I meet a lot of writers, young writers particularly, who feel like they don’t have anything new to say, no new stories to tell, no new ideas.
Now, for me, ideas are mostly shiny, plastic dross. When you first find them they look like emeralds on the beach, a rare fossil, an Important Discovery —
But most of the time, they’re just cheap trash dressed up to look nice. They’re tequila-shined Mardi Gras beads that escaped the gutter, somehow. Maybe that’s unfair to ideas, because ideas are the seeds from which most stories germinate, but even there, consider that when you plant a seed and the resultant plant begins to grow, it looks the fucking same nearly every time.
It’s a little stem.
It’s two leaves.
A sprout, that’s all.
(Seriously, it’s this shit right here.)
And growing a plant out of a seed is both an act of generative power (I DID IT, I BASICALLY HELPED CREATE LIFE) to the crushing reality that what you did is so common it’s disgusting (I PERFORMED A BARE MINIMUM ACT THAT EVEN A CHILD COULD ACCOMPLISH).
And writing a book or any kind of story — or really, making any kind of thing at all — is a lot like that, too, especially right when you start. I HAVE BEGUN AN AMAZING JOURNEY, you think, seconds before you decide, JUST LIKE MILLIONS OF FAILED DIPSHITS BEFORE ME OH GOD I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING OH SHIT THIS GROUND IS SO WELL-TRAVELED IT’S A PAVED, BRIGHTLY LIT PATH, THERE ARE SIGNS AND DOG POOP STATIONS
FUCK FUCK FUCK
And it’s at this point that some writers, myself included, experience a kind of narrative, existential vaporlock. You freeze up. And the worry comes that you’ve nothing to add to the canon of ideas, that whatever story you’re going to tell isn’t particularly original. Surely someone has told a story like this.
You’re right. They probably have.
In the history of storytelling, it’s very, very hard to have an entirely original take on something. When you’re pitching a book to an agent, or when your agent is pitching a book to editors, you might be asked what the “comp” titles are — meaning, what books are like it already. And in Hollywoodland, pitching a story is often you trying to feign originality by smashing up two pre-existing properties — “It’s like Terminator meets Gilmore Girls! It’s Pinnocchio, but set on the Titanic — in space! It’s as if Spongebob Squarepants took the meth from Breaking Bad and found himself living destitute in a pineapple just outside Nightmare on Elm Street!” And it’s a very cliched thing, and I assure you, having pitched film and TV on the Leftmost Coast, it’s also a very real thing. If you don’t distill the property down to those two or three already extant stories, they certainly will, and it can feel weirdly disheartening to find out that your story is considered to be as original as two unoriginal things staple-gunned together.
And so at the start of the work and at the end of the work, the originality is in question.
For many, this is troubling.
Don’t let it be.
I consider there to be very few Actual Truths in writing, in storytelling, in making cool shit — but this, I think, comes as close to Actual Truth as I can muster.
Every story has one original thing about it.
And that original thing is
That sounds like some goofy-ass self-help shit, I know, but trust me, you’re it. You’re the thing. You’re the Original Idea, the Important Discovery, the One Untold Tale, the Unexplored Path, the Savior of Narnia, the Sword of Damocles, the Revenge of the Sith wait I’m getting carried away, sorry, sorry. Ahem. Moving on. Point is, it’s you. Look at it this way —
You’re a bundle of unexpected genetics. Two people fucked, and they made you. And to make each of them, two other people fucked, and on and on and on — you’re at the bottom of an inverted pyramid, the nadir of an unholy host of genetic material that has scrambled itself up and guaranteed that you are a random, uncountable confluence of atoms. And that’s just the genetic side.
On the memetic side — the side of ideas and information — oh my sweet fucking hell, are you ever an infinite, irreplicable* maze. You are a labyrinthine tangle of wants, desires, fears, experiences, anxieties, certainties, questions. You’re the sum total of the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the things you’ve seen. And you complicate that when you go more places, meet more people, see new things. You never get simpler. You just get more complex. Your uncertainties grow. Your maze grows larger even as you travel it. You’re an amazingly weird, bizarre, wonderful bundle of wires.
(Now, I don’t want you get a big head about you — yes, all writers are precious snowflakes, but also, acting like a precious snowflake will make somebody melt your ass right quick. You’ll be a microscopic puddle before too long.)
I think a lot of writers — again, younger writers in particular, and I certainly didn’t realize this when I was younger and trying to write — is that this unique aspect of the work (i.e. You) is not something to be avoided, but rather, something to enthusiastically pour into the work. You should put yourself in there. Wholly and without reservation. Complicate the work with your uncertainties and worries. Address your questions and fears. Don’t just breathe ideas gently into it — summon your ideas as a gale-force wind and they’ll blow the sails of the story in the way that no plot twist or fight scene can.
That’s okay. That’s as it should be.
The story isn’t you.
You aren’t the story.
But you’re in there as much as you want to be. Invisibly, perhaps, but vitally just the same — suffusing it as you see fit. Don’t worry about originality in plot or genre or whatever. Worry about bringing yourself into the world, onto the page, into the story. Write what you like. Write what you want to read. Tell the story and use the voice in the way that only you can tell it.
You’re the One Original Aspect, and that cannot be beat.
*not a word but should be
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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.