After excitedly retelling your completely never before seen idea to your friend they reply back with, “Oh yeah, that sounds a lot like Harry Potter. I loved those books.” How do you react? Do you ignore your friend? Do you fume? Fear?
Not every idea you’ll have will be original. By my estimate, I can point out where 85% of my ideas come from be it a joke a friend of mine once made, an idea proposed by a physicist, a scientific study on mushroom colonies, or most often, a novel or history. The other 15% I take from places I can’t remember. But once in a blue moon I stand upon a giant’s shoulder and see new, distant lands.
You can’t let the fact that your new idea is similar to another idea stop you. Entire days can be spent lamenting on TV Tropes. Entire video essays can and have been made questioning the inspirations behind stories based on the author’s admitted interests and influences. It’s fine to leave that to the critics after you write your story.
Getting inside your own head is a surefire way to ruin any potential in the story you’re writing. Double, triple, quadruple guessing every line of dialog and plotline and character action and so on will grind the creative process to a halt. Hyperconsciousness about all the possible choices you can make and what other stories – stories that aren’t your own – have that are similar doesn’t direct you towards a specific line of curiosity and interest and motivation to share what you’ve learned.
Ultimately, why are you writing at all? Do you want money, fame; do you want to write something others will enjoy; do you want to create the zeitgeist for your generation? The possibilities of these things coming true vary but they’re all fine things to strive for that may come true if you try and try and try. Trying to write a story that’s like nothing else ever written with a new type of story structure and a new type of narrative methodology and a new genre that touches new emotions never before expressed in any artwork—it’s not going to happen.
Human imagination is limitless but we all share prewired thought processes such as our deductive reasoning, pattern recognition, and many others. Even when humans inherently view things differently, they aren’t alone, there’s been more than one person who can see sounds as colors. In any appreciable amount of time you’ll work to solve a problem in your story and shortcut to the same answer thousands and thousands before already arrived at.
“This scene’s flat: Toss a henchman at the protagonist.”
“These characters’ relationship is thin: Get them alone and have them talk about their hobbies.”
“The climax has no tension: Put a beloved character in danger.”
If I had to surmise a single solution to this creative problem then I’d say the number one, most effective, greatest guarantee way you can make your story different than all the rest in existence is, finish it.
Few writers know exactly what they want to write about when they start writing and even less know how to go about showing it. It’s common for a writer to only discover what they want to convey half or three quarters of the way through their first draft. You might also have a wizarding school in your story, but if at the end of your first draft the wizarding school is forcibly churning out graduating class after graduating class of cannon fodder wizards to fight in a forever-war against the primordial smog of evil incarnate, the Harry Potter comparisons dry up pretty quick. The story starts with a wonderstruck youngster entering a special school for the first time and from there develops themes of conformity, militarism, social ostracization, it questions the worth of a single life against the greater masses, what freedom means when a society is pressed to its breaking point.
Any two stories can talk about the same subject in the same way two math teachers can explain how to solve a problem. They can start with the same tools and the same question, use the same techniques to figure out that problem, and at the end they could both come to the same conclusion. However, one math teacher could leave you with the confidence that you can solve the problem too where the other math teacher could have you scratch your head raw. Despite all these similarities, nearly everything is a variable: manner of speech, word choice, pacing, tone, what is elaborated on in detail vs what’s assumed to be understood, do they block the whiteboard by writing at the centerline of their chest?
Ultimately what makes any two stories different from one another is the execution. The many fine details that become the trademarks of any author’s writing style don’t shine clear in a bare bones outline. Any writer can have two characters meet for the first time and fall in love but it takes a special talent to make such a thing believable. The talented writer could follow both characters extensively and show what’s lacking in their lives and how their personalities fulfill each other’s wants or explore their families and play off the common phycological rational that a woman seeks a man who’s like her father and a man seeks a woman who’s like his mother. But at the end of their story, they have something you can read.
And if you worry over striking a familiar tone when telling a friend about your story, then you won’t get the opportunity to show what makes it your story.