Monday, February 9, 2009

What Makes a Story Original?

Twice lately I've seen novels called "original." Since that's a quality any writer would like his or her stories to have (has "their" been officially accepted as the singular gender-neutral pronoun yet?), it makes sense to do some thinking about how we can achieve it. What makes a story original?

Some argue that there are no truly original stories left, that they were all told long before anyone currently living was ever born. I think that's true in the sense that most stories can be fitted to one (maybe sometimes more than one) plot form: the quest plot, the adventure plot, the rescue plot, the revenge plot, the rivalry plot, and so forth. Not being a great plotter myself, I have two books on plot patterns that show how to spot the bare bones of a particular type of plot, choose a basic skeleton that best fits your idea, and flesh it out with your own characters and events. The books overlap in their advice to some degree, but they also differ on how many plot templates exist and what they should be called. From Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Homer to Melville to Dickens to Austen to Sophocles to Hawthorne to Henry James to Shakespeare *inhales*, and no doubt to Faulkner, example after example is cited to prove the authors' point: If the plot exists that doesn't fit some pre-existing pattern, good luck finding it.

Others argue that of course there are original stories. No realistic story about computers could be written before computers existed. No American literature could be written until that one-of-a-kind nation, the USA, was born. Besides that, many suggest, originality lies in character, emotional accuracy and voice, not necessarily in plot.

I think this is one of those issues where the "sides" aren't sides at all, and both have a piece of the truth. If you accept the idea that there are certain types of stories that resonate with human beings and those types are likely to be finite, which I do, you conclude that originality doesn't lie in developing a new, never-used plot pattern. On the other hand, if you pick up a book like The Hunger Games and marvel at the storyline, you know plot plays a role in originality. This book gives at least one clue to an original story, I think: it takes a fairly new phenomenon, reality TV; adds a current political problem, a sense of division among Americans; and spins them out into some plausible conclusions. It asks "What's new? How might that new thing change over time? How might it turn ugly?" When seeking an original plot, another question to ask might be, "What's the story behind ____?" Impossible, by Nancy Werlin, which I will be reviewing next Monday, asks the question "What's the story behind the ballad 'Scarborough Fair'?" The quest for originality challenges the writer to ask -- and this is broader and more elusive than any one example -- "How can I think outside the box?"

Let's turn to character. This is like the plot issue, in a way. Though everyone in the world is unique, and theoretically so can our fictional characters be, many psychology experts agree that there are four basic temperament types. Just four. They're called by different names and may be broken down into varying numbers of subtypes, but the four main types are readily identifiable from one system to another. Everyone, unique though he or she (they?) may be, is one of four types. How do you move from a type to an original character? I think you do it by tuning into that person's emotional truth and being sure to express it. For example, in Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Andrew Clements, Rex speaks some lines that nail his emotional state in a specific way. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." What an original way to express the newness of morning -- as commencement. Rex describes a wobbly smile as "a smile with training wheels." This kind of care taken with specific language to express thoughts and feelings in turn creates the original voice.

So -- what do you think? What makes a story original?


Mary Witzl said...

Lovely, thoughtful post.

I love stories that lead me adroitly in one direction, then surprise me by going an entirely different way. I love characters who undergo surprising, but believable, transformations. Protagonists who don't fit into any set pattern, plots that I can't figure out halfway through the story, stories that entertain and uplift in ways that aren't predictable -- all of those things make a book original. And they make me look for more books by that author, too.

Tabitha said...

Amazing post, Marcia! And, of course, I agree 100%. :) Originality comes from so much more than one thing. *Everything* in writing comes from more than one thing. It's all a big, connected mesh. :)

I love how you laid out the plot, voice, and characters. The only thing I'd add is the author herself (themselves?). Her experience will shine through, making her work original in that no one else could write it the same. But, really, there's so much that goes into writing that we could list a zillion things that contribute! :)

Anne Spollen said...

Sometimes I think the language really plays a big part in me thinking a story is original or not. I love lyrical writing, and if the author interprets an "old" theme (say the loss of innocence) in a fresh way with language, I keep reading.

And like Tabitha said, it IS all a big connected mesh.

PJ Hoover said...

Voice and characters for me make a story original. Because everything else is base human emotions.

Great post!

Marcia said...

Mary -- Yes, unpredictability is important. Books that make you say, "Of COURSE; I should have known, but I never would have guessed."

Tabitha -- Oh, that is SO true about the "big connected mesh." Not to be confused with "mess." :)Originality comes out of OUR truth, so it's important for us to stay in touch with that.

Anne -- I love lyrical language, too. Yes, if I think a book's prose is flat, I'm less likely to think it's original. It feels like a re-read. If we reach beyond the obvious and easy to find just the right word or expression, that's original.

PJ -- I'm glad that's the case, because I'm better at voice and character than plot. While most emotions are common to everyone, individual expressions of them and exactly which ones we might feel in a given situation are unique. Characters sometimes get mad when I wouldn't, for example, or vice-versa. Which is fine. But at those times when a writer pinpoints something exactly the way I'd feel about it -- wow. Instant connection. And I think, "Oh, this is different from other things I've read."

beth said...

I think, in the end, a truly original story is found in the voice and the plot. While some may argue that there's no new story under the sun, it is true that there are new ways to tell old stories, and that by adding a few twists in there as well, you can create a totally new story.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

For me it's all about the story.

The perfect language (since I'm a writer myself) will actually distract me, b/c I'll be wondering the whole time, Is this for *real* or did she plan this?

And then I feel bad, b/c the question implies the planning means one is less than the best writer, and I know that's true.

But then there's those books that the badness distracts. And I have to read something, just like I have to eventually eat something. SO I sit down and read and eventually I find something new to fall in love with.

(I'm so pathetic. I over-think everything...)

Marcia said...

Beth -- Yes, there are no really new plot patterns, yet there are new ways to tell old stories. I forget the title, but Donna Jo Napoli wrote a book where you realize in the end, when the MC builds a candy house and two kids come nibbling at it, exactly who she is. Showing that you can write a really original story just by changing POV.

Amy Jane -- Language can be a tricky part of originality, can't it? If the language is really pedestrian I notice, but if it's too clever, I also notice, and feel like the author is trying too hard. Original turns of phrase that are really natural and unforced must come from careful observation and unique ways of seeing, is my guess.