them with the prescribed happy ending.
But if you are “researching” Regency romances to procrastinate from writing, then stop it immediately. Slay that procrastination devil and get all of those delicious details about your story that are lurking in your brain down onto the page. Because, in the end, the details are what make the book.