Everyone goes on and on about original ideas, yet the the notion of an original idea in art has only been with us for about one-hundred years. This concept was propagated by the Modernists who sought to abandon the superstitions and folklore of the past. These Modernists valued the strange and surreal over traditional storytelling. Novelists like James Joyce and William Faulkner wanted their stories to be difficult and complex. They thought that if the story were intricate, then it would supersede oral tradition. (Ironically, Joyce’s seminal work, Ulysses, modeled itself off of the Odysseus myth.) Even today, we look for originality as a sign that something is “good”.
Skipping to before the twentieth century, we see that folklore and tradition reign. People retold stories over and over again, in a game of telephone that lasted centuries. The myth of Odysseus wasn’t even written down for ages. People simply memorized the story.
There’s also something to be said for a good story. Myth and folklore have plenty of great ideas. So use them. Why struggle to come up with something brand new, when the old tales work. They have to work. They survived. It’s evolution for writing. Even the US Government acknowledges this. You can copyright an execution (how you write something) but not an idea. That’s why you typically see two or even three movies about the same subject from Hollywood: Dante’s Peak and Volcano; Armageddon and Deep Impact.
Take Frankenweenie. It’s a rehash of the Frankenstein story. But who cares. I plan to see it. The concept was reinvented by Tim Burton to become a macabre comedy. The original short film was hilarious. Now that’s it’s expanded into a full film, it should be hilarious. Do I constantly think back to how Burton pirated from Mary Shelly? No. I think of how inventive he was in his adaptation.
If you feel hemmed in as an artists because you simply can’t think of an idea, reverse your strategy. Look for good stories and then write your own take on it. Reimagine and reinvent. Put your own spin on it.