Quinn's Tips & Tricks: Writing An "Original" Story

A Simple Guide To Writing Original Stories

Otherwise known as "what are cliches and why are writers so afraid of them?" Be forewarned, this blog gets a little soap-boxy, but originality in stories is a complex conversation that has many moving parts and opinions. Still, I wanted to touch on this subject because it is one that many authors (especially newer authors) are concerned with, and it's a subject that I struggled with myself for a very long time. 

To really understand originality, we have to talk about cliches. Cliches are the reason authors are so concerned with originality. I know I always was, since I would always see those articles that are along the lines of  Never Use These Cliches In Your Writing Or They Will Murder Your Parents And Use Them For A Blood Sacrifice. But what are cliches? Of course, it's fairly common knowledge that cliches are overdone or overused things that reoccur over and over again- basically anything that is tired and overused. 

But there are many different types of cliches. There are true cliches, which are actually overused phrases that have become so prominent they are annoying. Phrases like kid in the candy store, busy bee, and it's raining cats and dogs are all phrases that we hear over and over again, which makes them a cliche. But there are also character cliches, world/setting cliches, and even genre specific cliches. A character cliche would be something like the rebel without a cause, while a setting cliche would be over-describing the weather to set the tone, or using an overly predictable setting (such as an island paradise for a romance novel). Then, there are genre specific cliches, that vary from genre to genre. For a romance, this would be something like the nerdy, misunderstood girl who gets a makeover and suddenly the popular boy falls for her. 

So cliches are the enemy when trying to write an original novel, right? Well, no. Original stories have no enemies trying to tear them down, only a roadblock: fear. The writer's fear of writing an unoriginal story is the one thing that can truly hold a story back from its full potential.

The thing about originality is that it is nearly impossible to define. Is a story original because it avoids any and all cliches? Is it original because it doesn't have any stereotypes or archetypes? Or is a story original because it presents an idea in an interesting and captivating way that leaves the readers wanting more? 

Think about genre tropes for a second. A widely recognized trope in fantasy is "the orphaned child who is the "chosen one," and the only person who can stop the Big Bad." I'm not pulling your leg, this is a real fantasy trope that has been used time and time again. But it reminds you of something, doesn't it? Yes, Harry Potter is a walking cliche. A very, very successful cliche that not only influenced an entire generation of people, but changed YA fiction as a whole, and made a good chunk of money while doing it. But despite the fact that it uses a cliche, Harry Potter is so original. How? JK Rowling made the cliche work for her. It all comes down to five things: perspective, character, world, dynamic, and presentation. JK Rowling brought her own unique voice to the story through Harry's narrative, using his dynamic energy to pull readers in. Even beyond Harry, each character in the story is unique and fun in their own ways, and all have their own quirks and personalities and flaws that come out in the story. The world is fun and interesting, taking something we all know (our world) and adding in something new (magic). The story is dynamic, with many working parts all coming together in a suspenseful way that leaves the reader begging for more. And last but not least, the presentation of the cliche. Harry isn't just the orphaned boy turned chosen one-- he is the boy who lived. He and Voldemort have a unique history that drives the story forward. It makes Harry special--and thus makes his story special as well. 

So what makes a story original? 

  • Perspective
    • Every author has their own unique voice. Because of that, every story, when written in the frame of that voice, is unique. No two authors will write the same concept in the same way. Take a writing class of 16 people, give them all the same prompt, and you will have 16 unique and different stories based on the same prompt. Take time to craft your style. Do you like stream of consciousness writing? Do you prefer writing in first or third person? Do you like to be a character in your own story, as an almost God-like character (think Series of Unfortunate Events )? Your personal style will help you on your journey to crafting an original character.
  • Character
    • Flat characters are far more likely to be labeled as a cliche or a stereotype. The trick is to take a character and make them human. Now, I don't mean for you to turn a dog into a man, or throw out your mermaids, aliens, vampires, and so on-- I mean make them relatable. Give them flaws, give them goals, give them fears, have them mess up, let them make giant life altering mistakes. Don't let your character be defined by their cliche. No matter what, there is going to be some archetype or trope that your character falls into- but give them something more, and they will do from drab and boring to interesting and captivating. 
    • There is one thing you want to avoid when creating a character: harmful stereotypes. Make sure you do your research beforehand.
    • Shameless self-promotion: I go far more in depth with character building in my blog "How To Build a Dynamic Story" Parts Two B and C, so check that out if you want more tips & tricks.
  • World
    • Having a new and original world can do a lot to elevate your story. This isn't something that is reserved for genres outside of realistic/historical fiction. Even in a familiar or "real life" setting, you can give your world something new and unique to add to the story. Take that "small town" trope and turn it into something else. What makes this small town different? Is it the creepy mayor? The high school rivalry? Every place has something unique about it. New York is different from California, Tokyo is different than Hong Kong. Communities have unique sub-cultures and social structures, so your setting should too. 
    • And if you are writing a story set in a world that isn't ours, have some fun. The world is literally your oyster. Everything is within your control. Creating a world from scratch can seem daunting and terrifying, but it's actually fun if you use it as an exercise to explore your story. Don't get in over your head, but don't ignore world development entirely. Even knowing something as simple as whether or not there are different countries/clans/territories can make your world more unique.
  • Dynamic
    • When you think about what makes a story unique, it really just comes down to whether it is flat or dynamic. you want your story to have moving parts and suspense--not just mystery or horror. Suspense can be so many things. Will she be asked to prom? Will the character find the missing heirloom from her mother? Will the couple get together? Questions cause suspense and add to a story's overall dynamic. If a reader isn't asking questions, then it's likely that you're letting your story be defined by its cliche, and therefore, it's become predictable. Take control. Withhold information. "Drop a body" (drop story altering information or situations that take the story in an unexpected direction). 
  • Presentation
    • A cliche isn't a death sentence, it's an opportunity to take that well-known cliche and pull it in a different direction. Many famous authors have done or are doing exactly this. Lord of the Rings? That's the "rag tag group of travelers must work together" trope and the "magical artifact ring/necklace/amulet must be destroyed" trope. The Little Mermaid is the forbidden love trope. As already pointed out, Harry Potter is the chosen one trope. 
    • There is a reason that retellings are gaining popularity. People love seeing new takes on familiar stories. People don't love reading the same exact thing 20 times. Take Cinderella and keep everything the same except the names, and you have Cinderella with the names changed. Take Cinderella and make it a modern retelling, where Cinderella is a poor working girl in New York who has a cruel and unforgiving book that pushes who around, who bumps into a wealthy businessman (thus triggering a chain of events that causes the businessman to want to chase after her, such as them bumping into each other and her "dropping the shoe," although, in this case, let's say it's a priceless heirloom like a locket her mother gave her before dying) and you have yourself a story. Of course, you want something more fleshed out than something I pulled out of thin air in five minutes to prove a point in this blog post, but it's a good place to start. 

And lastly:

  • Don't be discouraged if someone compares your work to the work of someone else 
    • Books are often advertised as being similar to other stories. I've seen about a million fantasy books that are said to be "a blend of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones with a twist." The thing is, people want both the familiar story and the twist. If someone already knows they like stories like Lord of the Rings, but they are looking for something with a little bit extra, they are going to gravitate to stories that are similar. For example, I love superhero stories where the superhero is a high schooler who stumbles on something that gives them powers, and now they have this other life that they have to keep secret. I've read so many of those stories, but no two are alike. Perspective, character, world, dynamic, and presentation make all the difference. 

What makes a story original? Don't avoid cliches, make them work for you. Take that cliched idea and break it apart, put it under pressure, and turn it into a diamond. That story that you have in your head that you're scared to write because it's based on a cliche? Write it. Because you haven't told that story before. Your voice hasn't taken that cliche, and made it into something new. Take control of your story, and don't let it be defined by its tropes. People are going to find them, but if you do it right, your story can still be original. Writing a completely original story is impossible. Writing a story with a unique voice that leaves the reader with questions they yearn to see the answers to is story telling, and that is what makes a story "original."

Ok, I have hoped off my soap box for now. I hope that this still helped answer the question of originality and how to make a unique story. I wanted to write somthing that was simultaniously inspirational and informative, but if you have any questions about specific parts of this blog or want some clarification, feel free to leave a comment. And, of course, if you are interesting in more Tips & Tricks, check out my blog series How to Build a Dynamic Story, or "Writing Dialogue 101." Stay tuned for my next Tips & Tricks: Building a Better Antagonist. 

Xxo

Quinn

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