Ideas swarm from the writer’s brain like bees from a hive. At any given moment, most of us have snippets of inspiration floating around in the netherworld between our conscious and unconscious. Some of those ideas we develop, some we abandon; some will turn out to be gold, some will be trash. We’ll probably never have time to write the vast majority of these ideas, which is why we must prune so carefully through our hive of our ideas, attempting to focus our attention on only the best.
For myself, personally, I know that no matter how many years I live, I will die with unwritten stories clattering around inside my brain. So, for now, I write like a madwoman. With so many stories to tell and so comparatively little time in which to tell them, I have no time to waste on repetition. I cannot tell the same story twice.
As much as that may sound like a no-brainer, it’s not. And it’s not as easy as it first appears either. All of us are confined to a certain degree by our own experiences and beliefs. Our writing is molded and directed by those beliefs. As a result, we find a boundless variety in the larger world of literature. You and I could conceive the same story idea, we could even follow the same outline, and the end result would be two entirely different stories. That’s a good thing.
What’s not such a good thing, however, is the extent to which these individual experiences and beliefs tend to funnel our stories into repetition. Anyone who’s written more than one story has probably noticed certain emerging themes/characters/settings/plot twists that tend to consistently crop up in his writing. Maybe you’ve even had to trash a story or two because it ended up sounding too much like something else you’d already written.
The more-or-less rigid formulae of most genres only contribute to the problem. Romance and mystery writers, for example, are definitely constrained by the general guidelines of their genres (the hero and heroine must always fall in love; the detective must always solve the murder). In fact, readers generally seek genre fiction because they know exactly what they’re getting. Unfortunately, as the plethora of excellent writers who have carved themselves a niche in genre writing could no doubt attest, finding ways to deliver an original story that follows predictable guidelines is a challenge to say the least.
Being the eclectic (and occasionally eccentric) person I am, I’ve never been able to restrict myself to one (or even two) genres. I’ve written everything from historical to fantasy to contemporary. All this genre-hopping may allow me more flexibility in my plots, but it hardly stops my own personalized redundancies from cropping up.
Without even realizing it, I’ve conjured up stories in far-flung settings with unique characters—only to discover déjà vu waiting for me on the next page. When I find a character, a setting, an interesting bit of back story, or a turn of phrase that I love, I invariably find myself unconsciously trying to recycle it. For example, in Behold the Dawn, my novel of the 3rd Crusade, I found myself writing a subplot for Warin the Templar, a minor character, which involved him becoming disillusioned with a beloved father figure (my antagonist). But as I delved a little deeper into this tantalizing little plot twist, realization suddenly smacked me over the head: this was the same relationship catalyst I’d used between the hero and the antagonist in A Man Called Outlaw. Whoops.
Tempting as it was to continue writing Warin’s little drama, I made myself pull back. After all, this father-figure story was one I’d explored in depth in another book. Why dilute this new story by dragging in old material? I’ve read too many authors who tend to recycle pet themes and situations. A line from the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain rings all too true sometimes: “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” It’s inevitable that we will repeat ourselves to some extent, but I have made it a conscious goal to strive toward originality in every one of my stories. And that’s hard.
Despite the wide range of ideas buzzing around in my head, it’s shocking how many of them resonate on familiar themes. And so I must prune my idea collection and force my brain to come up with original character after original character, original scenarios, original conflicts, original dialogue. It’s one thing to come up with one brilliant story, another thing entirely to be able to produce brilliance and originality on a consistent basis. I never want to write the same story twice. It’s a goal I’ll never be able to completely fulfill, but in striving to never repeat story scenarios, I’ve most definitely stretched muscles and forced myself to grow as a writer.
Even within the confines of genre, the possibilities for new and different stories rings as a challenge. Not only does originality promise to make a writer stand out from a crowd of trite and hackneyed stories, it also opens a whole new world of creativity. The idea that I might be able to write a completely different story every time I type “Chapter One” is heady stuff indeed. In a lifetime that can never encompass all the stories begging to be told, why waste time retelling the old ones?
Story by K.M. Weiland