If you’ve been doing this writing thing for more than one day, you’ve likely experienced the following worry:
“What if my story idea ISN’T ORIGINAL?”
And if my experience is any indication, things spiraled downwards from there: “What if it’s cliche? What if there’s nothing new here?! It IS cliche. It ISN’T original. I’m a failure! ALL MY WRITING NEEDS TO BURN!”
Calm yourself. There’s a way to make sure that your story concept is unique.
First, what IS a story concept? It’s the initial idea that made you want to write the thing. It’s the “What If” question that starts everything off. Later, it will be the promise that hooks the reader or audience, and makes them want to experience the story.
So for example: What if Cinderella was a cyborg? What if a rat wanted to be a french chef? What if a fish had to venture across the ocean to find his son who’s captive in a dentist’s office aquarium?
All great concepts. All of which seem to be comprised of two elements: something that we already know about, a set up that establishes expectations, and then something contrasting and surprising, which creates irony or surprise. So the first element of a successful story concept is FAMILIARITY.
Establishing expectations? Something we already know about? Familiarity?! That sounds like the definition of UNorginal.
Hear me out.
What do readers do when foraging for a new novel at the bookstore? Certain readers gravitate to certain shelves. Some go to mysteries, some to crime, a whole lot to romance, and the rest to the other genres that are too numerous to list.
Why is this? Because genres give them a pretty good idea about what they’re going to get. Readers already know the conventions of the genre. They’ve already put in the work of learning, accepting, and enjoying these conventions.
Genres give both reader and writer something to go on right away. For the reader, genres are expectations for story events, setting, character, and more, which are automatically enjoyable to them. For a writer, it’s a set of expectations which can be flipped to create something remarkable and unique.
It’s like telling a joke. Without a setup, there can’t be a punchline.
The genres are the setup, the individual twist the author puts on that genre is the punchline. Or in other words, readers truly do want the same thing –only different.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at one of the most successful stories of all time.
With space ships, interplanetary travel, sentient robots, and aliens running amok, Star Wars LOOKS to be the kind of story that requires the audience to expend lots of mental energy to comprehend and believe. At first glance, it seems that imaginations are going to have to stretch a great deal, and there won’t be anything familiar to ground us – this SEEMS like an uncomfortably new, unwelcoming world. But I doubt if anyone has ever felt uncomfortable or unwelcome while watching Star Wars. And the reason for this can be summed up with one ellipsis-ended sentence:
Suddenly, all is clear. This isn’t the hard-to-imagine future, this is the PAST. We’re not being asked to imagine and believe a totally new world; we’re being taken to the realm of “far, far away”, a place we’ve known since childhood. Isn’t “a long time ago” just another way of saying “once upon a time”? Yes, it is, so we know where we are now. We are in a fairy tale, a myth.
The familiarity of fairy tales sets us at ease and sets our expectations in place. Expectations which Star Wars meets with flying colors: A farmboy who must become a knight. A princess imploring for aide. A mystical wise-old-man mentor. Sword fights between good and evil. A magic that operates like religion. A dark lord and a dark side. Star Wars was built upon something we already know, something timeless, something we’ve always enjoyed.
And once those well-known expectations were set, Star Wars was free to add the unexpected and create one of those most memorable story worlds ever. Think of a story you love, and you’ll probably be able to identify the something-already-known aspect of it.
How about Harry Potter?
When we hear “boarding school”, mental images and probabilities are instantly conjured in our minds. We picture classrooms, dormitories, a campus with very old buildings, kids in uniforms, a giant place for meals, living through a schoolyear with a bunch of kids your age, etc. Even if we don’t know much about boarding school, we all know what regular school is like (even us homeschoolers over here *waves*) and our expectations for that are nearly identical from person to person.
So what does this prove?
It proves that one half of your story’s concept must be grounded in something we already know, and know well. These are the expectations you are going to establish for your reader, before the second element of your concept upends everything and creates something wholly unique.
You need FAMILIARITY. You need to ground your concept in something WELL-KNOWN. Only then will you be able to create something ORIGINAL.
Where can familiarity be found?
1. Genre Conventions
3. Well-known stories
The possibilities are not limited to these categories, of course. Familiar subjects can be found within many other areas. However, Familiar elements seem to share certain qualities …
⦁ Provides a rough timeline
⦁ Conjures imagery
⦁ Sets expectations for events, characters, opposition, etc
⦁ Has natural potential for conflict
⦁ Serves as a goal-oriented backdrop for the plot
To see how this works, let’s look at Harry Potter again:
Familiarity: Going to boarding school. (An occupation)
Timeline: A school year (which Voldy always lets Harry complete before trying to kill him again, bless him.)
Story Expectations: When we hear “school”, we know what we’re going to get.
Imagery: Boarding school conjures tons of possibilities.
Conflict Potential: It’s a thousand kids living in one castle with a handful of adults – there’s going to be conflict.
Goal-Oriented: School is inherently goal directed. You want to graduate. And in the case of boarding school, you want to win the house cup.
But of course, this familiar environment is only HALF of the concept for Harry Potter. The other half, of course, is WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY. Which brings us to the 2nd element of a successful story concept, which will be the subject of the next post.
do you ever just think about how wild star wars are politically.
like, there is the neoliberalism of the old republic, with the textbook neo-marxist core-periphery model of the greater galaxy.
then there are the jedi, which are an enormously ancient and powerful institution that benefits from and enables the republican-corporate structure, but refuses to take direct involvement in its policy,
this leaves an enormous power vacuum which is happily filled by the super secret red glowstick cult of the sith.
and then dooku drags the jedi from his weird neoreactionary hereditary aristocracy ground, which is still somehow more refreshing.
same thing goes for the separatist confederacy, which is mostly a network of megacorporations and planets dependent upon them, which are somehow a less stiffening alternative for many.
and then there is grievous, ventress and others from worlds existing outside the dominant framework of republican politics, but ravaged by capitalism and conflict and stripped of an identity beyond their utility, becoming the eventual wildcards.
the entire worlds like mandalore, powerful and prominent enough to be of weight on the galactic scene, but ultimately uninterested in the galactic politics as framed by the republic, because their domestic problems are more pressing.
what ever the hell is going on in the hutt space and underworld, raw capitalism functioning outside the state system
then there is the extremely militarized administrative structure of the empire, which drives itself to autocanibalistic destruction trying to keep all of the above under control.
pockets of limited autonomy exist under the empire, mostly in places whose established hierarchical administrative system allows for easier management.
the super secret red glowstick cult of the sith becomes even more secret, as things do within the mechanism of authoritarian states, which creates another vacuum, as their power is not backed up by ideological representation.
our beloved farmboy goes to pick up some power converters from the toshi station, and stumbles upon the said ideological vacuum with a blue glowstick in his hand.
the rebel alliance, which is the oddest mix of generational royalty unhappy with the empire taking over the power they have over their individual planets, and straight up space anarchists from the worlds previously disfranchised by the republic and bombed by the empire.
the rebels politicize the jedi teaching as the core of old republican values, going off them as their platform (may the force be with you), even as the old jedi order pointedly stayed away from policymaking.
the sequel trilogy, which refuses to address any of this.
I saw this
and now I can’t stop thinking about the Skywalkers as legends, myths,
Darth Vader the death god, this is perfect. He doesn’t
set out to create this persona, not really. He doesn’t really plan
anything that pertains himself anymore, anyway, but… he is the
most lethal person in the universe. He kills and tortures and
destroys, and he knows no mercy. His black cloak and mask is easily
recognizable among the white armor of the Stormtroopers, and they
feel safer when he’s around. He can’t be killed, they say, can’t be
touched by enemy fire. When you stay close enough to him, they can’t
reach you, either. He can protect you from cruel and incompetent
officers, he can punish them. You can feel his power in your bones,
can feel it make you stronger. As long as you follow his orders, you
are safe, but nobody can help you if you displease him. He is a god,
after all. He does not know mercy.
Padme Amidala is much more of a local myth, really.
Both the Rebellion and the Empire try to co-opt her for their own
ends, but… she just wasn’t that important to the bigger picture,
you know? She was a senator during the Clone Wars, and she gave some
nice speeches, but soldiers don’t really care about senators. She
was beautiful and clever, and she is remembered kindly, but the only
place where she is really a legend is Naboo. There, she is not a
senator, but the queen who freed them, the queen who made peace with
the Gungans, the queen who fought. Her picture hangs in almost every
house of Naboo, dressed in traditional robes, her make up and hair
perfect. She doesn’t look like a person, not really, more like an
idea. They say that one day, when the time is right, she will return
for them, and save Naboo again. She is theirs, after all,
their queen. The only one that matters, really.
Luke Skywalker, the boy who blew up the Death Star, a
soldier and a trickster and a boy. The first legends start after the
battle of Yavin, after he was one of three pilots who survived,
after he destroyed the machine of death. He was just a nobody, a
nineteen year old farmboy, and yet he was the only one who succeeded.
He can’t be human, can he? Not really. He must be some sort of
demigod, young and reckless but powerful, still. Stormtroopers fear
him, because this boy… their blasters bolts don’t hit him half as
often as they should. Sometimes they do, that’s how they know he’s
not like Vader, who is untouched by violence, but… they know they
are good shots. And yet, they can’t kill him. And the rebel soldiers
know that, too. Nobody tells him that, and his friends don’t really
believe the legends, because they know him to be an idealist and a
dork and the guy who was freezing like hell on Hoth because he’s
from the desert, but… the rebels who don’t know him? He’s their
myth. And then Bespin happens, and he survives a fight with the god
of death himself, actually survives, and how can you not think of
him as a demigod, as a spirit, maybe? And they are proud of him,
because he’s theirs. Stormtroopers though, they are
terrified, because they know better than to expect mercy from gods.
Leia Organa, the Last Princess of Alderaan. They don’t
call her queen until years later, don’t really remember that Winter
exists, either. She’s a symbol, more so than she is ever a person,
because Leia herself, Leia the person, she’s on the edge of
breaking, she’s full of hate and grief and despair, and that’s not
inspirational, is it? So she lets them believe it. But there are
legends about her, legends about her standing and seeing her planet
be destroyed, of her surviving, still and beautiful as a statue, but
alive, powerful. The Princess most of the rebels know
wears white, long, beautiful gowns, her hair in complicated braids.
She speaks loudly, with a clear, strong voice. She stands, despite
everything. She stands. And she survives. Soon, there are rumors.
She can’t be killed, they say. She was a prisoner aboard the death
star, she saw the destruction of her home planet, and yet, she
lives, yet, she fights. If she’s not dead yet, can the Empire even
touch her? Can she even bleed? Or is she made of ice? Or is it fire?
For Leia Organa is a myth of duality. The white princess made of
ice, and the passionate fighter with fire in her veins, a blaster
always at hand and the best at inspiring troops before a desperate
battle. Ice and Fire, that’s what Leia Organa is made of, not flesh
and blood. She’s the only one who sort of realizes the myth that’s
grown around her, and she uses it, sometimes. Not too much, because
she can’t control it, but sometimes.
I’m having twins feels, specifically twins as war veterans feels, and … well.
the first time Leia is shot, she almost faints. It’s not because she is weak or some bullshit, but because being shot really hurts, no matter what some veterans will tell you
years later, when she is shot while taking Coruscant, she won’t even notice until the fighting is done and Luke takes her to the med station
(because even if she didn’t notice, he felt it, just like she felt that cut over his eye the moment he got it)
the doctor tells her how brave and badass she is, for fighting on despite such a wound, but Leia just feels old, and weary
Luke never wanted to be a soldier
he wanted to be a hero, like in the stories, sure, because which child doesn’t want that? But a soldier? Trained to kill, to maim, to capture, to fight?
and yet, when someone asks him what he is, these days, soldier is the first answer that comes to his mind
they both wake up screaming more often than they care to think about
they share nightmares, too, of all the horrors they’ve lived through together and apart
some nights, they need physical reassurance that the other is alive, because they’re connection is not enough, and what if their sibling is gone?
(Han doesn’t mind. He loves both of them, and it’s honestly hardly the strangest coping method for PTSD he’s come across)
people call them heroes all the time
mostly, they’ve learned to deal with it, or to at least joke about it
but some days, it feels like a crushing blow, because all they see are all the people they couldn’t save, all those who died because they weren’t fast/clever/good enough
they have scars everywhere. The medicine of Rebellion is not as good as that of the Empire, given that they often had to scrape it together, and there are some scars they can’t even remember how they got them
they’ll never ever feel save without a loaded blaster at hand at least three exit routes in mind
no matter how old they get, police will always make them feel uncomfortable
they can never quite stop checking out the most wanted boards, even years after they and their friends were on them
panic attacks are a thing
but everyone expects them to be heroes, to be symbols, and so they always smile for the people
people forget that they were soldiers
they see the Queen of Alderaan, the revolutionary senator, and the Jedi Master, the wise old pacifist, and they forget that they’ve fought battles, that they’ve killed and injured and destroyed, and that they could do it again, if necessary
Young Robert & his father I he sacked him and he leathered me.
It hurts Mum. Not the welts on my back, the pain in my chest. The farmhand, my friend or whatever he was, he’s gone. I can still taste his coffee kisses and his rough hands on my face. I finally had someone that’s on my side, but he’s left, just like you. Dad sacked him and he leathered me. I bet even you don’t believe me, everybody think the sun shines out of his arse. I wish I could think that too, he’s my Dad after all. He just doesn’t want a son like me. I mean who would, I’m disgusting. I used to pray to God like he was listening. I used to make my parents proud. And now I have nobody to love and nobody to love me back.
for @raikkonenaddict who loves young!rob as much as I do, a promise long overdue