There’s nothing original in this world anymore. Everything’s been done to death, all the stories have been told a thousand and a thousand ways, all of them done better by the next guy or the first gal or the second to last kid, or that guy with the weird hat who won’t stop staring at the sun outside your store so you have to call the cops but then he vanishes like some Stephen King novel and don’t even get me started on him . . .

I talk to a lot of readers and a lot of writers, many of whom are, if not obsessed, at least very anxiously interested in this idea of originality. How do you distinguish yourself as a new writer these days?

Hell, even if you’re an older writer aka a professional one, how the hell do you stay that way? Even being older, wiser, and better looking than new writers, are they still worried about originality, about bringing something new to the table?

Personally, I think story is king and one’s voice is original in and of itself. I think that everyone is a different writer (thank god, because otherwise it’d be a very boring world), and half the fun is in seeing that craft/voice develop. I think if you judge a story based off how original it is against how good of a story it is, you’re going to be shooting yourself in the goddamn foot.

Strong writing. Strong voice. Strong characters. These are the things that matter.

Neil writing

I don’t make or break a story I’m writing based on how original it is in the world of Story. Yes, I’m very excited about my Sons of Anarchy meets The Princess Bride by way of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Mash-Up, but I could just as excited about a story where a young person has to prove themselves in the face of adversity . . . in space . . . riding a star manatee . . . with a robot cowboy hat? (Hold on, gotta write that down. NO ONE TOUCH IT, IT’S MINE).

But if originality is one of those writing spices you love to throw on your word-food, here’s my two cents: what’s the hook of your story? What’s that trope or stereotype that you’ve seen done a thousand times before? It can be a character or a setting or magic or monsters. Look at that from every angle, every perspective and see if you can’t find the one corner we haven’t seen from yet. What thin slice of light can you shed on this story? Let that mystery drive you, but hell, don’t become obsessed with it. The world would rather see a good, solid story that may be a little old fashioned then something completely bizarre and original, but ultimately fails to be a good story.

So tell me, how do you deal with this question of originality? Do you consider it when you start writing? Do you have any tips/tricks for approaching it? Do you actively work for or against it? What’s the most important thing you’re looking for in a new writer or story?

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2 thoughts on “What The Hell Is Originality, Anyway?

  1. #1: The Beatles wrote tons and tons of songs by attempting to emulate a style, artist, etc. Tomorrow Never Knows = monk chant. Lady Madonna = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dY1O8YYjY2A (Paul admits this). I can’t NOT hear songs that influenced their songs, now that I know what to listen for. Like The Beatles, we can never sound like another artist because we all have our own voice.

    #2. Sports games aren’t original, they all follow the same rules. Yet we watch them. Why? Because of the characters and the way the plot unfolds. The rules of the game are made to highlight the things that make them exciting.

    #3. Leonard Meyer says that interesting music is about norms and derivations. Do something 90% normal and 10% wacky and you have something that’s fresh and really good. 95/5 = unoriginal. 70/30 = avant garde insanity. Use your taste to judge just how far you can go. And use norms, stock characters, etc, to counterbalance the originality.

    So yes, I think that originality exists, but we have a hard time comprehending it, because it needs a context in which it can sit. For example: buhiliugbiuygbouygbadhkscsajkn is potentially a completely original word, but it makes no sense. If I were to say “Spock’s first name is unpronounceable, but it’s spelled buhiliugbiuygbouygbadhkscsajkn”, we would have thousands of Trekkies jumping onto how cool and original it is. Context- it is the solid foundation on which abstraction lies and becomes original.

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