Have you ever been brainstorming an idea for a story when something just hits you, and you think, “Man, this is a great idea!” Immediately, you take up a pencil, or power on the second-hand laptop you picked up from that sketchy guy at the mall, and start writing. The words flow and the idea begins to emerge. Only when you’re halfway through do you go back and read what you’ve written, only to say, “Hmmm…this story about a boy that goes to wizard school to fight an ultimate evil sounds vaguely familiar…”
No matter how original your idea, chances are someone has beaten you to it first. That doesn’t mean you should give up. In fact, take it as a challenge to write someone else’s idea, but with your own spin.
In that vein, I give you “Framing.” I’m sure there is a proper term for this technique, but I’ve been unable to find it (if anyone knows it, please leave me a note in the comments). What is framing? Think of it in terms of filmmaking. When a director or cinematographer sets up a shot for a scene, the frame that scene with the camera. In other words, it is what the camera is pointing at.
How does that work for fiction? Well, think of it as shifting the focus of an idea in such a way that you can explore well-trodden literary ground but still have a fresh angle on it.
For example, let’s say you would like to write a story about aliens. Well, you will be hard-pressed to come up with something that hasn’t been done to death on Syfy, or by the plethora of sci-fi writers since 1950. What to do? Frame the story a different way. Rather than concentrate on the aliens, turn the camera to one of the people indirectly experiencing the alien invasion.
At this point, the “camera” isn’t even looking at the aliens. They are just in the background. Your story now focuses on characters that are only indirectly affected by the main action. Instead, the story may focus on the love story happening in the midst of the alien invasion.
For me, this helps me to avoid writer’s block. Instead of trying to come up with a brand new alien story, I instead just dig into the human condition (which is fresh no matter how many times we write about it) and search for the stories that are universal amidst a story that isn’t.
This is the same approach many “indie” stories and films take in order to skew the angle at which they attack a cliched story idea. So, go ahead and brainstorm all you like about werewolves, artificial intelligence, aliens, time traveling, and superheroes. Once you’ve settled on an idea you want to explore, shift the focus and frame the story in a way that makes it more universal, and therefore unique to you as you tell it.