One thing that I value most in a story is originality.
I like novels with "novel” ideas—ideas that aren’t just a little different, but which I haven’t seen before. Originality can show up anywhere in your story. For example, let’s say that I want to create a novel character. If I move the story outside of my society, I’m more likely to do that. So let’s say that I decide to move far outside my culture. The key is to be an original writer. What haven’t I seen before?
Well, I haven’t seen many stories with characters from Siberia, yet I’ve long been fascinated by Siberia. In particular, there have been a lot of interesting archaeological sites found there. A couple of years ago, I recall seeing pictures of a hut that had been discovered made completely out of mammoth tusks.
More recently, a frozen baby mammoth was discovered intact—one whose eggs should be whole enough that they could be used for cloning a new mammoth.
So if I were to write a story about, say, a scrimshaw artist living in Siberia who “mines” mammoth tusks so that he can create his art, the chances are that I would be imbuing the story with a unique character.
Thus, simply by moving outside of my comfort zone as a writer—to a distant time or faraway place—I can separate myself from the herd.
But there are lots of other ways to be original. You can be original in your language—in your word choice, the way that you describe things, and in your metaphors. You might decide, for example, to describe all of your characters as if they were birds, and then create original similes for every scent that you describe in the tale.
I saw good use of this technique in Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. She alternately described a family as a garden and as a corporation throughout the novel, building an argument for what the family should be. I used to love the way that Flannery O’Connor would describe people using vegetables in her metaphors.
You can show originality in your plotting by coming up with unusual and compelling problems for your character, along with unique ways that the character might try to resolve those problems.
I loved the movie Live Free or Die Hard—especially the part where Bruce Willis attacks a motorcycle with his car, or when he shoots through himself in order to kill the villain. The movie had a number of original conflicts and twists interwoven through the plot.
Sometimes, you can do original things with your story simply by your approach. For example, when Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Shadow, he did something I’ve never seen done before—he rewrote a popular novel using the viewpoint of a completely different protagonist. What a cool idea!
My goal isn’t always to create a story that you’ve never seen before, but I do find that the stories I enjoy most consistently add interest by giving me something unique.
“All I ever wanted was for somebody to publish Harry so I could go to bookshops and see it.”
—J. K. Rowling