9 Tips for Understanding Originality in Stories
Chapter 8 “From Story to Art” – Section 7 “Originality"
“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.”
One topic that I’ve wanted to discuss for a while now is on originality. The difficulty, I’ve found, is that the subject is rather nebulous and deeply personal to artists. Everyone has a slightly different definition in mind when they talk about originality, and there is no expert with enough authority to declare a correct one. So, I’ve decided to talk in terms of how I see originality, as a practical goal for which to strive toward. As with most of my topics, I want to dissect the idea and put it into concrete language that can be applied to our writing in a logical way. And I want to share how I’ve personally dealt with the issue of originality, and the changes in my perspective on the matter which have led to my stories becoming more original. Please keep this in mind and do not feel that I am trying to assert any “true” definition.
Tip 1: Understand the inherent limits of originality.
I’ve talked before about how stories are simply plot momentum, divided by chapters, divided by paragraphs, divided by sentences, divided by words and punctuation. And there is a tradition behind their construction, a tradition which gives them power. For example, most stories have a beginning, middle, and end because most audiences want their attention hooked, to journey with the characters, and for there to be resolution. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of tradition; it is a powerful construct that gives solid form to our creativity. But it also means that most of what you write has been written before. In fact, nearly every sentence you could think of will have been written in, at least, a similar way in the history of mankind.
Tip 2: Understand that all storytelling is derivative.
We can see this replication in our story and characters constructs as well. There are really only two types of stories—those about a person/people accomplishing something and those about a person/people failing to accomplish something. Even our characters are overwhelmingly derivative. Humans invented the idea of gods and spirits for things they didn’t understand—rain, sun, death, life, etc. It wasn’t something original they just thought up; it was a stretching of something that predated them. These spirits were slowly stretched over the course of generations until they had backstories, relationships with one another, and purposes. Eventually, there were half-spirit heroes, human heroes who dealt with the gods, and countless stories among them. Over time, we recreated these stories, stretching, changing, and rebirthing of these gods, spirits, and heroes into an infinite pantheon of different characters. We still do this today, not only telling stories about the old gods but creating characters, inspired by characters, inspired by characters, inspired by them.
Tip 3: Understand what originality cannot be in writing.
This may seem depressing and pessimistic. And someone reading this may begin to wonder if my assertion is that originality doesn’t exist. Well, if you’re asking me whether I believe that someone can make a story that is a hundred percent new content that nobody has ever written before or inspired, then I will tell you that I do not. You would need to divorce yourself from form, from traditions of language, from character constructs, and from everything that constitutes our understanding of a story for it to be wholly original. And once you did that, it would no longer be what most people define as a story but something entirely different. If your definition of originality is something completely free of tradition or influence, you are going to be very sad after you write your novel and discovered all of the worlds, characters, and stories that have wormed their way into the deepest part of your heart.
Tip 4: Understand that even your own experience isn’t completely unique.
Additionally, you will find that everything you write has been inspired by everything else you’ve seen or been exposed to. While I have tried to be original, there is nothing that I have written that was not at least subconsciously inspired by something else. My characters are blends of my favorite heroes along with parts of my personality or the personalities of people I know. My themes come from lessons I’ve learned either by living or by reading works of philosophy. And as much as I would like to think that my life is something unique, I have gained enough perspective to know that the feelings that I have felt are universal in the sense that there are countless people who have undergone things that triggered the same emotions in them. No, there will never be anyone who has experienced the exact series of events, in the same way that I have, with my exact biological predispositions. We are all unique in that sense. But every feeling and experience that I have undergone is at least similar to that of one other person who has lived. Yet, this is what gives our writing power. The universal nature of human existence ties us together and causes our work to have an impact on others that would be impossible if we could not relate to one another on an emotional and experiential level.
Tip 5: Understand originality in a new way.
So then if we’re not perceiving originality as an objective standard, how do we look at it? For me, originality is something between direction and a personal standard. It’s like the concept of moving forward. If we were to look at the idea of “forward” as an actual destination, it would be one that we would never reach. No matter how far we walk, we will never accomplish the goal of reaching “forward” because it will always be ahead of us. Fortunately, forward is only a direction that is relative to where we currently are. Likewise, originality is a direction we can always strive to reach. We can work hard to present fresh or rarely-used ideas, or we can present old ideas in a fresh way. Sure, there will always be the very huge chance that another work like ours exists. But that does not undermine our efforts nor the enjoyment of the readers who are touched by what we have done. The unique flavor of our stories is made no less valuable by similar stories. To assert otherwise would be akin to saying that our feelings are less genuine because someone else has already felt them; it would be absurd.
Tip 6: Understand that originality is not a hindrance to your creativity.
When we’re constantly worried that everything we write may have already been written by someone else, we do not feel creatively liberated to let our imaginations soar. We are constantly second guessing ourselves and abstaining from writing what we really want because people might think it’s too similar to something else. I know that when I was beginning to write, it was so disheartening to describe my manuscript only for people to reply that it was like some other novel (usually one I had read, loved, and been subconsciously inspired to emulate in some way). It felt like they were stripping me of a badge, of the right to claim any amount of effort and heart I had put into my work. They didn’t mean to do this and they were often correct in their comparisons, but this didn’t make it easier to handle. An artist’s most valuable treasure is their creativity, and the perceived diminishment of it is emotionally crippling. But by changing our mindsets so that originality becomes a direction, we can still strive for it while not being so wounded when we are inevitably inspired by everything we see.
Tip 7: Understand originality as a skill that frees our creativity.
Then how we can use this perspective on originality to improve our work? First, we can use it to give ourselves some grace and mercy, to no longer punish ourselves for being inspired or for writing what gives us joy. We begin to no longer see our inspirations as something that threatens us, but something to embrace and hold us steady while we learn to walk for ourselves. Ironically, it is in this state of freedom where we often produce our most original content and by writing boldly. Once originality becomes a direction we strive for, it also becomes a skill that we can become better at as time goes on. We can go back, redraft, and gradually improve the originality of a work, even if it is inspired by something else. And as we work on becoming more original, unfearful of tradition, our skill will grow just like in any area of our lives.
Tip 8: Understand how to take what exists and stretch/mix/adopt it into something new.
Last, we can learn to embrace imitation in order to attain this type of originality. If you enjoy something about a novel or book, you can take that one element, shape it to make it perfect for you, reconstruct it, and make it into something fresh. You can mix various pre-existing ideas into a completely new concoction, just like a delicious mixed drink that is original for its unique blend of already existing flavors. We can pick the best of all we learn from the inadvertent teachers around us—life, people, stories, books, science, universal human experience, philosophy, and literally anything else—and turn their highlights into the basic standards of our own original style. This isn’t to say we should just blatantly rip off other people’s work, but that we should look at the elements we like in them and reincarnate those things into a new form. This original recreation is then made even stronger when we openly credit our inspirations instead of pretending like we burst forth fully creative from the head of Zeus.
Tip 9: Understand your place in the bigger picture of originality.
If originality as an objective measurement exists, it only comes out in the most minute and untraceable ways from any given artist. It takes shape as generations of humans learn from their predecessors, build upon those foundations, and then teach what they know to the next generation. And it continues as the next generation twists, mixes, and stretches those ideas further before repeating the cycle. It is a long process, and each of us are only a small part of it. This can seem depressing or hopeless, but it is also liberating. So long as we work towards originality, to give credit to our teachers, and to be brave in the face of the nearly infinite amount of content that already exists whether we have read it or not, we are an active part in that multi-generational power that slowly makes the world new and keeps it old all at the same time.
Weekly Recommended Reading: "The Epic of Gilgamesh" (to see how much and how little writing has changed between our oldest surviving story and our newest ones).
Write-A-Novel Exercise 8.7
In the comments, list the artists who have inspired you and what strengths of their you wish to adopt into your own work. If you can find the information, list the artists who inspired the artist who inspired you.
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I don't think that I have ever read a more down-to-earth and concise summary of originality in art before. You deliver the hard truth for those that need to hear it, but at the same time you do a wonderful job pointing out that it is fine that true originality doesn't exist.
Thank you for sharing this!
That said, I find that my characters sometimes rise up and assert themselves in ways I never intended, which, in turn, throws the arc of the story into avenues I hadn't planned to explore; result: unintended originality!
A good example is a story I turned into a webcomic a few years ago. The lead female character in that yarn was originally intended to be little more than a background character - the juvenile hero's voluptuous, but finger-wagging older sister who was oblivious to her kid brother's extracurricular activities as a sort of '50s-era Johnny Sokko with his own pet radioactive Kongzilla buddy. As I first envisioned it, the story was very derivative, but, when the sister character insisted on being more than just eye-candy for the envisioned mostly male audience, the whole story morphed into an entirely different creature. Her insurrection forced me to be less derivative and more original, in spite of the fact that it was meant as a homage piece to the stuff I grew up on as a kid. It still wasn't original by any means, but it was no longer a carbon copy of the old "Frankenstein Jr." cartoon I originally planned it to be.
I suppose what I'm saying is that it's sometimes better to lose control of our work and let the characters take the steering wheel. You sometimes find yourself driving down roads you've never travelled before.
But any how, there's actually a pretty good follow up tutorial suggestion a fellow would love to see. It's to do with the force that threw me the rope out of the originality pitfall: and that is learning to pursue honesty, instead of originality.
It's how I've managed to completely squeak clean my thoughts of originality, and how I've succeeded in rather rapid self-improvement in only a couple of years. I pursue honest writing, which is different from realistic writing, and it's something that can benefit all writers if they can learn to do the same.
It's about the importance of identifying honesty and truth (or lack thereof) in every aspect of the stories we make, and how pursuing these truths, as well as properly utilizing the truths we know, can fast improve one's own skills at making our works both believable and relatable, even when absurdity is integrated.
Then again, this monologue could just be from the mind of a minority. But if it does spark sense then I'd love to here your own tuppence.
I know that on this site, when fan fiction comes up, 'originality' enters the debate quite rapidly.
How would you deal with people who do not believe originality should be factored in when judging a written work's worth, because 'originality does not exist'?
I would say that it exists, just not an objective and measurable standard. So we would look at it as we do with all subjective standards. For example, we can tell when a writer enjoyed writing a book vs when they were clearly being contracted to write something they didn't give a care about. It's not measurable, the evident joy/passion in a written work, but it is something we can still discern. Similarly, we can tell when a writer was trying to create something fresh vs when they are just rehashing the same old thing. An example that comes to mind is the Deadpool movie. No, it isn't original by any stretch of the imagination. But, when it came out, it was clear that the creative team was working hard to bring a fresh and "original" approach to the project, especially compared to the rather generic feel that all superhero movies were beginning to share.
So lets look at your hypothetical for if someone asked for my feedback (because otherwise, I wouldn't butt in my unwanted opinions), their work had no spirit of originality, and they defended it by saying originality does not exist. I would grant them that they are correct in that nothing is truly original. But I would counter that there is no evident spirit of originality in their work. There is no perceivable attempt to stretch, or mix, or change anything beyond pre-existing conventions. Then it would be up to them whether they just wanted to keep their story generic/a knock off, or if they wanted to work at infusing it with the spirit of originality.
At that point, if they disagree you can debate them if you want. But the truth is that if they are that defensive and don't want to work at improving their story, then there is no reason to argue with them. They don't really want criticism, they want validation. So after you offer your honest opinion (offering aid to someone who claims to want it) and you explain your opinion, it is up to them. Don't try to force your aid on someone who shouts for help and then claws your hand when you try to offer it. It's a waste of time and effort in a world filled with people who sincerely do want your help.