Writing Excuses 7.27: The Problem of Originality

It’s important to be original, but is it possible to be TOO original? Further, is it possible that we over-value originality?

Dan raises the question in regards to James Cameron’s Avatar, which made lots of money and was widely enjoyed, but which was also roundly criticized for being a story we’ve already heard before. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon is similarly criticized. It is solid execution upon a story cycle that science fiction and fantasy fans are already intimately familiar with.

Howard talks about borrowing “uplift” from David Brin, Mary points out that David Brin borrowed it from Christian Missionaries in Africa, and Brandon then ponders aloud whether this ‘cast is going to be of any use to any of you.

Each of us have struggled with this. It’s exceedingly unlikely that you won’t. The point? Originality is not the be-all, end-all some make it out to be, and authors need to take care not to pursue it to the point that they miss other objectives.

Meme of the Week: “If I pee far, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” — Howard Tayler


Regarding riding mounted beasts — make the cost to the rider so high that it’s almost never worth it. Now create circumstances under which it’s always worth it.

Sharpe’s Rifles, by Bernard Cornwell, narrated by Frederick Davidson

33 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.27: The Problem of Originality”

  1. Thanks for the humor today–I really needed those great laughs! On the technical side, Mary’s voice is so very quiet in a few places that I can barely hear her. Can you give her a ‘stronger’ mike?

  2. I’m surprised the oft mentioned combining of two ideas wasn’t mentioned in this episode. Two (or more) ideas, even if not wholly original, when brought together would create an original story. Or at the very least help.

  3. I think the point of this episode is to NOT purposely be ignorant of anything out there you might be similar to, but rather go ahead and see what they are doing and see if there is additional tweaking needed to distinguish your concept from theirs. But if it’s just bits and pieces that may be similar, chances are if you’ve got the depth in what you’re doing it won’t feel like a copy, but be some entirely different take on it. Even basic concepts like John Cleaver/Dexter can wind up entirely different because the psychopathy is just the starting point, not The Point.

  4. Something else writers may want to keep in mind – aspiring or otherwise – is that the concept of originality is a bit overrated. It’s not always the idea that counts, it’s what you do with it. Look at Shakespeare. The guy is considered to be the greatest writer of all time, but most, if not all of his plays are recycled plots from older stories, or even adaptations of his contemporaries’ works. Romeo and Juliet is not an original concept, but their characterization is. The payoff is in the execution. Sure, you can still come up with some pretty original thoughts, but as human beings, we all kind of think alike, so there’s bound to be someone else on the same page as yourself. With that said though, we’re also coming from our own set of unique experiences so our lens will be different in how we write. Most epic fantasy stories are about either tearing down an empire or building one. I’ve read that story for 20 years, but it hasn’t stopped me from reading the genre. I like that story and I’ll continue to read for another 20 years. Knowing what else is out there is important from a marketing standpoint, but write the story you want to write. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

  5. Great podcast this week! I kept thinking of Brandon’s The Way of Kings, in which the king’s Wit said:

    “If an artist creates a work of powerful beauty – using new and innovative techniques – she will be lauded as a master, and will launch a new movement in aesthetics. Yet what if another, working independently with that exact level of skill, were to make the same accomplishments the very next month? Would she find similar acclaim? No. She’d be called derivative.
    “So it’s not beauty itself we admire. It’s not the force of intellect. It’s not the invention, aesthetics, or capacity itself. The greatest talent we think a man can have? Seems to me that it must be nothing more than novelty.”
    “What is it we value?” Wit whispered. “Innovation. Originality. Novelty. But most importantly… timeliness.”

    I think it’s funny, though, that people deride Avatar, since it’s obviously Cameron’s idea of putting the Fern Gully and Pocahontas stories together into a new one, which is something we writers often do to generate a story.

  6. Oh gosh! I just about died when Howard said he opened the bay doors. Best pee jokes ever!

  7. Episode 18 in Season 4, titled “How to Steal for Fun and Profit”, is a great counter-point to this podcast. 100% purely original work, like Dan mentioned, is hard to sell. It’s too different from anything that anyone in the selling/publishing/buying process recognizes. The real trick is to take something familiar and recognizable and then put your own (hopefully) unique spin on it.

  8. I have seen and read many stories which I thought weren’t very good, and a simple answer would have been “because they are unoriginal.” That’s not to say they aren’t enjoyable, but they’re enjoyable in a very ephemeral way. Titanic is an example. I liked it, I wouldn’t be averse to watching it if it happened to be on at a friend’s house, but it didn’t really do anything new with the love story besides putting it on the Titanic.

    That said, in those cases I think there is more going on than just “unoriginality.” Just as everything is to some degree derivative, everything is to some degree unique, because no two writers choose the same words to describe the same thing (or in Howard’s case, no two artist’s hands wiggle in the exact same way). What I’m really looking for is a depth of ideas. In stories I call unoriginal, my descriptions of their elements and the tropes those elements belong to are nearly the same. My description of the villain from Titanic and my description of the trope of an upper class villainous romantic rival aren’t any different. If I talk about Gaston, even though he’s the same trope, I can say a lot more about how his character interacts with his story and environment, and that makes him uniquely Gaston. All the component parts of him are known things that have been done before, but like DNA these familiar elements are aligned in a particular way that makes him uniquely him.

    I think there is a point to what one of the podcasters (I forget who) said, which is that the original one happened to come first for us. At the same time, I have often read something more shallow, and then gone back and read the more complex work it was derived from, and I still consider the shallower one derivative. For example as a kid I read a book about some marine biologists in a fancy submarine, and when I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (I was a precocious kid) I realized it was the same story, except that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had Captain Nemo. His moral ambiguities created conflicts for the characters aboard, and that colored the scientific narrative because everything was tainted with a the conflict of “I love this world I’m exploring, but I’m scared of the man who’s showing it to me.” With all the ideas he was playing with, Jules Verne had more chances to put his fingerprints on his work, and so even today they feel like the originals.

  9. I don’t know that I find Eragon the best exemplar in defense of originality. One of my first major epic fantasy influences was David Eddings’s Belgariad, so it’s more than a little egregious for me that Eragon has a silver mark on the palm of his hand and repeatedly asks ‘Why me?’ about his role in the book. It’s not that Eragon is a ‘quest’ story, or an homage to the Monomyth, that makes it unoriginal for me… it’s that it transplants specific elements of Garion’s character, and then does nothing to build on them in an original way. That just threw me right out of the story.

    I guess if you HAVEN’T read the Belgariad, or seen Star Wars… maybe it is mindblowing. But I’m pretty sure Paolini had admitted to reading Eddings.

    Really, is the argument that we want to make here, “If you haven’t read all the stuff it borrowed from, it’s totally original!”? Cuz that’s kinda what I got at the beginning.

    Then again, what am I talking about? My current WIP is a reaction against the tropes used in… Eragon.

    Well, crap.

  10. I guess the point that I was trying to make is that… ok, having a story with dragons, even dragon riders, doesn’t make what you’re doing terribly unoriginal just because Anne McCaffery did it first… but if the riders have to use flamethrowers or the dragons get their flame from chewing special rocks, maybe you want to rethink the story a bit.

    It’s hard to be original in broad concept, but it’s the details you use that make it your own.

    Heck, China Mieville’s Railsea sounds like a take on Moby Dick, but so far I presume he’s gonna do something different with the material….

  11. That’s the humor from the Howard that we used to know! That ‘pee’ comment was delightfully apt, I thought. Thank you for that. Great cast as usual, folks.

  12. Hoid, in The Way of Kings, shared his thought about originality and it was quite good. :)

  13. Sharpe’s Eagle was the first Sharpe book written. Sharpe’s Rifles was the ninth book written.

  14. Yes, Sharpe’s Rifles was the ninth book written, but it was also the prequel to the series.

  15. What I took out of it was, “Even if you’re derivative, keep writing”. My niece’s first writing attempts were mostly rehashes of whatever anime she had just finished watching. Over time though, her fan-fiction is shifting into her own ideas, characters, and voice. The unoriginal stuff still taught her craft. She’s improving every day she writes.

    My own first two books are in a vanilla fantasy setting but still provide an entertaining and funny read. As original as I think my current projects are, they probably aren’t and I just don’t know it. I’m not letting it stop me. Anyone who spends enough time trapped at tvtropes.org will see is that yes, EVERY idea has been done before, but not necessarily with your voice and style. So go ahead and write it anyway. It might be part of your million practice words or it might be the next big thing.

  16. Have you checked out HollyLisle.com? She recently did a blog post or podcast (can’t remember) about the difference between “original” and “unique”.

    If I remember correctly, she said we all can’t be original. By definition, the only original work is the first to come up with the idea. We all can and should strive to make work that’s unique. A story about a vampire in a castle is certainly not original, but a good story with those elements can still be unique, and that makes it relevant to readers.

  17. Thank you, Writing Excuses. This is something I’ve myself thought a lot about and been one of my Big Excuses not to write (still are from time to time).

    Talmage is spot on. All stories have been told; but not by you. Yet. So write. Even if it is about Modo heading to Mountain of Cake in Fordor to destroy uncle Tilbo’s secret recipe for apple-pie. You are unique and every word helps you grow as a writer, just like every experience enriches your life.

    *hits the invisible Facebook Like-button beneath Talmage’s post*

  18. @David Bankson

    I know it’s a prequel. I was just correcting what Dan said in the Pick of the Week. I believe there is another book in-between them, also (not to mention all the other prequel novels).

  19. It seems that if one should try for an original story in a familiar setting, or a familiar story in an original setting. Going for both to be original gives no way for a publisher to classify/sell the novel. Of course, if one has a great novel that has both it’s not impossible to get it published, just makes it even harder than getting published currently is. Anyone in that position might consider writing a second novel in the same setting but with a familiar story, perhaps a prequel, so that once there are TWO novels in that setting, the first novel can now be sold.

  20. I feel like this podcast is a good discussion for writers in all stages to have.

  21. Great podcast as always. I think it’s absurd for writers to feel that they always have to think of new original ideas when Hollywood (speaking of movies) thrives on the rehashing and comparing to past movies. Blake Snyder’s books titled “Save The Cat!” does a great job of illustrating how comparing your movie to a past movie (with a twist) can lead to success in landing a screenwriting gig. Fiction novelists are no different, really.

    Dan, I liked Avatar too.

  22. (some spoilers)

    There are two main ways to be original: Have original ideas or take old ideas and put them in an original light.

    The Nolan Batman movies I think are a great example of the latter. It’s Batman. Totally rehashed and not an original story, but done in such a new(? I’m not a big follower of Batman, so maybe someone has taken Nolan’s approach before) and exciting way they feel “original.”

    In contrast to that, take Eragon. I enjoyed the books, but they were more of a guilty pleasure than “oh these are so good!” Which is sad, because CP had some great stuff, but there was just too many rehashed ideas if you were familiar with fantasy and (star wars). He had elves. Typical we-are-better-than-humans-and-therefore-look-down-on-humans type elves. And you mindless orges. And rare dragons. And the village boy forced into being a hero. Oh who just happens to discover that his father is the bad guy. Oh and surprise, this guy is your brother. And he liked you before but now he hates you.
    By themselves, these things we not a problem. But as I continued reading but after familiar trope got piled on top of familiar trope it started to get tiring. I was fine with the farm boy. I was even fine with the elves even though they totally annoy me. But by the time I found out about his father and later with his brother I was like “of course. Of course he/they are evil, that’s how it works.”
    They way he handled the tropes was poor I feel. When I was experiencing the familiar in his books, it felt as those things were happening because that was how they had happened for fantasy books across the years, not because his story actually called for it.

    So I suppose the real way to make your story feel original even with using old ideas is to make them feel like they belong to //your// story. The problem stories feel unoriginal when things feel like they have been thrown into the story not because that is what the story called for, but because “that’s how things happen in the fantasy world.”

  23. But gosh CP had some awesome concepts.
    But sadly it became so tiring being fed some many things I had seen before that by the time the fourth book came, I wasn’t really interested before. And all it takes is a little tweaking to make something old shinny again.


    For instance, switch up genders. Instead of Eragon’s father be a evil lord, make the “Evil Lord” a woman, and have Eragon’s father be the one who was killed.

    Such a simple way to take an old idea and make if fresh.

    I mean, how many (major) villains are women?

    Or are mothers, for that matter?

  24. Wow, I really should have proof read that sucker. Okay:

    **so many

    ***interested anymore

    ****father being an

  25. So in other words…

    If it walks like a horse and talks like a horse, then write a horse (but don’t name it Mr. Ed, because that would not be original).

Comments are closed.