Originality: The Key To Distinctive Fiction

In many ways, there really is nothing new under the sun. You’re not going to locate some unusual human motivation that has never been addressed in fiction. You’re not going to come up with a basic plot that has never been done. But it’s the author who is able to take these common, sometimes overdone elements and turn them into something new and fresh and interesting who creates compelling fiction. The question is, how does she do it?

Because it’s true, you know. There really is nothing new. No new characters, no new plots. Everything’s been done before in one way or another. But here’s another truth: It has never been done your way. You have stories to tell that are totally unique from everyone else’s, even if the basic skeleton of your story is the same. It’s the flesh you put on those bones that makes the difference.

Freshness and originality come not from what you know, but from what you can imagine. And as long as you can imagine very singular, very specific characters, plots and settings, no matter how many times that kind of thing has been done before, your story will be unique. If you write in generalities, your work is going to sound like everyone else’s. But if you provide specific detail, you can easily convince your reader that even the most trite character, setting, or plot is totally distinctive.

General:   John turned to see someone coming out of the back room, a short, wrinkled, gray‑haired woman.

What do you see in your mind? A pretty generalized old lady, right? That’s because I’ve used a generalized description. Short, wrinkled, gray-haired. That sounds like just about every old lady you’ve ever known, right?

Specific:   John heard the shuffle of feet and turned to see someone coming out of the back room, a tiny, gnomelike woman he estimated to be somewhere between eighty and eight hundred. Her sparse white hair lay in wispy ringlets against her scalp, and her face had the deep, fissured look of a dried-up river basin. She wore pink polyester pants and a Hawaiian shirt, and with every shaky step she took, her Reeboks squeaked against the tile floor.

What do you see now? Is it easier to picture a specific old lady? I’m sure you remember hearing an old lady described as short, wrinkled and gray-haired before, but do you remember hearing one described like what I just wrote? The key is to describe not just any old woman, but a very specific old woman who is unique to your story and your story alone.

When you think “original” don’t think you have to write about little green men from Mars, or Navy Seals who crochet doilies. The usual cast of characters is fine, but your old lady should be different than the hundred little old ladies that have come before her.

Let’s take another example.

General:   She appeared to be an experienced doctor.

Okay, that could be anyone. How about:

Specific:  She had the world-weary look of one of those seasoned health-care professionals who could eat lunch over a severed leg and still want dessert.

Did the picture in your mind change with that description? There are a thousand ways to describe an ER doctor. But this one is no bright-eyed intern. She’s probably not a doctor in a small‑town hospital. She’s probably older. She’s been there, done that, seen it all. She’s a specific kind of ER doctor with a specific kind of attitude. Search for descriptions like these that will set your characters apart.

General:  He was an older teenager with a tattoo on his arm. He seemed very tense and looked dangerous.

What does that sound like? Just about every bad-ass teenage boy you’ve ever seen? Let’s get more specific.

Specific:  He was maybe nineteen or twenty, as tensely coiled as a starving pit bull, with an angel of death tattoo on his upper arm and the reshuffled nose of a street fighter.

This kind of descriptions goes a long way toward differentiating your bad-ass teenage boy from all the other bad-ass teenage boys out there. Now, remember that these are just short examples to make my point. You’re going to be doing a lot more in your book to build your characters. 

How about getting specific with a setting?

General:  She pulled up in front of the shabby mobile home.

Specific:  She pulled to the side of the road in front of the double‑wide on lot 38G, a vinyl‑clad structure with plastic shutters and a limp metal awning. A pot of pink geraniums sat beside the front door, wilting in the Texas heat, and Christmas lights drooped over the picture window in the living room. Clayton, take down the damned lights, her mother would say, and her father would say, not if I’m gonna have to put them up again next year.

Do you see the specificity here? This goes a little beyond “shabby mobile home” and allows the reader to imagine a much more specific place. And part of that description gives you a hint of character, too.

Okay, this time you give it a try. Here’s the description: 

General:  The car was a dilapidated blue compact.

How many ways can you describe a crappy car? Take just a minute and see if you can come up with a description. You don’t necessarily have to put it in paragraph form. Just find a few distinctive characteristics. Be creative.

Specific:  The car was a ’91 Corolla, blue with rust accents, with a Jack in the Box antenna ball and a purple rosary hanging from the rearview mirror.

A young, sophisticated multimillionaire

If power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, this man was a walking orgasm. An irresistible combination of cool sophistication and deep pockets, he had businesses to run, people to command, deals to make, and money to burn.

A backwoods Texas diner

The waitresses at the Red Oak served up Texas home cooking guaranteed to clog your arteries at the same time they shot the bull with the locals. Soft sizzling sounds came from the kitchen, like raindrops on a tin roof, and the smell of fried everything filled the air.

A geeky teenage computer whiz

This kid’s fingers haven’t left a computer keyboard since he was two. Eye contact with him is out of the question‑‑there’s a permanent tractor beam between his pupils and his 19‑inch flat screen monitor. Scary smart but weirdly wired, he’s the kind of kid who could derive a new law of physics, win the Nobel prize, then tell the Nobel committee to fuck off because the award ceremony fell on the day Sony released Death Warrior.

You have to use the kind of language and the kind of specific detail that makes the reader believe that these people, these objects, and these settings are totally unique. This is absolutely critical if you expect to stand out in the crowd. Give your readers  something fresh and new, presented in a way they haven’t seen before, and you’ll gain fans for life!

Copyright © 2013 Jane Graves. All rights reserved.

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