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
* * *
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.
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23 responses to “Originality Is Overrated In Authorland”
Oof, this was much needed today. *squints* are you creepin on my computer? “Everybody does that” is a huge, huge part of why I quit working on a big story years ago. I’ve been thinking about revisiting it, and maybe I should.
“Write it down. You could be writing history.” http://www.c-ville.com/berlin-1933-charlottesville-2017/#.W31yIM5KiUn
Okay, but Gilmore Girlesque Terminators chasing Pinnocchio on a doomed spaceship is now what I want to write, so…
I just posted a blog very similar to this! No one has told this story quite like you will tell it, so write it!
So, “the cow did it” isn’t too much of a cliche–yet? *back to work on short story*
Thank you! I get wrapped up in ‘well, that’s not original’ thoughts all too easily. Your words are very helpful :).
Also, although the major dictionaries haven’t yet acknowledged “irreplicable,” it’s being used often enough that they’ll probably have to add it at some point. So stick with it!
It’s like the GROUNDHOG DAY plot. Every genre show has done that episode and what’s interesting about them is how Buffy handles it, or the Winchester brothers, or the Doctor… Maybe, it’s just me, but I don’t groan when I see that coming, I just lean in closer to see how STAN AGAINST EVIL handles it. Of course, I’m off my meds.
The Supernatural episode was the BEST, imho. I love that episode! I love “groundhog day/time loop” episodes in general, but that one was fantastic. 🙂
Thank you. I’ve followed you for only a couple months on Twitter, but in that time I’ve found you to be deeply insightful and brimming with intellect. I’ve certainly enjoyed watching your interactions there and reading your retweets. That all said, this hit me like truckload of brick houses.
I haven’t written anything in past few years, mostly because I get very tied up in trying to find an original take. One of my very first short stories that garnered any kind of feedback was basically conceived and written in a single night, and really the only reason I felt it worthy to stop and write out was because I had come up with a semi-unique way to tell it. I’ve been told before that my writing is awesome, from bios in MMORPGs to a few emails sent to my cousin most recently, but I’ve always felt like having the ABILITY to write must be coupled with having an original idea, or a great amazing take on something.
I’ve always felt that everyone has at least two stories within them. Many have far more, but everyone has at the very least two. What I like to call their past and their ideal future. Everyone can tell the story of their life to now, and everyone has a story they would like to see come to fruition. Whether that be an actual physical future, or something so incredibly strange from the norm it defies categorization, everyone has one.
This post is inspiring to me, and I hope that despite the many challenges ahead of me, I will be able to get on the writing horse again.
You always know what I need to hear when I need to hear it. Thank you. 🙂
I love you Chuck you are my goddamn patronus.
“Write what you like” – yay! I’d like there to be a book (or many) which read like they were plotted by Agatha Christie and executed by P.G. Wodehouse. So I’m gonna write one. Or perish melodramatically in the attempt.
Oh wow, I want to read this Christie-Wodehouse book in the worst way.
Excellent and timely post, thank you Great Wendig. Last Monday on a panel of…cough…Legends at Romance Writers of Australia nationals, I threw out a line that has been much-quoted since, and resonates with what you’re saying here – your ideas don’t come TO you, they come FROM you. We’re the wild card in our own stories.
That is in fact one helluva line, Valerie!
My favorite Sondheim musical is Sunday in the Park with George. From one of the songs in the show, these words resonate:
Stop worrying if your vision is new.
Let others make that decision; they usually do.
Just keep moving on.
Does this burrito taste funny?
* If you use it as a word and people understand what it means, it’s a word.
Your article is spot on. In today’s era of internet and other digital technologies, originality has been rendered useless. Authors use the available write-ups, change a few things and make the writing their own. This is a total crap!
Thank you. I needed this so much.
Thank YOU for pointing out I am the new part in the over-worked kaleidoscope of retold stories. But why, oh why did you have to say, “Two people f*cked and made you” ?!?! Now I’m looking at pictures of my dead mother and father and thinking, You done the dirty.. *insert manic laughter*
But in all honesty, what you say is true, there are no NEW idea’s, per se, just reworked, retold, Alice-didn’t-fall-down-the-hole-the-hole-sucked-her-up type adjustments that cause people who love the Alice genre to pick up that book and look at Alice in a new light. Our new insights are necessary… which… if I’m honest, was everything you just said above!!!
Why was I writing this again?? Oh, Thanks for pointing this out.
Thanks for this. It really helps. And it’s stupid, because it’s something so basic that everyone should know it and no one should be afraid of “not being unique enough”. But it really gets to your head sometimes.