Monday, October 25, 2010

I Swear, I Thought of Sparkly Vampires First!

In response to my last post, Robyn noted the near-impossibility of stumbling upon a truly original plotline, and offered voice and style as the necessary antidotes to a world already saturated with good ideas. The same day that I read Robyn’s comment, a friend and coworker asked me if she should change the plot of her work-in-progress since she’d discovered that it shared some vital plot elements with a bestseller she’d just read.

I am not a writer, myself, but after years of working with writers I’ve come to see that one of the first and most difficult challenges they face is the pressure to come up with a totally original premise. In an industry that churns out new hits at what can seem like an astonishing rate, that pressure can be debilitating. And maybe it’s too easy for me to say, “Don’t worry about it.”

But seriously, don’t. At least not right away.

First of all, there’s the time factor. The fast-paced industry keeps audience attention constantly shifting to a new hit. As long as your book isn’t about a boy going to wizarding school or kids killing kids, chances are good that by the time your work-in-progress finds its way into a publisher's hands and makes it all the way through the editorial and production processes, it won’t be compared to today’s bestseller at every turn.

More importantly, it’s not ideas that make stories; it’s voice and character. If ten skilled writers tackled the same plot, I feel confident that they’d write ten completely different stories, with ten different moods and at least ten different meanings. Their own individual styles would appeal to different readerships and convey different emotions. Perhaps even more noticeably, each of their characters would be their own, and thus each writer's ideologies and ways of looking at human nature would determine her characters’ personalities and choices. And those unique characters would make different choices in the face of the same challenge. The same basic plot could branch out into hundreds or thousands of unique stories.

There were books about Taliban murders before The Kite Runner. Before Marcelo in the Real World there was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There were books about the holocaust before Everything is Illuminated. Before The Hunger Games, there were plenty of books about dystopia (even a few about the government forcing children to kill each other), and there sure were a lot of books about dangerous love before Twilight.

We are a species which tells itself the same stories of love, friendship, desire, tragedy, persecution, hope and redemption again and again and again. Almost any story, boiled down to its essential parts, is about the way people interact, the way they hurt and the way they heal. So it wasn’t plot alone that set these novels apart. The premise of a story is all packaging; the story's heart is its emotion. And a story’s emotional content comes from voice and character, not from plot.

True, there does come a point in the journey to publication at which it’s absolutely vital that you and your work stand out. Sometimes a house or imprint will turn a proposal down because the story is simply too much like something that the house recently published or a big competitor already on the market. And I do believe that the very best writers set themselves apart by marrying content and presentation, pairing a great idea with skillful writing.

But when you’re drafting a story, there are still so many directions it could take. Who knows how much of your original idea will even make it into the final story, or how it will read in the context of the finished work. So if you feel you have a good idea but worry about how it may be compared to what's already on the market, I'd encourage you to put that worry aside for now and see how far you can take your idea. Use your idea to explore what your strengths are as a writer, and I trust you’ll find a way to set yourself apart through them.


  1. I totally agree with this. Writers borrow heavily from one another, and most of our favorite works of literature come folktales and archetypes that existed long before the printed word. The idea is to bring something new to the retelling; to highlight something that was previously overlooked or tell it from a unique perspective.

  2. I completely agree - thanks for writing about this, Rachel! I remember feeling distraught when my teacher in high school told us that there were no original ideas anymore - everything's just recycled or reinterpreted. But it's the telling that changes it, just like you said. I hate to admit this, but that's kind of why I could follow discussions of Lord of the Rings without having read the books - it's a story deeply ingrained in our culture of the typical hero quest. The rest, the details, I've absorbed from being exposed to it in our society. It's those details and the voice that set the stories apart and make them so memorable.

    Anyway, great post!

  3. Amanda, I remember learning about postmodernism (which totally sprang up out of the belief that no original ideas would ever come about again) and being similarly distraught. Well, more truthfully, in typical Me fashion, I was furious.

    Though I still have my reservations -- I just can't get behind the idea of calling a photograph of someone else's photo art -- I've since warmed up to the movement. What I do agree with is the idea that, in re-telling an existing story, a writer can do what Molly talked about: highlight new ideas or pull out new meanings. Actually, using existing work as a basis for exploration into gender, class and race lines is now one of my favorite ways to approach both art and writing.