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Finding that novel novel idea -- by Philip Kramer

“That sounds like a book I once read.” You’ve all heard it and it puts a damper on any enthusiasm you’ve grown for your literary creation. It might be gratifying if they speak of style and execution, but who gets flattered by being told their work is unoriginal?

Cynics often say that everything has been written before, that no idea is a new idea. But with 26 characters in the English language, over 250,000 distinct words, not to mention all the subtle changes in context or meaning, and a near infinite way to arrange them, there are more possible ways to write a book than there are atoms in the known universe. So why are so many stories similar? The short answer, if you want your story to make sense and be relatable and captivating, you have to write what people like to read. And unlike the universe, the human mind has a lot less empty space (for most people anyway). The brain is a large jumble of connections, turn on the right set and immediately memory of another story will stir and come to mind. You want your work to connect as many neurons as possible so that your reader will think of your book often and mention you to others.

That being said, novelty serves to make a story exciting and memorable. How many of you remember the drive to work each morning? Now what about that time you had to detour through an unknown section of town because of some unparalleled traffic accident? Your mind is excellent at discarding experiences if they are very similar to the ones already stored in your memory. Memorable is what sells a story for years. If your book doesn’t fit with the current popular trend, no problem, book markets are always in a state of change, adopting one trend and discarding another. If you write for the current market, your book will be that experience that is forgotten among all the similar ones of its kind. 

Originality is not in a story’s conflict, it is in the unique parts that collide to create it. These parts are the characters and setting. Strip away the setting and character from any book you’ve read and you will find that most stories look the same when so bared. The shape they take is the story arc. Clothing your story arc in an original fashion is accomplished in two steps: creating a unique setting in which the story will occur and creating the character that will stand out in it.

You should begin with either the setting or the character in mind, but preferably not both. The reason for this is simple. If you want your protagonist to be aggressive and psychologically damaged and then you decide your setting should be a post-apocalyptic earth where zombies endlessly chase humans, you will soon find that all of your characters will have this attribute. How then will your character stand out? Instead, imagine the setting and then figure out how this setting will affect the lives of those in it, and then make your character different in some subtle yet memorable way. Conversely, mold a setting to accentuate your character’s strengths and weaknesses. No matter your approach, the reader expects conflict and has likely seen it all before, but insert an original setting or unique character motives and you will give them an exciting new way to experience the same story arc.

The character you make should stand out from others in one key way, their drive. This drive, or character element, should be a part of the human psyche that is both underappreciated/under-recognized and yet critical to who we are as human beings. Sound conspicuously like a theme? Good, it should. The theme should be the vehicle that carries your character across the story arc, the thing that moves them, gives them strength, and protects them from buffeting wind and rain. Before they’ve even started the book, your reader has decided to join consciousness with your main character, to try to think what they think. Turn that into a memorable relationship by giving them a theme to agree with and a cause to stand behind. Straying away from the most common drives like anger, love, and greed will help grant originality. Examples of these uncommon themes are: a desire for change when everyone else is rooted in acceptance, a desire for emotion when they are surrounded by apathy, conquering of fear when everyone else is cowed by it, and a desire for knowledge when everyone else enjoys ignorance. This character element provides the motive, the fuel to carry the character as well as the reader over the story arc. Be wary though, a weak drive, such as the desire for a funnel cake at the City Fair, will peter out and die the moment your character realizes it is not worth the trouble.

The setting has to be more than just a forest in Maine for you to have any chance of making something original and memorable. While your character element gives forward motion to a story, your setting should provide friction, obstacles, and other characters that seek to stop your character from proceeding forward. The setting sets the mood of the story. That seems like a lot for just one aspect of the novel, but it is this by which everyone will remember and describe your book. What good is a character’s desire to experience freedom when taken outside of the context of slavery or a prisoner of war? Again, stray away from the most common settings or at least give them unique characteristics. Instead of an alien planet, why not a rogue planet taken up by our sun’s gravitational pull? Maybe its thawing inhabitants want war. What’s more, make every aspect of your setting matter. If the power goes out in the apartment building, make it mean something; make the darkness or the inability to heat a Hot Pocket essential to the story in some way. If it doesn’t matter to the story or help set the mood, it will be forgotten.

A big mistake people make when chasing an original story is following it off the map, creating a world that is so full of original ideas that it borders on the unrecognizable, or characters with such unique strengths, weaknesses, or personalities that they become unrelatable. This is why genres exist, to categorize books for different audiences. Know the genre in which you intend to write and strive to make it original within the confines of what is expected and enjoyed. There is at least a small corner in each genre’s box that has yet to be filled.

Posted by Philip Kramer 26 Jan 2016 at 00:04
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Responses to this blog

Oznana 27 Jan 2016 at 04:10  
Well said. Now if only I could come up with one of those ideas...
Pak1987 27 Jan 2016 at 09:22  
Those eureka novel ideas come to me as fast as I can write them, which is only a couple of times a year at most. Everyone is different, but simply asking "what-if" whenever possible is a good habit to get into. You will know when you hit on something promising when your mind becomes a swarm of character and setting details and you can't stop scribbling it all down.
Almost every writing resource has writing prompts. These are a great way to start if you don't have any ideas in the bank. I have had many short stories and a novel or two begin as a simple writing exercise. Good luck!
Thecellan 27 Jan 2016 at 09:50  
I've come to the conclusion original ideas are not the be-all and end-all. Every time I look at the bookstands do I see the same old, same old, tried and trusted mis-lit and police procedurals.

I've been sitting on an original idea, presented in an original way for four years now and can I hell as like get a publisher who'll dare take a risk on it.

It's driving me crazy.
Pak1987 27 Jan 2016 at 21:15  
I agree, Thecellan. Taking risks on an original novel is like investing in a new technology. High risk, high reward. But when given the chance to throw the dice, most publishers will invest in their tried and tested novels. It is astounding to me how many agents and publishers say they are looking for a new and original voice, only to turn down everyone who answers the call. I guess I don't blame them, not in these risky times. I would posit that a great deal of the momentum and success enjoyed by many indie authors is because of this, giving readers access to original novels they would not have otherwise.
Bpagano 28 Jan 2016 at 06:56  
There were some really good reminders in this post. Good stuff. I especially liked the part about each aspect of the setting contributing something,usually in the form of obstacles, to the character's attainment of the goal.
Smooth 9 Feb 2016 at 00:24  
Thank you for this post, Phillip. Great insight. I'm saving this to Instapaper for future reference.
Trevose 9 Feb 2016 at 02:22  
Though I think there are a number of good ideas and insights here, my view is that new writers should worry first about how to master the craft (or at least get good if mastery is too far to go) before losing sleep about how original they need to be. You should absolutely be ambitious, but for all things in life you have to start with the manageable.

By way of an analogy, I took my 12-year olds to their first mountain bike tournament this weekend. They were impressed with the skill and power of the high school kids, but they were also extremely happy that after 3 months of prepping they completed their first 10 kilometer mountain bike course (with only three bruises, seven scrapes and one smashed hand brake assembly). The next course they take on will be a bit longer, and in a few years they'll be doing the 40 kilometer course in the Texas heat on their high school team. And at that point, they will be ready to get off the beaten path and blaze their own trails. They will be able to because they started with something manageable to develop their skills.

I see maturation of writers the same way. I know that when it comes to actually putting together a novel, I got better at when I got very deterministic about keeping it simple. But after I did that something kind of magic started getting more complex and sophisticated as I continued to fine tune and rewrite it, and the original plot — though still there and still simple — became much less obvious.


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