The process of writing original stories is shrouded in mystery.
Occasionally, as part of my daily Writing Question of the Day (#WQOTD) on Twitter and Facebook, I’ll ask, “What makes your story original?” It’s a question that tends to get fewer responses than normal, and the responses I do receive are often nebulous or downright uncertain.
Every author wants to write original stories, but most of the time, we’re a little confused about how to get ‘er done. There are a couple of reasons for this.
1. This one’s the shocker: originality is actually much less crucial than you’ve been led to believe.
2. There doesn’t seem to be a definable process for creating originality (i.e., you either come up with an original idea or you don’t).
Today, you’re going to learn how to make reason number one work in your favor, and then how to initiate that elusive process to write original stories and characters.
How to Be Comfortable in the Bubble of Un-Originality
Want to know the reason so many authors have trouble answering my #WQOTD about original elements in their stories? Because they’re not writing original stories.
Want to know why they’re not writing original stories? Because they don’t want to.
And that’s okay.
There’s nothing new under the sun, and most of us are fine with that. As we covered a while back in our discussion of “the re-readability factor,” most readers love experiencing the same story over and over again. Same goes for authors. Often, we harvest our initial kernel of inspiration from the work of another author whose story we love. You put the book down and think, “I want to write about sparkly vampires/Muggles/post-apocalyptic girl warriors.” How many fantasy authors got started because they wanted to stay in that same magical place to which Tolkien introduced them?
Just as importantly, how many readers keep riding the cyclical trends all way to the end, simply because they love the re-scrambled repeated elements? Yes, they want a slightly new take, but more because they want the opportunity to explore different aspects of this same idea.
Which is all to say: if you’re having trouble identifying your story as something completely new and ground-breaking, don’t worry about it too much.
How to Push the Boundaries of the Bubble of Un-Originality
For all that readers are happy to keep gobbling more of the same delicious meal, they’re also–somewhat contradictorily–always in search of the next new thing. When something truly fresh and original sweeps onto the scene, it’s like a cool breath of fresh of air. Once its come, I often feel like I’m blinking myself awake–like I just got to experience something I had been wanting for a long time without even realizing it.
Original ideas tend to roll in cycles. Readers and authors alike are content to live within that bubble of un-originality for a while. But then the trends begin to evolve. They start pushing at the walls of the bubble, poking, prodding, and expanding, until suddenly they burst through and something new and exciting rolls forth–and creates a new bubble within which everyone’s stories live for a while before the cycle repeats.
If you want to be a innovative artist–and, not coincidentally, if you want to hang out in that lucrative zone of the next great genre trend–then the best thing you can do is constantly challenge yourself to think past your own comfort zone. You want to write about post-apocalyptic vampiric Muggles? No problem. But don’t stay in that spot just because it’s comfortable and enjoyable.
4 Tweaks to Consistently Creating Original Stories
Believe it or not, there is a process you can use to challenge your own originality and tweak your story into something that offers a new and entertaining slant on old ideas.
Here are four steps.
1. Understand Your Genre/Topic
It’s kinda like the old truism: “Before you can break the rules, you must understand the rules.” It’s useless to embark on a story you find new and exciting without first understanding its place within the library of existing books.
For example, when I first started writing my portal fantasy Dreamlander, I hadn’t yet read enough fantasy to understand what concepts had already been done to death. I was having a ball with my classic medieval world, complete with classic fantasy creatures, such as dragons, elves, and brownies. Around the time one person challenged me to create something unique, another challenged me to read widely in the genre.
So I did. I asked for fantasy recommendations and read every single one of them. My understanding of the genre changed completely. Now that I could see what elements had already been overdone, I could also see the blanks in between that were still waiting to be filled in.
I replaced my dragon with the angelic Garowai, the elves with the Viking/Native American-inspired Cherazii, and the brownies with the symbiotic Reivers–and the story became so much the better for it.
This prerequisite of understanding your story’s background also applies to realistic facts. If you’re writing about World War I or race-car drivers or a five-star restaurant chef, you must understand that world inside-out. Literature is so full of romanticized clichés that sometimes the most original thing you can do is write the facts and nothing but the facts.
2. Figure Out What Your Story Needs
Let me tell you what originality is not.
As we talked about on Friday, originality is not sticking in every cool new idea you can think of just for the sake of cool newness. (There’s a reason Amish Vampires From Space was conceived as a farce!) Originality worth its salt must be more than merely original; it must contribute to the story in a meaningful way.
Take a minute to sit down and ask yourself: What does my story need?
For example, in outlining my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, I wrote a list of all the potentially interesting aspects inherent in:
- My hero’s powers
- My antagonist’s powers
- The origin of those powers
- The Regency period’s high society
- The Regency period’s criminal underbelly
Then I tried to figure out two things:
1. How could I take advantage of each of these things in a unique way?
2. What original aspects were latent in these things and had never been used before?
Not all the ideas I came up with were great; not all were entirely original. But it was a fun exercise that forced me to think outside the box.
I did the same thing when planning the aerial fight scenes in my recent historical/dieselpunk novel Storming. I wanted to come up with battle scenarios and plans that were out of the ordinary but that fit in perfectly with the needs of the story. It helped that the antagonist and his weapons were unusal enough to eliminate common solutions right out of the box. (Of course, my technical advisers made me cut some of my favorite ideas for the sake of realism–but you can still find them in the book’s Bonus Features, accessible via the link in the back.)
3. Add Multiple Layers
This is my all-time favorite method. In fact, it’s a required step for me in creating stories, even when I’m not consciously seeking originality. Most of my ideas start out pretty one-dimensional. (Often, the initial idea is one of those kernels gleaned from someone else’s book/movie/song, and if I were to just take off and run with it, the resultant story would either be fan fiction or plagiarism.)
In order for these little inspirations to turn into actionable stories, they have to collide with several other layers of inspiration. Mentally, I collect ideas as if they were shiny pieces of sea glass. Every now and then, I run my hand through the treasure chest, come up with a handful of unrelated pieces, and look for ways to fit them together in unexpected and interesting ways. As soon as I can combine three or more interesting pieces, I have a story–and, usually, not just a story, but an original premise.
In Sell More Books, J. Steve Miller commented that:
Successful actor Johnny Depp once said that when he takes a part, he not only learns the lines and does what’s expected, but he tries to add “that little something extra.”
Depp’s iconic pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow was originally conceived as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman (and even named after him). Although Jackman would undoubtedly have been fun in the role, I can’t help feeling he would have played the character a little (or maybe a lot!) straighter than did Depp. Depp looked for an extra layer in a role designed to be simply a comic turn on a classic pirate archetype, and he transformed it into one of the most memorable and iconic characters of the 2000s.
You can do the same with your own characters and premises. Don’t settle for the “flat,” expected idea that first occurs. Come at it from interesting angles and add unexpected complementing pieces to create something exciting and innovative.
4. Challenge Your Own Expectations
This is the hardest step, but also the most important. Why is it hard? Because it’s incredibly easy to allow our imaginations to settle into comfortable routines. We throw in a car chase or a romantic subplot just because that’s what every other story is doing. The hero always has to win; the bad guy always has to lose. The good guy has to do only good things; the bad guy has to do only bad things. It’s expected. We expect it.
In Secrets of Story: Well Told, screenwriter William C. Martell reminds writers:
[W]e want something that is different than anything we have seen before… and that requires imagination. … One of the problems with battle scenes (like in that endless fight at the end of Man of Steel) is that they can be bland and repetitive. A battle scene needs imagination. Winning a battle by sheer physical force is dull, your characters need to be clever. The how is critical–make sure how things happen is different than what we have seen before….
One of my all-time favorite movie scenes happens at the beginning of the Climax in Kevin Costner’s western Open Range. Throughout the story, there have been hints of the coming showdown between ex-gunslinger protagonist Charley and the antagonist’s brutal hired killer Butler.
In most stories, this showdown would have been saved for the penultimate round and dragged out. Here, viewers are surprised (in an entirely sensible way) when Charley opens the fight by immediately and proficiently killing Butler with one bullet to the head. It’s an entirely simple subversion of the expected that both fulfills its story’s needs and creates the opportunities for interesting insights into the characters and situation.
With every character you create and every scene you write, train yourself to stop and ask one question: What if I did this differently? More often than not, you probably won’t do it differently, but every once in a while, you’ll find the opportunity to completely shake up your story and create something that will stick in readers’ minds forever.
Creating original stories and characters is rather like panning for gold. Most of the time, you’re going to come up with pretty much the same results as everybody else. And that’s okay. (How many Batman renditions are we looking at right now, after all?) But the longer you keep at it, the more likely you are to strike gold once in a while and come up with a truly original and wonderful new idea.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What tricks do you employ to try to come up with original stories and characters? Tell me in the comments!
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