You have the motivation to write your novel, screenplay, or poem. You’ve done your research and are brimming with inspiration and references to help bring your ideas to life. Now comes the fun (and difficult) part: sitting down to write.
Without doubt, as you start writing, you’ll start asking yourself questions. Is what I’m writing unique or am I falling victim to clichés? I think this idea is really cool, but will anyone else actually want to read this story? If you’re like me and you ponder these points as you write, you are thinking of your writing as both art and business — a great first step!
Many writers and readers argue that there aren’t any new stories out there to tell. After all, even Shakespeare borrowed ideas from his playwright predecessors. While this debate warrants its own post entirely, here is what I will say on the matter for the purposes of this post:
While it is possible to write original works, it is almost impossible to keep your work entirely devoid of old themes.
For example, if you have a pair of lovers who face an obstacle to be together, you have produced thematic relatives of the characters, Romeo and Juliet. If your story features a vampire or reanimated corpse, you have crafted thematic relatives of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The point of writing should not be to write something 100% original. It is almost, if not entirely, impossible to write something that does not remind someone of anything else that’s ever been written.
The point of writing should be to write something original to you that is thematically or elementally related to another work in a way that captures a mood, embodies a zeitgeist, or catches some other reader sensibility. You can use other stories or genre staples to your advantage by knowing what they’ve done, and then doing something similar, but different. By honoring literary traditions and then making them your own, you are left with a product that is identifiable and marketable but also unique to you.
Stick with me on this. Penguins are super fashionable right now. They are adorable, waddling creatures that are in movies, in children’s books, on clothing and accessories, and generally receive a squeal of adoration whenever encountered. I swear, this isn’t just me. People love penguins.
Penguins are popular, and you could easily incorporate them into your writing. However, I wouldn’t advise this. Yes, if you publish your penguin book while they are still a hot topic, you are likely to get a sales boost. However, you are more likely to get swallowed up in the market and lost. Likewise, if you miss the craze by even a minute, you will look like you were simply trying to cash in on the mania and missed.
This is where puffins come in. Puffins are a lot like penguins. They are black and white with orange beaks. They fish and live in cold climates. The differences? Puffins are cooler than penguins (they can fly — even underwater!), and no one seems to have picked up on puffins. Therefore, if you alter your story to be about puffins, you can hit the same general feeling as penguins while being a dash different and a splash cooler.
Okay, leaving the bird metaphor behind, let’s look at a recent literary example. There are millions of vampire books out there. However, to my knowledge, Stephanie Meyer’s vampires are the only ones that sparkle. She took a popular literary creature and made it different. Whether you think this is awesome or stupid, the fact remains: her books exploded. By making sparkly vampires, Meyer cashed in on people’s love of vampires and adolescent girls’ love of “bad boys” and “danger” as well as diamonds and pretty things. (Of course there are plenty of other factors that made The Twilight Series a huge hit — but I would say this twist contributed.)
In short, sparkly vampires were Meyer’s puffins.
Here is the point: by taking well-known literary concepts or trends and reinventing them, you can create something unique and fresh while remaining in a marketplace that sells.
IMPORTANT: I’m not encouraging you to sell-out and only write what you think will make money. I’m also not advocating genre monogamy.
I’m simply saying, if you choose to write about popular topics or in popular genres, figure out how to make them your own.
And, if you choose to attempt a totally new mixture of writing elements, remember to include some literary aspects that will resonate with your readers.
If you mix your art and business this way, you will come out with a writing product that is both marketable and unique to you.
Good luck and happy writing!
What techniques do you use to keep your writing original within its genre? How do you reinvent literary traditions to make your writing fresh? Share your tips below!