“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to." – Jim Jarmusch
While the idea that nothing is original—not even your story—may seem depressing and a definite Debbie Downer, I’ve got three tricks to help ensure that your writing is authentic and distinctively your own interpretation of the clichés in literature and cinema.
1. Create fully developed characters.
As human beings, no two of us are the same. Not even identical twins are 100% identical. This should also be true for your characters. There are only so many shades of hair, skin tones, and eye colors to choose from but what makes one of us stand out from another is the combination of our characteristics and varied experiences.
Your heroine may be a ginger-haired, emerald-eyed Irish lass. Pretty trite at first glance but she may also dislike anything and everything furry because she endured a bear attack as a child, she might walk with a limp due to a battle with polio when she was sixteen, and love harp music—her deceased mother played the instrument while the lass was in the womb. With these additions, your heroine is now a standout--more real and much more original.
In my short story, Chronicles of The Flood: 2237, the main character is a typical teen—full of sass toward her mother and lackadaisical angst about everything. Some of the details that make Johnna special are her infatuation with a canid-hybrid boy that her best friend shuns for socially stereotypical reasons, the fact that faex is her go-to cuss word, and her collection of rare, vintage emoji buttons. Being a more fully developed character with quirks and specifics, she’s more unique and therefore memorable.
Pitfall: Exposition/Info Dumps. Beware of turning your story into a character study, unless that’s what you’re going for. Instead, sprinkle the finer details throughout the work rather than plopping them all down in the first paragraph or scene. As well, make sure the details you share are relevant to the story and show us something about your character that we, as readers, need or would want to know. Beta readers can help you make a judgement call on both of these pitfalls.
2. Use all of your senses.
When building a world, setting a scene, or introducing a character, make sure to add details from all the five sense or specifically consider utilizing the lesser used ones—like smell and taste. Don’t just tell me what the antagonist looks like, tell me what he smells like, tastes like, or how his skin feels to another character. This can be tricky to do smoothly but give it a whirl.
In her article, Scents and Sense-ability, penned for the YA Highway blog, writer Phoebe North has this to say about the senses in writing…
“Of the five senses, smell is probably the most ignored in fiction, both in general fiction and in books written for YA audiences. Sight reigns supreme; we're treated to vivid descriptions of cute boys and lush landscapes. On occasion, our friend sound makes an appearance--the crunch of stones on a driveway, the soft crackle of fire over coals, the melodic lilt of music. Books might on occasion feature gentle caresses or, in the case of Brian Jacques, lurid descriptions of scrumptious feasts. But it’s rare that a book highlights odoriferous experiences alone, aside from the sense’s role in enhancing her sister sense, taste.”
Here, here, Phoebe! I have a group of humanoid aliens in Chronicles of The Flood: 2237, called the Ankazians. While they’re pretty much standard ominous humanoid beings that wear black uniforms and masks, you learn that they smell like rotted protein paste mixed with the stench of the garbage-filled ocean. Giving them a scent helps make them more than a stale invading alien hoard that doesn’t make an impact on readers. Additionally, through dialogue between characters you learn that they communicate with a clicking language – “It sounds a bit like the robot bugs do. You know, the ones that used to be on display in the technoseum.” These are fun details to learn about these otherwise pretty basic, bad guys from outer space.
Pitfall: Don’t go overboard. Readers don’t need to know what every toilet on the ship smells like or be tortured with a paragraph’s worth of description about everyone’s voices. Again, I say, sprinkle don’t pour but give us a deeper glimpse at the world you’ve created and this world’s inhabitants. (This even goes for modern day, Earth-based stories.)
3. Call yourself out.
If you know that your story or some aspect of it mirrors another, widely-known work, contemplate mentioning it in your manuscript. There's no shame in this potential. Be careful how you handle the execution though. You don’t want to sound like a name dropper or encourage people to put down your book and go pick up the one you mention. But give it a go. Toy with the notion of paying homage to something or someone that may have inspired your writing.
In Seth Grahame-Smith’s The Last American Vampire, Grahame-Smith boldly has one of his characters point out how much the situation he finds himself in resembles Interview with a Vampire. As a reader, this helped me put aside any pesky thoughts like “Man, this guy is just doing an Anne Rice knock off.” Instead, I respected him as a writer for stepping up and in a side door kind of way acknowledging his literary predecessor paving the way for his vampire book to come to fruition twenty years after hers did.
Note: This device works, in part, because Rice wrote her vampirical masterpiece two decades ago. If her book had come out the same year as Grahame-Smith's or wasn’t well-known, it might be a different scenario. Maybe not as well received by readers or Rice.
In Chronicles of The Flood: 2237, Johnna--sassy teen that she is--has occasion to read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series while imprisoned. She mentions the books and how Katniss became, for a time, her imaginary best friend, helping her get through the toughest of times over the past few years.
Pitfall: The character(s) who mention the similar literary work or film have to logically understand and/or know the material they’re referencing. If your tome is set in a pre-Shakespearean era, you can’t make mention of Romeo and Juliet, despite how much you, as the writer, may want to. Seamless weaving must happen for this to work.
*** That’s it! ***
That's all I have to say on the subject of originality, or the lack thereof, for now. Tinker and experiment with these notions. See if they work for you and your story building. If so, yeah! If not, let ‘em go but keep them in your toolbox. Never know, they might make sense for the next fable the muse drops in your lap.
Chronicles of The Flood: 2237 is due out later this year in an anthology being published by the Woodlands Writers’ Guild (title yet to be determined). Stay tuned to my posts for the release date and purchasing information. As always, give my website a gander, if you’d like to know more about Jody “The Phrase Florist” T. Morse. If you'd like to join my mailing list to receive my monthly blog posts in your inbox, send a message here. No spam. I promise.
Thanks for reading and writing. Never stop!