I judge stories for the world’s largest fantasy and science fiction writing contest. When I’m judging, the first thing that I look for is a great idea, a great concept. I search for something original.
The most common failure in a story is a failure of imagination. You may not realize it, but I see the same stories over and over again. I’ll get robots becoming human, or ghosts haunting a house, or people transferring memories from one mind to another or from a human to a machine. Rarely do I get an idea that I haven’t seen dozens of times before. So I’m looking for something fresh.
But many authors don’t want to take the time to really think about their stories, to come up with something unique.
Very often, it seems that stories come along in thematic clusters. One year, I got no less than twenty stories written from the point of view of sperms making a heroic journey. (Life is hard when you’re dodging gobs of spermicidal gel, white blood cells hell-bent on destruction, and struggling not to get bounced out of the race by the sperms of Hitler wannabes.)
So when you’re writing a tale, struggle to come up with an original idea, something that you—and hopefully your editor—haven’t seen before.
As an editor, when I see several iterations of the same idea, I have to ask myself, “What makes this story stand out? What makes it any better than others?”
The truth is, that sometimes one of the authors stretches himself or herself further than others. They look for a new idea to couple with an old one, twisting it, so that we get something a little fresh.
For example, in one quarter of our big contest, I got several very good ghost stories. I didn’t want to send more than one of them on to the judges. But one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s tale, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world that the girl can peer into.
So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before.
Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it.
As I read through the tale, there were some surprising conflicts, with equally creative ways that the characters strive to handle the resolution.
So Alisa scored higher on the originality scale, than did the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.
Do you see how a story can manifest originality in a number of ways? Here’s where I look for originality:
- Premise. Your story may explore an idea that no one has ever written about before. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” for example, is a story about a man who engineers the DNA in his blood so that each cell becomes a miniature computer. The cells begin creating their own vessels to explore his body, and become sentient . . . and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s a great idea. Similarly, the concepts of mathematical sociology that led to social engineering in Asimov’s Foundation series really intrigued me as a teen. In science fiction and fantasy, the unique idea shows the highest form of creativity.
- Setting. You may have a unique setting. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Herbert created an entire world that had its own interesting flora, fauna, and societies. Tolkien did it in Lord of the Rings.
- Characters. You can show originality by creating fascinating characters. For example, in the novel Forrest Gump, we meet a boy who is handicapped—physically crippled as a child, mentally challenged as an adult, and emotionally scarred throughout his life. Yet his ability to retain a positive attitude is remarkable and endearing.
- Conflicts. You can show originality as you explore the basic conflicts that you deal with. Some conflicts might be unique, but more commonly, the characters might try to resolve them in an interesting way. I recently loved the television series “Breaking Bad,” where a chemistry teacher who is suffering from cancer decides to try to provide for his family by opening a meth lab. That’s certainly not a way that I’d choose to care for my family. The character of Walter White puts himself on a path where his entire life devolves into a train wreck just waiting to happen, and thus his tale became what might just be the best television series of all time.
- Originality. You can be original in the themes that you deal with. Remember the tale of the 47 Samurai? It dealt with two conflicting ideals in Japanese society—the debt of honor that one owes to family vs. the debt of honor that one owes to an employer. Two hundred years ago, it was felt that one had to make a choice as to which was most important, and then live by it. But the tale of the 47 Samurai showed how to bridge the gap between the two, and thus united a nation.
- Creativity. You need to be creative at each stage of plotting your tale. As I study plots, I look for innovation from the inciting incident at the opening of the story, through each attempt that characters makes to resolve the story, and on into the climax and denouement. So often, I find that there is a weak link somewhere in that chain of events.
- Treatment. You can be unique in your treatment of a tale—in the artistry that you use to construct scenes, and in the language you use to tell it in a beautiful and powerful way. I often see good tales told in a mundane style, and they don’t score highly in the contest. If the author creates unique voices for characters, though, or creates beautiful descriptions, or approaches each scene in an intriguing way, the author can elevate his language to the point that the reader can really sense a powerful artist at work.
In short, in every facet of a story a writer must struggle to be innovative.
The single greatest failure in fiction is a failure of imagination. Stretch your imagination in your tales until you feel that it is about to snap, and then stretch it some more.
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