Stop Aiming for Originality – Do This Instead

originality

This post was written by Mez Blume.

Has this ever happened to you?

I finally completed the first draft of my magnum opus, the novel I’ve dreamed of writing for the past decade. I’ve sacrificed incalculable time, sleep and emotional energy to this thing for the past year and then some. I’ve dug into my past and poured my heart and soul into it.

Then I walk into the bookshop for a quick browse in the Middle Grade section and… low and behold, what do I see? A debut author has just won an award for her new novel featuring a story with uncanny similarities to mine!

Bummer.

And with that discouraging slap in the face, my story comes to a grinding halt, all because of this one, paralyzing fear:

What if what I’m writing isn’t original?

Most every writer grapples with this question at some point with each project. And it’s no wonder! What is it that every agent, every publisher is looking for in new talent? Originality! It’s that “new voice” that counts in the publishing world.  

But start searching for Originality and pretty soon it can feel as though every idea has been uncovered, every angle explored. You feel like Truman in The Truman Show when, as a boy, his teacher dashes his hopes of becoming an explorer to smithereens by telling him, “I’m sorry. You’re too late. Everything’s already been discovered.” Cue the tragic backing track.

Yet we cling to hope… hope that there is still uncharted territory in the Land of Story, and we could be the ones who discover it!  Otherwise we may as well pack up our pens, laptops and writing manuals and call it day.

Well I’m here to affirm that hope. Dare to muse with me for a moment…

Maybe… just maybe…this Originality thing is all a myth, an unattainable goal.

Maybe we’re going about it all wrong, trying to write our stories in a sanitary vacuum so as to preserve them from contamination by any element that might in any way resemble some other writer’s ideas.

Maybe this “contamination” is exactly what we need…

As it so happens, two of the greatest heroes of modern fiction poo-pooed this notion of all-important Originality (and ironically both are known for their own transcending originality!). These Giants of Story are none other than  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Listen to what each had to say about originality.

C.S. Lewis, author or the Chronicles of Narnia and a canon of other “one-of-kind” books, believed that aiming for Originality is the surest way of missing the mark. 

“Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

In other words, try to be original for originality’s sake, & your readers will see right through you. Write about what you believe in, & Originality–your own unique voice–will find its way into your writing without any conscious effort.

Let’s test his theory, shall we?

Think about the stories that have most touched and changed you. What was it that impacted you so? Was it wonderful and wacky creatures you’d never before dreamed of? Or was it perhaps something else… something old, maybe even as old as Time, like a love story, or a beautiful friendship, or a character’s heroic sacrifice?

In my case, it’s the latter. Sure, the old themes may be wrapped in fun new clothes, but it’s what’s at the heart of the Story that drives it, not the wrapping. And we’ve all read stories that labor the wrapping to death yet totally lack real, meaty content. Not ideal.

So take this lesson from Lewis to heart: Write about the thing you’re passionate about…the truth that drives you and makes your heart beat. Originality will come as a byproduct. Because let’s face it: every story, no matter how often it’s been told, is bound to carry the flavor of its storyteller. You, the storyteller, are unique; therefore your stories will be too!

J.R.R. Tolkien, the mastermind who set the bar for original fantasy by creating Middle Earth, believed Originality in Story was a myth.

Stories, he argued, evolve from “the long alchemic processes of time.” The process, Tolkien says, is a bit like a stewing cauldron of soup, or, as he phrased it, a  “Cauldron of Story.”

“The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Can you picture it? All the myths, histories, legends and fairy tales ever told simmering together in a great cauldron? There goes a bit of Arthurian legend, there a chunk of Greek mythology, and, oh! What’s that? I’m catching a whiff of Irish folktale.

The point is, nobody writes a story from scratch. We are all influenced. We all dip from the Cauldron of Story.

BUT – and this is a wonderful thought – that means you & I dip from the same pot all the great, successful, ingenious, original authors have dipped from — The Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling… you name them!

The important question then, is not “Am I being original enough? but, “What will I draw out of the Cauldron?

Take the good advice of our fore-bearers, Lewis & Tolkien. Read what you love. Dip into that age-old Cauldron of Story. Draw out the flavors that speak to you, that awaken passion, that you find most delicious and make your heart sing, and write about those!

And who knows? You may find that, without even meaning to, you’ve added a new pinch of flavor all your own to the ever simmering ‘Cauldron of Story’!

Do you think Originality in writing is a myth?

What do you think of Lewis’ & Tolkien’s take on Originality?

 

Author: Mez Blume

9 thoughts on “Stop Aiming for Originality – Do This Instead

  1. Every book is original because the writer is an individual and they have their own take on it. I’ve found a book or two that has some similarities to mine, but what can you do? Only one of these books was written by me and that makes it original.

    1. Absolutely! I think it almost takes more effort to write a carbon copy of someone else’s style than it does to write your in your own voice for that very reason. I know “be yourself” sounds cliche, but that’s really the trick when it comes to finding your “original voice” – write what you know & love!

  2. They say that all the storylines have been used so many times, but it’s what you do with it, how you tell the story your own way, that makes it yours. It’s all about how each person perceives the ideas in the first place and everyone is different. I used to teach website design and was always amazed at how I could give each student the same pictures and the same information about an imaginary business and tell them to create a website, and every single one of them was so different. As you say, we are all individuals. We are all original.

    As a side note: I can’t see some of the images in your posts on your site and where the buttons are supposed to be for Like and Reblog, it just says “Loading…” I have come across so many of your blogs that I’d like to like and reblog, but it won’t let me. If this problem could be resolved, I would be a happy little camper.

  3. Just a quick note to say that I’ve been running into the same situation as Susan for some time, with the never-ending “Loading…” I’d like to show my appreciation for the useful information, but it’s just not an option. In any case, thanks for your posts!

  4. An interesting question. Looking at it from the other side, I have seen many unoriginal stories written. Someone reads something they love and then sits down and essentially writes the same story again, with so little variation that the “copy” is thinly disguised. You see this in movies – a big hit (think Star Wars back in the day) and suddenly everyone is trying to recreate that hit by copying the main elements, but doing it poorly. Perhaps part of the reason they ARE unoriginal is that they are attempting to copy, instead of taking the basic idea and building a new story from it. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, bumpy road, finally they get married. Happens in a lot of stories, but the details vary and that is where each of us can bring in our unique perspective to the events and people. As you note, it would be a major surprise if someone came up with an idea that truly had never been thought of before in any way, shape or form, yet we see the same idea presented differently, magnificently on a regular basis. We can do that.

  5. As so many of the commenters have already mentioned, the originality in a given story springs not from WHAT it’s about, but HOW it’s about what it’s about. And the HOW will really come from a given author’s view of the world, as well as their choices around crafting the story itself, which may be fundamentally different than somebody else tackling the same idea. I know these thoughts aren’t exactly new, but it’s how I express them, after all. 😉

  6. Just go into a bookstore or a library, the wall of stories looking down at you, doesn’t it feel discouraging? Or is it a challenge? I think every plot has been there before – but, my view on them never has been there before. My unique pattern of scars, paranoia, and fears paint a different light unto events around me. Interpretation is everything, I guess.

What are your thoughts on this?