As some of you may know, since I refer to it from time to time, I'm part of a writer's group. Mostly, we're just there for moral support, but we also act as critique partners to each other, and friends, and people to vent and stress to, and people to gab to about books and TV (Veronica Mars and Buffy being two of our favorites...though I'm going to lose followers when I say I'm not into Buffy. GASP! I'm trying though. Really. But those 1990's special effects are soooo cheesy.)
But one of the best things that the groups is around for is brainstorming. We have weekly chats where we all get together and talk about our writing problems (or other random things), but we're also all on an email list so we can stay in touch with each other throughout the day. So, often, I'll get an email that says something like this:
OK, so you guys know that I have Jane and Josh, and they've been hooking up for like three weeks now, even though Jane is dating Jim. Well, Jane doesn't know that Jim has that big secret which will totally make her go back to him even though she likes Josh more. Problem is, I don't know how to get her to figure it out!!! Jim and Josh are best friends, but I don't want her to just overhear it because that's lame so...thoughts?
And then different people in the group will chime in with suggestions. (Obviously that scenario is SUPER basic, but hey...I'm under pressure here.) There are maybe five or six of us who are extremely active, then another few who are very active, then another few who are in the group but aren't super active. So in one email thread, the writer who's posing the original problem will get a lot of suggestions.
So what I'm learning is this: One person might suggest that Jane reads about Jim's secret in his diary. Another might suggest that Jane is really jealous, so she goes through Josh's texts and sees something from Jim that leads her on the right path. Another person might take that suggestion and say, "OMG!! What if Jim and Josh are actually secretly seeing each other?? And the text she sees are love letters??" and another person might suggest that Jim catch Josh and Jane making out and just blurt out the secret because he's so pissed, etc.
The amount of brainstorming that can happen in one of our chat sessions or email chains can sometimes be overwhelming, but if it's shown me anything it's this: if any of the writers in my group had been given that problem, been told to go into a corner, and write out how the story played out on their own, a totally different novel would have emerged. Of course, overlap would be possible. But everyone has such unique ideas and different directions to take one nugget of story that, in the end, no two story lines end up being the same.
Often, writers are absolutely paranoid about the idea that their story is too similar to something else out there - and I'm definitely no exception to this. (Though I'm glad that happened to me, because in the end what I came up with is SO much better.) But I think it's important to remember that while you might have the same basic elements as someone else, in the end, your story really is your own.