Original Concepts

Last week launched a short series of articles looking at the most important ingredients in a story. The series began with an exploration of compelling characters. This week, it continues with a look at another key component; original concepts.

Hardcover books typically cost $26.99 U.S., while trade paperback editions are as much as $16.99. When the hours involved in writing and editing a book are considered, and the amount of time a person is entertained by a book is factored in, these prices are reasonable. However, these prices would not be reasonable if an author wrote the same basic story again and again.

Comparisons and Copycats

While it’s true that books within a certain genre or subgenre may have specific elements in every story–a police procedural is going to have a police officer investigating a crime–there need to be enough elements in the story that differ from other books to keep the story from suffering by comparison, and to keep readers from feeling like works are getting repetitive.

This is actually a tough line to walk in publishing. At a panel at Harrogate in 2005, literary agent Jonny Geller told the crowd not to be a copycat … at the same time, the panel talked about how hard it is to sell a completely original concept. Industry insiders clarified that publishers want something that has elements of known stories bridged to fresh story elements.

In other words, it’s hard to sell something that is completely different. One needs to look no further than any Twitter pitch event to see the evidence of this; in pitch after pitch writers compare their story to existing stories. This is to give agents and publishers an idea about the content and how to market the story.

Too Much of a Similar Thing

There are several degrees between a copycat and an innovative story with a completely original concept. The problem for writers is to strike the right balance between these two ends of the spectrum so that they can appear both marketable and innovative. 

Unless you are specifically tapping into the copycat market–writing Hunger Games knock-off books in the wake of its popularity or writing about orphaned wizards–it’s best to err on the completely original concept end of the spectrum. One of the key reasons for this is that agents and editors are processing hundreds–and in some cases thousands–of submissions and if you are too similar to an existing product the chances are you’ll also be too similar to other submissions that they receive. When editors and agents receive a number of similar submissions the volume of comparable product may be a factor that works against your submission. It can be an indication that if other agents or editors pick up some of those submissions the market may be flooded with works that are all competing for the same readers. Also, an agent is unlikely to do well trying to find publishers for several books with very similar concepts and themes, which means that they’re most likely to select one of those submissions at most, and reject the rest.

Story Archetypes

It is often said that there are only six basic storylines, and every story told is a variation of those story types. 

Computational Story Lab, analysed data from thousands of novels to reveal six basic story types – you could call them archetypes – that form the building blocks for more complex stories …

1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune

2. Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy

3. Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune

4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again

5. Cinderella – rise, fall, rise 

6. Man in a hole – fall, rise

If all stories can be pared down to one of these archetypes, then how do you present a truly original concept? There are a number of different elements that can reshape the story.

Setting

One of the ways that a story can be distinguished is with a dramatic shift in the setting from what might be expected. For example, the cult hit TV show Firefly is often billed as a western in space. Mal might pilot a spaceship instead of riding a horse, but he deals with lawlessness in regions of space either haven’t been tamed or are far enough away from any governing body to prioritize lawfulness. Anyone raided by thieves or, worse, attacked by Reavers are usually on their own. Firefly takes the key components of Western stories and, but putting them in space, reshapes the landscape so that the stories are anything but predictable. Each planet can present new problems for the crew, and there are temptations that may sway loyalties. In a part of the galaxy where few are comfortable, money can tempt even those you’ve known for years. Add in some truly creative characters, such as a professional Companion who has access to those who are wealthy and powerful, and a pair of stowaways on the run from the government, and you have everything required for a show that is anything but forgettable.

Motivations

One of the ways you can refresh a common concept is by adjusting the motivations of your characters. For example, why does someone get into the drug business? Because they don’t have an education and were brought up by those involved with criminal activities? Because they think it’s a quick way to earn a lot of money? Because they’re from a poor family and desperate to find a way to provide for themselves or others?Breaking Bad took things a step further. What would make a seemingly average husband and father, a high school chemistry teacher, start making and selling drugs? Give that man cancer and a lack of funds to pay for the treatment he needs, plus a pregnant wife and a disabled son, and you have a man whose back is up against a wall. He needs a lot of money, fast, and this is something he can do to get that money.

Context

“The context of an idea or event is the general situation that relates to it, and which helps it to be understood.” For example, it may be common for people of different races to marry today, but if the story of an interracial couple’s relationship is set back in time, the historical variables will be a key part of the context of that story and shape the story differently.

Context isn’t simply limited to history. The supporting characters and their agendas or actions can contribute to a story’s context. 

A great illustration of context is provided by season 1 of the TV show Fargo. The first episode begins with a man driving a generic car along a road at night. He’s listening to a recording that sounds ominous. When he turns it off, there’s thudding from the trunk. A sudden movement on the road catches the driver’s attention; a deer races across the road in front of him. Then another emerges and there’s no time to react; the collision sends the car over a snowbank. It also pops the trunk, so an almost-naked man emerges and runs away, towards the forest. The driver gets out of the vehicle and walks over to look down at the deer.

The season and the variables are all part of the context. The viewer is also immersed in the current events affecting the story, without any knowledge of who these people are yet because there has been action in the form of an accident and a man escaping what appears to be an abduction. Why does this driver have a man in the trunk of his car? What is he going to do with him? This is an excellent opening because it both intrigues the viewer and makes them curious about why there’s an almost naked man in the trunk of the car and what the driver is going to do after he runs away.

Next scene starts with a very noisy washing machine and a rambling wife going on and on about how good some people have it while making not-so-subtle digs at her husband.

Everything from the weather to the deer to the noisy washing machine form the context for the start of this story. Hitting the deer prompts the driver to go to the hospital the next day, where he encounters the hen-pecked husband, who will claim he slipped on some ice and hurt his nose when asked by others, but will tell the driver of that car the truth. All of the variables that bring the driver and husband together contribute to the context of the story and changing any one of them could dramatically impact the story. Those who’ve seen season 1 know that it needed to be told in the winter; the ice was a plausible lie for Lester’s injury and the snowstorm that hits the region has a significant bearing on events as well. It was necessary for the driver to hit a large animal for the accident to have the force of impact needed to pop the trunk so that the man in the trunk could get away. While it may be have been possible to have the driver hit a moose, the same impact wouldn’t be possible from hitting a raccoon or even a coyote.

One Last Thing

Remember, whatever variables you alter to make your story more distinct need to make sense for the story overall. It can be easy enough to change a story’s location, but if that change doesn’t impact the story in any way that alters the events then it’s a simple change that is limited in terms of its impact. A change that fundamentally alters events and motivations within the story will have a ripple effect, and reshape the entire story. The more the change impacts the characters and plot, the more impact it will have on the story overall, and the more it will help distinguish your story and give it an original feel. This will give your story a creative edge when seeking publication.