Thursday, April 16, 2020

On Originality in Short Fiction

A conundrum occurs when a new author is told his/her work is "unoriginal" or the editor has "seen this kind of story too often."

The conundrum lies in the idea that trite stories seldom appear in print, so how does a new author know what's trite if there are no examples available?  If, for example, the intrepid author searches and searches for published ghost stories set in haunted old mansions, how is she to judge her own ghost story set in a haunted old mansion as anything but original?

The easy answer is that a few markets offer lists of types of stories they see too often.    But those lists are often written in terms of what that market is seeing too much of RIGHT NOW, and are often incomplete.  In all fairness, to offer a list of unoriginal story ideas would require reams of paper.

Understand that stories have been around for millennia, and understand also that there are (at least in some estimates) only a handful of types of stories.  So how could ANY story possibly be original?

NO story is entirely original.  Our human consciousness is vast but limited by our experiences, knowledge, and learning.  To create something truly original would mean to reach beyond everything we know.  In science fiction, it would mean creating aliens so COMPLETELY alien from humans that they would not only be difficult to describe but impossible for our readers to empathize with.

One of the most original recent works is in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series.  Much of his world is void of things we find very familiar.  Instead of grass, the ground is covered by crustacean-like creatures that withdraw their grass-like fronds into the ground when threatened.  Instead of dogs, he gives us axe-hounds with many legs.  Instead of oxen, carts are pulled by giant hermit-crab-like chulls.  BUT, his grass-like crustaceans are similar to grass.  His axe-hounds are similar to dogs (and lobsters).  His chulls are similar to hermit crabs.

To Sanderson's great credit, the world is original enough that it takes time for the reader to become immersed in the far-reaching differences between his world and ours.  But he still uses the tool of the human collective consciousness to give us enough information that we are able to make imaginative connections between what we know and what he gives us.

Sanderson has set a high bar of originality for others to follow.  But do we need to be THAT original to be publishable?

No, we don't.

But how do we know if our story is trite or original?  Most markets don't offer feedback.  They don't tell us, "Sorry, this story is unoriginal."  Often, as new writers, the people we network with are also new writers who don't know much more than us about the difference between trite and original in fiction.  We can read stories all day long (because there are thousands of stories--admittedly of varying quality) available for free reading online.  But seeing what IS being published doesn't tell us what markets DON'T want to publish.  It shows us what's ORIGINAL, but doesn't tell us what's UNORIGINAL.

For the answer, we'll look to master storyteller, Orson Scott Card.

Card teaches the rule of three for crafting original stories.

Here's how it works.

Step ONE:

I sit down to write a new story.  I look at my blank page and create for myself the three elements of any story--character, setting, and conflict.

An idea comes to me and I write it down.

This idea is ALWAYS going to be cliche, trite, unoriginal.  (Even if it's ENTIRELY original, it can be extraordinarily MORE original if I continue with the process.)    This idea comes from my human collective consciousness.  It comes directly from the most easily accessible parts of the information storage centers of my brain.  It's familiar.  It's what I've seen and heard and read and processed most commonly.

We can use that haunted old mansion as an example:

I sit down to write a ghost story.  A ghost story is a familiar type of story.  My first idea is likely to include some of the following, because they are held within that familiar information center of my brain:

SETTING: Dilapidated mansion on a hill, behind a rusted gate with a padlock hanging from an equally rusty chain.
CHARACTER(S): A bunch of kids (either 11-year-olds on bikes or 16-year-olds in a beater car) come to the old mansion on a dare, because EVERYONE knows the house is haunted, but the kids don't believe it.  One will likely try to chicken out but be pressured by the others to go inside anyway.
CHARACTER: The ghost is either a creepy old woman or a child.
CONFLICT: The kids are likely to become trapped in the house or create some kind of mischief in the house for which the house/ghost must punish them.  The story resolves when the innocent escape and/or the guilty are punished.

If this story sounds original, it's not.  I should NOT write it.  I should proceed to...

Step TWO:

I'm going to dig deeper into my brain's information storage centers, accessing the less-familiar details gleaned from my lifetime of experiences.

SETTING: How might that house be different?  Maybe it's a typical suburban ranch-style instead of a dilapidated mansion.  Maybe it's not even dilapidated but well-cared for.  Maybe it's not abandoned but one of your characters lives there.

CHARACTER(S):  Maybe it's a realtor showing the house for sale?  Maybe it's a couple of crack-heads looking for a place to get high.

CHARACTER: The ghost.  Maybe it's a young man who seems to be searching for something or a teenage girl who seems to be angry about something.

CONFLICT:  Maybe the ghost needs to warn that realtor of something, but he can't figure out how to make himself heard.  The story might be resolved when the realtor finally figures it out, or a second character with special abilities enters the scene and the ghost's message is delivered and responded to.

That's much better, but it's still not enough.  I need to proceed to the next step, in which we're accessing the most original, interesting, unique, uncommon, unfamiliar information in our brains AND activating those valuable creative centers as well.


SETTING:  What's the most unusual place I can conceive of in which a ghost story might take place?  A tiny village on a South Pacific island?  A New York Penthouse?  A space station?

CHARACTER(S):  A hardened ex-con who becomes an unwitting hero in my ghost story?  Maybe a young mother with children dripping from her arms who just CANNOT deal with one more personality demanding her attention.  Maybe a Mexican Coyote who's about to get his comeuppance for the truckload of hopeful border-jumpers he left to die in the Sonoran desert.

CHARACTER: The ghost.  Maybe a French-Canadian fur trapper who haunts the place where he was killed by a bear, his body torn to pieces by wolves and vultures.  Maybe a Mayan warrior who wants the heart that had been torn from his body in a terrifying rite of sacrifice.  Maybe a bloodthirsty murderer who, upon his death, finds he will never find peace unless he's somehow able to successfully help exonerate the innocent man who went to prison for his crimes.

CONFLICT:  I can now see that as I develop my settings and characters, I vastly expand my potential conflicts.  I can see how very many original and interesting storylines I can create, not from thin air, but from the deeper recesses of my consciousness and by activating those creative centers through their exploration.

From this process, I've not only come upon a great story idea, I've come up with a dozen or more!   It's mind-expanding AND productive AND gleans original story ideas.

Oh, and one last word, if we want our work to be original and appealing to editors, don't be a response writer.  What do I mean by that?  Don't be that writer who reads the latest big book, or watches the latest big movie, or sees the latest big news story, and writes a story in response.

Story and book markets saw loads of shiny vampire stories after Twilight, and loads of magic student stories after Harry Potter.  As the Avengers films grew in popularity, we saw an uptick in superhero stories.  Right now (this was written in April 2020), we're seeing a lot of Covid-19/pandemic stories.  The past few years we've seen a lot of Donald Trump stories (either haters or lovers). 

Don't be that writer.  That story has already been told.

No comments: