I’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE
As the lead judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, I read a lot of stories. Very seldom do I see a completely unique concept for a tale. For example, I see a lot of stories that have vampires or werewolves or superheroes in them. I see tales about interstellar races, cloning, haunted houses, and so on.
Sometimes it feels as if every idea is so old, it must be worn out. Yet that isn’t so. If you look at some of the bestselling novels of all time, you’ll see that they are based on ideas that are a bit faded. For example, Tolkien’s work was based in part upon Germanic folktales and Celtic myth. His orcs, ogres, elves and dwarves and wraiths had all appeared in literature for centuries. Yet somehow he managed to re-invent them enough so that they felt . . . original.
Many authors had written stories about kids going to wizard schools, but none did it as well as Rowling. Similarly, many people have written stories about vampires, but Stephenie Meyer managed to capture a whole generation by making them her own.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE TOO ORIGINAL
Imagine that I wrote a novel set on an alien world, with completely alien animals and plants. I might create tape-worm people as protagonists, fighting a war with sentient slime molds. But in writing such a story, the truth is that it would be almost impossible to capture a large audience. Most readers would find that I was stretching their imaginations well beyond the breaking point.
As authors, we need to meet our readers halfway. Readers crave originality. As is often said by singing judges on The Voice, “The same is lame.” If a vocalist simply tries to copy someone else’s song, they may do excellent, but it will still sound just like karaoke.
On the other hand, we don’t want too much originality in our singing. A musician might be able to incorporate a lot into a performance—animal sounds, whistles, scat, yodels, snorts, grunts, various slapping and drumming sounds—and end up being so original that the audience doesn’t even recognize it as singing.
The same is true with writing. Even though readers crave originality, they need to deal with ideas and inventions that aren’t mind-boggling. Thus, the most popular writers tend not to use the most original ideas, they instead tend to make them their own.
HOW DO YOU MAKE AN IDEA YOUR OWN?
I think that you have to invest yourself into it fully. You have to reinvent it.
Several times this year I’ve seen novels that have the Alfar—elves—in a science fiction setting. For a couple of the novels, the Alfar was just another race of space travelers. I worried each time I see that idea that it has just been done to death, that no editor will take it.
But last week I came across a writer who has written a few books on Norse history, herbalism, and magic. His name is Hugh B. Long, and his works using the Alfar in space are . . . different, more fully realized than others I’ve seen. He’s taken the worlds of ancient Norse mythology and reimagined them as military science fiction, where elves are futuristic explorers who once visited Earth, and now mankind must unite with them to fight a common enemy.
I think that he is succeeding in taking a concept and really developing it into something new, making it his own. There’s a possibility that his works could grow into a hit.
Here is a link to his first novel.
Just remember: “The same is lame.” If you’re going to base a story around a familiar concept, one that others have used often, you need to really own the idea, twist it in a way that makes it new. Then, you need to create an intriguing plot and write the story beautifully, so that it becomes the very best of its kind.
Twenty years ago, Dave taught his legendary 318R writing class at BYU. Some of his students included Brandon Sanderson (Way of Kings), Dan Wells (I am Not a Serial Killer), and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight). Dave’s approach worked well because he put emphasis not just on writing but also on the business of writing so that an author doesn’t waste years of his or her life by making costly career mistakes.
Dave will be opening this class again for this January of 2022. Registration will be very limited for those who want the full experience, with critiques of their manuscripts. However, there will be plenty of room for those who wish to attend as auditing students, who may attend the lectures and ask questions, but who won’t be receiving critiques and taking quizzes.