Original ideas: Do they exist and how do you come up with one?

Mark Twain said there is no such thing as an original idea.

He said we can turn old ideas into new, curious combinations, but he reckoned they are “the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

If you’ve ever felt like every love story was somehow a remake of Romeo and Juliet, you’ll know where Twain was coming from.

And, not that we’re complaining, but with films like, The Lion King, Frozen II, Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Jumanji: The Next Level topping the UK box office in the last year, it seems that new characters and sagas may be a bit harder to come by.

Nothing better than that light-bulb moment

So whether it’s the familiarity of these favourites, the safety of tried and tested stories, or simply that it’s really hard to come up with something brand new, we’ve been wondering how original ideas are born.

We spoke to Dr Craig Jordan-Baker, senior lecturer of creative writing at the University of Brighton, and Cordelia Hebblethwaite, commissioning executive at BBC Ideas.

Whether you need to get the creative juice flowing for your English coursework, or fancy yourself the brains behind the next Netflix Original, this might help.

Step 1: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’

Instead of asking his students to arrive in class with a fully formed idea for the next big blockbuster, Craig teaches writing as a way of developing ideas.

“By writing about an idea in a creative way, we can come to appreciate it more, come to actually investigate it, and broaden our understanding of it. Don’t get it right, get it written,” he said.

He helps his students come up with new ideas by drawing them into a space where they write something they wouldn’t have thought of at first - sometimes it’s about getting out of your comfort zone:

“A creative writing course wouldn’t really be worthwhile if people wrote what they were going to write anyway,” he said.

So, write it down and see where it goes. Next, figure out if it’s worth pursuing.

It can be as simple as putting pen to paper

Step 2: ‘It almost makes your hairs stand on end’

Cordelia works at BBC Ideas - what better place to start for an article about ideas? - a growing collection of short films about thought-provoking or challenging topics.

She is involved in deciding what videos are published, which means looking at a lot of creative ideas. We asked her how she knows a good idea when she sees one.

She said it’s by no means an exact science.

“This sounds a bit ridiculous, but very often you get a feeling, it almost makes your hairs stand on end. You can feel that something is going to be intriguing and interesting,” she said.

So you’ve had the feeling, time to check if your idea is a new one.

It can be difficult to know which idea to pursue

Step 3: ‘Bring it to life in a new way’

Cordelia said the originality of an idea can come with the way you approach it.

She said even if something's been done before, this doesn’t necessarily mean game over. Instead, said Cordelia, BBC Ideas would want the approach to be different.

“Sometimes this idea of an idea being completely new is a difficult one,” she said.

“There are seven or so billion people in the world and a whole history that came before, for almost every idea, chances are someone somewhere will have had the same or similar.”

“So, it’s really about bringing that idea to life in a new way.”

Cordelia said one way of approaching ideas is with juxtapositions - combining two different things that are rarely put together, like what can quantum physics teach us about queer identity?

Two heads are often better than one

Cordelia’s top tips for having great ideas

  • Don’t sit and agonize over coming up with a completely original idea
  • Go for a walk, a jog, a swim, to clear your head
  • Trust the connections you make in your head, this is where individual creativity comes into play
  • Your experience of the world is unique, pull together parts of what you have read, heard or seen
  • Talk to people from diverse backgrounds to get different, valuable perspectives
  • And write things down!

Step 4: ‘99% perspiration, 1% inspiration’

Craig said sometimes his students shy away from the work that goes into an idea. He said when you are finding an idea difficult, or it doesn’t seem to be working in an obvious way, this doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

“It’s about having faith in your idea. Most ideas can work, but all ideas require a lot of time,” he said.

He thinks the important thing is to get going, get something down, and then you can explore it. Don’t give up just because it’s not coming easily, often it’s worth putting the hours in.

“99% perspiration, 1% inspiration,” he said.

It can feel like a great idea is just out of reach but hard work can really pay off
The teenage brain: How can neuroscience help us understand teenagers?
Five films that don't get school quite right
Can writing be therapeutic?