Monday, August 04, 2008

It's all been done

With millions of books in print and new ones hitting the shelves every day, it seems impossible that any of them are something truly original. Whatever book you pick up, nine times out of ten you can find four more books that cover similar subject matter. There is the murder mystery, the boy-meets-girl story, the coming of age story, etc. All of which have been told to death.

I've seen so many writers beating themselves over the head, trying to come up with an "original" idea. To me, this seems like a waste of time. Having a good idea is far more important than originality and the way you execute the idea can make or break your story.

One of my favorite types of thrillers is the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary situations. Authors such as Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay have made their careers off of this type of novel. Even though the basis for the story is the same, each book they write is different. The characters, the circumstances, the stakes, all change from novel to novel, making the stories feel original even if their basis is not.

To me, it's kind of like a car crash. Five different people can see the same accident, but no two people would describe it in the same way. Everyone's murder mystery or boy-meets-girl story is different because no one sees the story with the same pair of eyes. The originality lies in the way you tell it and the insight you bring to the story.

I wouldn't bother wasting time trying to come up with a completely original idea. Chances are, it's already been done. Instead, ask yourself these questions:
  • How can I reinvent the typical coming of age or boy-meets-girl story? How can I tell it in a new way?
  • How can I make my protagonist stand out amongst the millions of characters in fiction today? What makes s/he different and interesting?
  • How can I use my setting in an original way? How can I utilize my protagonist's surroundings to raise the stakes and heighten tension?
  • What about my story is intriguing enough that a reader would pick up the book? What is the hook? And how can I maintain enough tension and suspense to draw readers in and keep them turning pages until the very end?

We all tend to read the same types of stories over and over again. But it doesn't get redundant because each story is a little different. It's nearly impossible to come up with an original idea, and even then, you're not guaranteed that it'll be a bestseller. But I believe writing a good book and telling the same old story in a new way will ensure readership.


Quinn said...

I agree, although I'd argue that the best way to approach a story is not telling it a "new" way, but telling it your way - which, if you succeed, will be new by default.

I find that whenever I get caught up in trying to make a story different from everything that came before it (and this happens regularly) I end up moving further and further from whatever made me feel passionate about the story in the first place. I get the best results when I identify that aspect of the story or the characters that interests me the most, and focus on that.

Picks By Pat said...

So very true. There's nothing new under the sun. But a good writer can make a story their own if they tell it well.

Your comment on thrillers reminds me of a writer that took an ordinary character and threw him into a vat of suspense and intrigue...The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, published in 1915.
Film director Alfred Hitchcock also comes to mind.