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The Secret Ingredient of Original Stories

original storiesWith all the new books published in the last year alone, you kind of have to wonder if maybe everything there is to be said has already been said. With so many new books churning out every day, surely every idea has been done to death. What room is left for original stories?

You may look at the half-finished manuscript in your computer folder and then click through the latest releases on Amazon and cringe at how similar some of them sound to your own story. Are there any original stories left to be written? And, if so, how do you find one to write?

I’m about to give you the answers, but not without a most important caveat. I have to preface my answer by telling you, in all seriousness, that this is the deepest, darkest of writerly secrets. Originality is achieved thanks to a single super-secret ingredient. Brace yourselves, and try very, very hard not to scream:

The Secret Ingredient of Original Stories Is…

YOU. (Hey, I did warn you it was scary looking.)

Ultimately, nothing is new under this sun of ours. What has been before will be again. The wheel of time rolls on, the seasons cycle, patterns repeat. Struggling against this inevitable truth won’t help you create the next Suzanne Collins-esque trend. In fact, sometimes the more we try to be original, the more hackneyed our stories end up sounding.

The only truly original element writers have within their power is themselves. ThrillerMaster David Morell explained in a Writer’s Digest interview:

When I teach writing, I have a mantra: Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer…. I talk about [how] every writer has a dominant emotion, and if you can identify it and try to understand it, it becomes your subject matter, and it makes you different from everybody else.

Original Stories Are Honest Stories

No one in this world, before or since, possesses exactly your set of gifts and perspectives. No one else sees life precisely as you do. It’s true that, just as most of us learn to read using the same set of letters and symbols, most of us learn to view the world through similar frameworks and points of reference. But just as everyone who reads the same book comes away with a different mental and emotional experience, each of us also translates our knowledge of the world into a unique story.

The best writing is honest writing. Be brutally honest with yourself on the page. Dig deep to find the buried ideas that are yours alone beneath all the chatter and color of those half-million other ideas. If you do this, you’ll never have to worry about originality.

Children’s author Kathi Appelt drove the point home in her interview with The Writer:

…I write to fill the hole in my heart. At any given time, all of us have an empty spot, one that is calling for companionship, for example, or for justice, love, romance, or a belly laugh. When I sit down to write, I look to see what hole needs filling at that particular moment. Sometimes that can be painful—but it can’t be ignored. Flat or uninteresting writing often signals something deeper that is being covered up.

Be honest in your writing. Identify the originality inherent in yourself. Then turn it loose on the page and stun the world.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever felt you weren’t writing original stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I take comfort in the idea that everything’s been done before but no one’s had my take on it.

  2. I don’t believe that everything has been done before. The world is changing everyday, and each change brings new life and ideas into fiction. I read at least a book per week, and I am always amazed how many fresh ideas are in those novels.

    But I agree that everyone brings there own essence into their writing. Very inspiring post!

  3. The opposite — too original. I have to sometimes tone things down so I don’t end up with something that won’t sell because it hasn’t been done before.

  4. @Miss Cole: There’s all kinds of comfort in that. No one is more unique than you, and every one of your stories bears your unique fingerprints.

    @Heidi: The essence of humanity and the core stories that compose our lives remain the same throughout space and time. But, in other respects, certainly the material we have to work with is completely different from what writers in, say, the 18th century had at their disposal.

    @Linda: Don’t sell your originality too short. There are some pretty wacky writers out there who are fanatically loved.

  5. Great post with a lot to consider. It made me think: am I really spilling my own soul onto the page, or a recreation of another author who may have done it better? And I believe, at least in my early writing, it was the latter. For my WIP, I can see more of myself and less of someone else, so maybe I’m gaining ground. 🙂

  6. I do wonder if my work isn’t original but I know I’m writing from me already and I hope I have my own voice and someone will appreciate it. I think you have to have some belief in yourself somewhere or you really wouldn’t be able to keep pounding on that keyboard. My story may not be original as such, but I’m hoping that the way it’s being told has something original about it.

  7. This is my greatest worry–that I am unoriginal. Thank you for the words of encouragement, KM.

  8. The industry requires a weird mix of the familiar and the unknown. They don’t want anything too risky, but it can’t be exactly like the popular stuff. Write something that’s going to be horribly cliched… by next year. Or guarantee your originality will be recognised as greatness.

    Sometimes I think of it as an impossible task.

  9. @Lorna: I think that’s common. Most of us start out wanting to channel writers we love until we find our own voices.

    @Rebecca: If you love your story and you’re pouring everything you’ve got into it, the odds are excellent that readers will share your love of it.

    @J.S.: If you worry about unoriginality, you’re already aware of the pitfalls – and forewarned is forearmed.

    @Mooderino: Readers enjoy the familiar, tried and true stories, no question about it. The trick is always figuring how to satisfy that, while still presenting a new spin.

  10. Sure, but it’s a very narrow, no risk, approach to storytelling.

  11. I don’t worry so much that my writing is unoriginal but that I’m not reaching my writing’s full potential. Kathi Appelt’s comment on flat writing hit home. I continue to work everyday to uncover whatever it is that is being covered up.

  12. @Mooderino: It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not everyone has to be a mind-bending genre breaker. But, that said, there’s definitely a place for the mind benders. Writers willing to take risks (particularly in the speculative genre, seems like) can find a tremendous audience willing to risk right alongside them.

  13. @Anna: That’s the best any writer can do. So long as we’re always digging, we’re sure to come up with something original.

  14. “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” – C. S. Lewis

  15. Amen. If Lewis said it, it must be true!

  16. Spot on! What makes a story original is the writer. No one can write your story your way and that definitely is the secret ingredient. Thanks for reminding us!

  17. Even if every one of us started out with exactly the same moment of inspiration and the same story idea, we’d end up writing wildly different and original stories. How exciting is that?

  18. This is one of my favorite writerly “secrets” (I blogged on it myself back in February). It really comes down to the same reason we never tire of making new friends: we gravitate toward people with common interests and perspectives, but we never, ever find two identical people to befriend. Everyone’s different–and so are their stories.

    Great piece, Kat.

  19. That is a very cool point. There are so many different ways of telling a story, any story…

  20. First of all, I have to tell you that you’re my favorite writing adviser, hands down! As for originality, I suffer a similar malady to another commenter: too much originality! I strive so hard to reach the highest heights of originality that I can’t even name the genres of the four books I have published so far. It’s also quite a trial even explaining what they’re about. The thing is, I knew when I wanted to write my first book that I couldn’t/wouldn’t do it if it was going to be like anything else ever written- not that I’ve read every book ever published.
    Thanks for all your help and encouragement, K.M.,
    Julie Achterhoff

  21. Larry Brooks explained this awesomely (that’s a word, right?) in Story Engineering. He talked about how every story possesses a certain number of common elements, just as every person possess one head, two hands, two feet, etc. And, just as no person is the same as another, every story has the potential for countless variations within the framework of those common elements.

  22. @Galadriel: I tend to believe every one of us has *one* story to tell, and we tell it no matter how many different novels or short stories we write. But, because the room for variation, even in just one author, is limitless, every book is different from the previous one.

    @Julie: I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t believe there’s such a thing as too much originality. The only trick is figuring out how to market it sometimes!

  23. I’ve often thought of originality as taking two unrelated things and finding out what they have in common, or adding them together to find a new answer. For example, 2+2=22.

    Of course, the connections have to make sense, but even “making sense” is subject to interpretation. 🙂

  24. Juxtaposition – it’s my secret weapon of originality. Story ideas rarely take off for me until I’ve combined two or more seemingly disparate catalysts of inspiration.

  25. Great post! I think we could call this your voice, right? That thing that makes it uniquely you! Great take on it ;o)

  26. Voice is absolutely part of it, but our originality goes beyond even that, since not only will we each tell a story in a way that is uniquely ours, we’ll also tell a unique story.

  27. Great post. It’s important that we remember that a story similar to one we’re writing (or have written) may have already been done. Knowing this takes away any discouragement that may threaten to derail us when we come across it.

  28. In some instances, finding a successful story similar to our own can be a big help in convincing an agent or editor to take us on.

  29. On the topic of originality, the novel I’m writing at the moment started life as a piece of fan fiction. Six years alter, when i came back to it, I realised how and where I could file the serial numbers off. I’m still having some trouble figuring out just what the plot is going to be, but I’m trying to have it come from what I like and how I see the world rather than the source of inspiration.

  30. One thing I know for sure is that my work is totally unique. I’ve been reading heaps in my fantasy genre lately and there is nothing out there like mine.

    Why? I’m writing from my heart and (here’s my secret,) from the deepest part of my mind, beyond thinking. My ideas come out of the space of meditation.

    http://tahlianewland.com/the-novel/whats-it-about/

  31. @Rob: Quite a few of my stories found their initial nugget of inspiration in my love for someone else’s story – but they all end up taking on such a crazily individual life of their own that most readers would be hard-pressed to see any remnants of the story that inspired them.

    @Tahlia: If you can come up with a story that is even 80% unique you’ve hit it out of the ballpark. Good for you!

  32. I often wonder if my stories will be interesting if they seem similar to something else.

  33. People are always on the look for the next Matrix, the next Twilight, the next whatever, so, to some extent, they’re *looking* for similarities.

  34. Oh, K.M. you hit it on the head for me. Im going through a revamp of my non-fiction MS and struggling to put enough of ME on the pages. Just when I think I have dug deep, it’s still not enough. By adding more and more of my story, I have moved from my usual writing style. But it’s ok cause I know people want a story, not just a lesson. I only hope I am doing it right this time.
    Good words from you! Thanks.
    Jan

  35. Sometimes the very act of digging deep to find the truth at the heart of our stories can transform our voices.

  36. A terrific topic. When you walk into a bookstore and look around at thousands of books, you sometimes wonder what else needs to be written!

  37. Does the average reader *need* us to write our story? Probably not. Do *we* need to write? Definitely. And that’s always reason enough.

  38. Thank you for this post! I’m looking to do some slightly unorthodox things with my story as I being to edit WIP #2 and I’ve already had some nay-sayers. But I want to do it for me, and not just do what everyone says is acceptable for writers.

    It might turn out, it might not. But I’ll never know unless I try!

  39. Gabrielle says

    Thank you!!! I can’t tell you how often I’ve wondered whether it’s worth writing because everything has been done a thousand times before.

    “Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer”

    I like that. The C.S. Lewis quote that someone has already mentioned is great as well.

  40. Great post, Kim! I love this quote: “The only truly original element writers have it within their power to access is themselves.” Those words can help us to dig deep. Thank you!

  41. I hadn’t thought about whether my work is original or not. To me, books are like paintings. How many renditions of a sunrise have been captured on canvas? Yet we like to discuss how one version of the sunrise may be better than another – and everyone has an opinion. So I’m just putting my version of ‘the sunrise’ out there. 😉

  42. @Stephanie: Do it for you! That’s always a good reason to try out-of-the-box experiments. I did just that in my WIP. Not all of my ideas worked, but the experience was wonderful.

    @Gabrielle: If we’re writing first for ourselves – because we have a story we *have* to tell – the question of originality becomes less important. Happily, if we’re writing from that deep inner place, the question also becomes irrelevant, since originality is almost inevitable.

    @Paul: If we’re going to have anything worth sharing, we have to swallow the fear of digging deep, discovering the painful places inside, and then sharing them with the world.

    @Cathryn: Well said! We all experience the same world and, to some extent, the same life. But that doesn’t make our individual experiences any less valuable.

  43. Every idea may have been covered before but our perspective is new. So very, very true.

    Only on a few rare occasions have I ever felt like my work was no longer ‘original.’ I will read the summary of a piece and sputter about being so close to what I write. Then I read it and find it’s nowhere near my writing both in style and premise. I take comfort in that no one will have my perspective. It can be jarring to see a similar premise but comforting in a manner.

  44. I remember being horrified when a popular author came out with a book based on a similar premise to one of my WIPs. I bought the book, read it, and was profoundly relieved to realize his take was nothing like mine. There’s room in the world of originality for everyone’s voice.

  45. This actually takes a load off my mind in a sense.

  46. Mine too!

  47. That’s so true, two people can have the exact same idea, but they’ll be completely different books.

  48. I think it would be a marvelous experiment to give two authors the same premise and then see what wildly different stories emerge.

  49. I agree 100%! It took me SO many years to realize this (and there are times when my confidence still suffers and I have to remind myself no one else writes as I do). Great post!

  50. Writers are generally the type of people who need sticky notes of reminders all over the place. This should be on one of those stickies!

  51. ahh–what a fantastic post! I’ve read books that were eerily similar to MSs I’d written and been creeped out, but you’re so right. There’s only one “YOU” so every story’s going to be different and have it’s own unique elements.

    Thanks for the boost~ <3

  52. Really, when you think about it, the similarities in literature are the *reason* we read it. We enjoy finding characters and situations with which we resonate. So, of course, we’re going to find repeats, even among our favorite stories.

  53. I try to surprise my readers and I think I’m 80% successful most of the time. But it’s hard work, to think of twists and turns.

    Chemical Fusion

  54. Definitely hard work. I forget who said it, but a successful author once made the comment that he tries to include some kind of revelation on every page. Talk about brainstorming!

  55. Although it seems obvious, I never considered the power of… myself! It’s the one thing that only I can provide. Thank you!

  56. At the end of the day, it’s the only unique thing we can give the world, no matter what our vocation.

  57. You scared the hell out of me! :p If only you had stressed enough how scary it is, I would have steer clear of this post like I avoid reading Stephen King. (why in all genre he had to write horror)
    Anyway, I liked your Meyer-ish analogy. Since its true, too much drive of creating originality can lead to bizarre places, and Quattlebaum’s saying that flat writing signals something deeper being hidden.
    I don’t know if I am that deep. Because until now, I rarely face any of these issues. But, who knows. I am still at the way beginning of the journey. Both in writinf and in life. (how much of the world a 19 years old know anyway)
    But, lets just grab some popcorn and munch it while watching where I go in my writing. How many dark secrets I didn’t even knew about myself will I uncover. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would argue that the very act of writing encourages deepness. The earlier you start, the deeper you have the potential of becoming!

      • I guess that must be it. After all, there are many things like inner conflicts and lies my character believes that require a deep looking in my own inner workings. So these must be reasons enough to make me a deep person, through writing of course.

  58. Voni Harris says

    I remember wishing I could write fiction like so-and-so famous author. Then I realized that author can’t write like I can. Even if we were writing the same plot or the same setting, it would be two completely different stories. We’re two different people entirely.

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  1. […] talked before about how the most original thing you can bring to any story is yourself—your own unique views and experiences. But it does go a little deeper than that. There are […]

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