Originality is arguably among the most thought after traits of any creative profession. No exception for writers. How to be original and unique? Here’s a three step list that’ll set you on a good path.
1. Shoot for interesting, not unique.
To boldly go where no one has gone before may be appropriate for Captain James T. Kirk, but for a beginning author it generally is a setup for failure and source of much frustration.
Interesting has its upsides over uniqueness and maybe even preferable. People know what they like to read and buy books that fulfill their expectations. Take Hollywood, for example. Most successful films follow a certain mold. People go to see a certain film because they expect something specific and want their expectations to be filled. That’s what they pay money for. Let’s go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the latest James Bond. You already know what to expect in terms of genre and general plot elements.
If you’re writing genre fiction (and many writers are), to put it bluntly, you use the plot to keep all the expected scenes from happening at once. Watching a western movie you know there’s the good guy, the bad guy, there’s a shoot-out at high noon, there’s a happy end and in the middle it looks as if the bad guy is going to win. Very predictable on this level. This isn’t a bad thing, because if you go to a restaurant and you order Veal Parmigiano, your mouth is starting to water because you already know what you’re going to be served. Being predictable is actually a selling point.
The upshot of this is: learn the rules of your genre, get to know your audience and don’t try to re-invent the wheel at this level. Rather, learn how to be interesting. If you really are bent at breaking the mold, don’t do it in your first book. Not in your second either. It’ll happen all by itself. Learn to play by the rules first before breaking them.
2. What if?
Being predictable within your genre isn’t going to win you the big price, though. Re-writing the same plot other people have written about before, is a sure way of never making it out of the limelight. What you need is an interesting idea.
How does one have an interesting idea? One way is to take two totally different but otherwise bland ideas and put them together. Play them out beyond to where any reasonable person would stop. The best way is to keep asking “What if?” questions.
I am working on a novel about cannibalism. Cannibalism is part of a highly ritualistic social context in some tribal situations. What if it were actually also genetically transmitted, like a dormant trait that is triggered under certain circumstances? And off you go. You can play this out in many ways: a dystopic society, a horror novel à la Steven King, an family story whose members grapple with the urge of cannibalism, the possibilities are endless.
Or, take a werewolf. People bitten by it transform into savages at full moon. What if a werewolf happens to bite an object? How would a table bitten by a werewolf react to the full moon? This could be the premise for a young adult horror novel.
3. Start a journal.
There are so many great ideas that crossed my mind which now lie buried in the graveyard of long forgotten and nameless ideas. They wait for when you’re least prepared: taking a shower, driving to work, talking to someone interesting at a party. You know what I’m talking about.
These ideas are the seeds from which really great projects sprout. What a waste to let them die.
Get yourself a journal, something small and nice. A little booklet that you like to touch and hold in your hand. That’s small enough to carry with you wherever you go. Make it a point to write something every day. A word, a sentence, a phrase, a doodle, it doesn’t matter. Put it next to your bed at night and use it as a dream journal as well. Dreams can be soooooo inspirational!
Pretty soon, I promise, new ideas will sprout from it.