Elements of Critique: Originality

I recall a few conversations with friends that took place after I first started plotting out the idea for my novel. “I have this idea for a character whose nemesis is actually herself, like a split personality.”

“Oh, like in Fight Club?”

I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet.

“Because that’s what they do in Fight Club. You should probably watch or read that.”

I did. I was both entertained and frustrated. I’m a copycat before I’ve even started!

Later, I turned some of my ideas into a story for a role-playing game. When one of the big secrets came to light, one of my players burst out, “Oh! I get it! We’re playing the Serenity campaign now, aren’t we?” Then he laid out the similarities between my story and Whedon’s space-cowboy movie.

“No…” I said defensively.

“Nah, man, it’s cool. I love it. I just realized where I think you got the idea.”

So today, I’m thinking about originality and how it factors into the critique process.

After millennia of human history, there are no truly “new” stories. Look at Campbell’s work with the Monomyth as an example of how often the same elements pop up in the tales we tell. We’re all copycats, to some (significant) degree. So what’s a writer to do?

Develop new takes on old stories.

We borrow from past experiences and insights all the time. These “Elements of Critique” posts, for example, are nothing new. They’re only recounting stuff I’ve read or been told along the way. This stuff is all out there on the Internet or in any of the great books on the craft of writing. There’s nothing original about these topics I’m writing on.

Most sermons on Sunday aren’t anything new either. (The Christian in me says if you’re hearing something truly “new” from the pulpit then maybe that’s a big warning sign that you’re not hearing something true.)

But what preachers do is similar to what I look for when critiquing. They take a point that has been made hundreds of times in the past, and they find a unique way of restating it to catch the audience’s attention.

This is especially true for non-fiction writing pieces. The writer has to find a way to make telling already-known information interesting and original.

In fiction writing, on the other hand, the originality is found in the details, the setting, the ways that common concepts are juxtaposed.

When critiquing fiction, I ask “Is this a new take? Is it stated well enough that it’s unique?” Or more important, if this is the “same-old” coming of age story, is the setting original? What sets this fiction apart from the next book of the same genre?

If I see similarities to something else, it might be helpful to point out, either for comparison or for writer adjustment. If I write a fantasy with dwarves, elves, and Hobbits, someone better let me know that Tolkien already did that, he did it very well thank you, and maybe I should change my project in some significant ways.

The Fight Club reference did that for me.

There’s another aspect of originality to consider. Thanks go out to my wife for pointing this out when we were chatting about what stories catch her attention.

Originality also means it’s not predictable. The actions of the lead character should be creative. The conflicts might be similar to any number of stories, but something about them should stand out as fresh and new to the reader. The resolution or solution to the mystery has to surprise. If the reader sees it coming a mile away, that might put them off.

This is especially true and important to look for in fiction pieces.

In a non-fiction writing, if we’re dealing with common knowledge, it’s going to be difficult to make some dramatically new or surprising point. At best, the analogies and examples might be where a writer can bring out originality in their work.

One of my church’s pastors made the point in a recent sermon that so often what he needs is not new information but reminders of information he already knows.
No one really needs a fitness blog to tell them “eat less, work out more, and you’ll generally see good results.” People in church shouldn’t need a sermon to tell them “Jesus says love one another” as if that’s a new concept. College professors aren’t giving lectures about exciting new concepts; they’re presenting established facts and widely accepted thought about their particular field.

The good ones do it in a way that sticks with us, not because the point is something new, but the presentation is original. That’s what to look for and encourage in someone’s writing.

If we’re all going to be copycats on some level, let’s at least be original about it.

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