Over on Scribophile, a writer recently asked this question: How can I find out if my idea already exists?
I understand the concern. I don't want to write what's been done before.
Recently, I was explaining parts of my current work-in-revision to a non-writing friend. At various points, he would nod and toss out comments, like: Oh, that's like Legend of Korra. (I've never watched it.) Or—oh, that's like Mistborn. (I've read that one; it's vaguely similar—sorta.) Oh, that's like …
I felt a little wounded. My ideas were suddenly not so original.
Some scientists who have investigated creativity think it is not so original; it’s just a mashing and twisting of the things that we’ve seen before. I'm sure that point is debatable, but this is what it means to me when people say there's nothing new under the sun. Our original ideas are derived from our vast and often subconscious experiences. We may stretch, tear, wrench, tangle or puree them, but the particles of other ideas are still in there. And through all that, they've been filtered through our worldview. They've been altered by our efforts to make sense of the world around us. And that final ingredient is where true creativity lies.
"Originality is not seen in single words or even in sentences. Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing." —Isaac Bashevis Singer
Hatching New Ideas
Ideas are like eggs. Eggs are magic; it's true. They can be made into cake, cookies, bread, quiche, omelets … Developing an original noodle recipe with eggs doesn't mean its derivative. The ingredients might be familiar, but the product isn't (or might not be.)
Ideas are only one ingredient in a story. We also have theme, premise, concept, characters, character arcs, incidents and plot. After that, we can go deeper, into how the story is told to the reader: scene, setting, tone, foreshadowing, mood, etc. And then those go deeper into style, diction, syntax, tense, narrative mode, figurative language, etc.
So you put all together and … voila! PIE! Look, I made pie!
Desperately Seeking Originality
"Good writing is full of surprises and novelties, moving in a direction you don’t expect." —Iris Murdoch
It would be criminally disingenuous to take all this as meaning creativity doesn't matter. Like most writers, I want to surprise my readers. Not just once or twice, but throughout.
What we call writing is a stack of skills. I break it down into levels of Story, Story-Telling, and Language (something I learned from an acquaintance a few years ago.) At each level, I look for the original. In story, I look for original characters, original motivations, original incidents, original arcs. In taking that Story and deciding how to present it, I look for original scene constructions, original narrative attack, original motifs and metaphors. In language, I look for original style, diction and figurative language.
However, that doesn't mean I should stress because I discover similarities to another novel. Any story you find will have similarities out there, somewhere. Harry Potter and Hunger Games have both had strikingly similar works pointed out. Who cares? They had enough going for them to appeal to a broad audience. What matters is that there is enough surprise and newness to the overall product when it’s done.
Okay, But How?
There's the big question, right?
I remember Orson Scott Card, somewhere, saying that he never took the first idea. He would make a list and usually go with the fourth or fifth idea, because the first two or three were usually the most obvious. I've done this myself, and it works pretty well.
Brain science also offers some suggestions on creativity. These can be researched, but I won't cite sources for this since they're just some ideas to get started. Here are some things science has shown to promote creativity:
It's a little weird how most of those things tend to be common writer traits anyway, isn't it?
So, yes, originality is important, but it need not be in any one area. Look for a good dose of it throughout the process, from start to end. And don’t sweat the small similarities. You can’t avoid them.
"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
Last week, I suggested that there is no good writing; or rather, that “good” is actually a heaping handful of different flavored candies. I like peppermint. You like caramel.
Whenever the question of “good” comes up, the inevitable, easily anticipated “it’s all subjective” line will soon to follow, just like a trailer follows a semi-truck.
Here’s an analogy: some people have said, “Sex is like pizza; even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
That sounds reasonable on the surface. Maybe, but what if you're in prison? Is prison pizza still pretty good? That’s dark, I know. Suddenly, we’re speaking to a very quiet room.
There certainly is a lot of taste and personality involved in what one reader likes versus what another reader likes. But, I can’t help that notice some things are liked more and some things are liked less, which makes me wonder if some evaluation might exist, despite all the hormone-ish subjectivity.
And experts evaluate quality in film and book all the time. Are they consistent, or merely reporting through a filter of their own taste buds?
Here are a few ideas. These are considerations, not yardsticks. They’re intended for me, as a writer, to evaluate my work with something alongside of taste and enjoyment.
Authorial Intent and Relative Comparison—We could call it “fitness of purpose.” An author may just aim for a novel of a specific flavor: fun, emotional, philosophical, idea-driven, zombies, post-apocalyptic-mole-folk, or what-have-you. If we have a notion of what the author intended (and that can be a big question in itself), we can compare it to other novels of a type to see how it matches up. Yep. that is hard when we’ve roamed far beyond our own flavor profile.
Surprise, Originality, Insights—Aside from just comparing reactions and similar titles, we can consider how what new elements were brought into the chosen arena, whether it’s elements of fun, emotion, or philosophy. I think a zombie novel with new ideas, emotions, action, and arguments is going to be much better to read than one that rehashes the same old stuff we’ve seen. (Consider the film Maggie for an example of a new approach to a zombie film. It’s got great emotion and philosophy, but it lacked in action, so comes off weak as a zombie flick.)
Focus and Relevance—A story is composed of characters and incidents (the events of the story). Some of those elements will relate directly to, and speak of, the authorial intent of the work. Some will be random elements that either weren’t related or failed to support the core material the way the author wanted. The more unrelated material, the less focused it is on the kind of story the author intended. (Or the author intended something we just don’t grasp, which is a bag of mixed nuts. Again, intent is a viper here.)
Execution—This is a big ball of wax, and those other examples run alongside of execution again. If a work excelled in all of the above areas, but still feature docile character arcs, flat characters, sparse incidents, bloated scene construction, meandering and uninspiring language, etc. Well, it’s still something we can examine and criticize.
These aren’t listed for a way to criticize other works, though they might serve as the beginning of that too. Instead, they’re the ideas I consider when I evaluate my own work, to see if I have a worth project set in front of me or not. And that’s why intent is such a viper. In other works, it can be a big black pit. But I know at some point what my intent is for my own work.
What I don’t do is quibble over the worthiness, the nobility, of the intent. I see no need to criticize a story that only wants to be a good time, or that only wants to illustrate a philosophical idea, or only wants to explore an idea.
Salability and Market Appeal? Well, those just aren’t my forte, so I don’t give them much thought. It’s a fair ball for any writer who does care, though.
A scene comes out of story naturally. In the past, my method has been simple: write the scene. Recently I've been thinking more about the planning that goes into a scene.
Some decisions—like conflict, tension, and stakes—are dictated by the story, but scene decisions can help you enforce those elements. That's really what scene decisions are all about, how to design a scene in a way that reinforces the story and affects the reader.
I'll write about a few of them in the next few weeks. This week setting has been on my mind.
Setting can provide emotional context, illuminate background, highlight character, and reinforce world building (that includes real world settings, folks).
In Thor: the Dark World, there is a scene where Jane Foster's date is interrupted by Darcy. You can watch it on YouTube. What does the setting say here? It's a nice restaurant; not cheap. Everyone (except Darcy) is well dressed, and we can see a lot of London through the windows. Jane put on lady clothes and took a shower. Richard (Chris O'Dowd's character) has a jacket and collared shirt. Behind Darcy there might be a bar.
Imagine if this scene had been in a greasy-burger joint and the characters dressed appropriate to that. Or if Jane had been sitting alone on her coach. How would the scene change?
What the setting says to me is that Jane and Richard have put effort into this date. Jane is trying to move on. Richard is quietly desperate. Darcy's interruption is untimely and unwanted. (The chairs are so heavy and loud, that she disrupts everyone around her.)
By the way, the elegant restaurant in this scene is the OXO Brasserie on the eighth floor of the OXO Tower, located on the River Thames.
Had this scene been on Jane's couch, it would have been a mere conversation. It would have been information. The plot would have moved forward, but not in an interesting and engaging way. (Though it might have said some things about Jane's not-moving-on in that case.) So this location adds humor and low-level tension, played on by Richards little interjections while Darcy delivers information. The setting has a job. It's saying something about the characters in this case. What's awesome is that it does it silently. In a novel, a writer could describe the setting—something that needs to happen anyway—and the job is done.
Setting lends itself naturally to imagery. Knowing the jobs a setting can do, a writer can construct images to build that effect. Writing this scene, a novelist could pick out which images reinforce the niceness of the place—glass walls, the view of London and the river, silverware, crystal, the other patrons. What images would do the trick?
So the qualities of a strong scene setting choice are originality, impact, and imagery.
One of the easiest tidbits of advice a writer can find on the internet involves conflict. It's easy to find blogs telling the new writers to put conflict into every scene.
I recently saw a tweet by someone—I don't remember who wrote it—saying something like "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Try giving your characters a hard time."
Bullshit—just like tons of other advice out there on blogs, books, and writing forums.
The problem isn't that it's wrong. It's a little thin on detail; what do we expect from Twitter? The problem is that it's off the mark. I remember a Southern Baptist preacher once telling me that the word Sin originally meant, "Missing the mark." I guess we could say it's a downright sinful bit of advice.
Let's word it differently. "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Make sure your characters have powerful motivations." Or something like that. If your characters are desperate and passionate in ways that throw them into clashing conflicts, you won't need to make up trite little difficulties for them to fuss over. The other characters will create a hard time for them.
Is conflict enough? Are we done at that point? Is it just a simple matter of ensuring conflict is present in every scene? I struggled with this when I outlined my first novel. It tripped me up. It wasn't working. Is it bad advice?
Not really; but the crux is in the word "present." Conflict can be direct or indirect. It can be present or promised. (I use the word tension to indicate promised conflict.)
A scene is part of a major movement in a story. That movement is usually a point in an arc, typically culminating in a disaster-dilemma-decision swing. The scene may just be building up tension for a future conflict, like in the Matrix when Cypher meets with Agent Smith, betraying his friends. There's no conflict in the scene, but it's promising us more conflict in the future. (And it's born from a perfectly understandable motivation.)
Speaking of steak—there is such a thing as conflict without an edge. The conflict, whatever the form, must carry stakes along with it. Something must be at risk. The threat of a goal being lost must exist.
I recently struggled with a scene where two characters argued about how to do something. They wanted the same thing, but they argued about the method of getting it. I didn't care about the method because I had decided they got it. Nothing was at stake. Luckily, I realized the problem as soon as I tried to write it.
The solution is to change it. I could keep the argument, but inject stakes somehow. I could imply all of this in another scene to let the reader know that they had argued about this earlier. I could skip it altogether.
In this case—I decided on an experiment. I realized that a temporary character in the scene had a lot at stake, so I switched to his POV. He cares about the method. He represents many people who care about the method in this story world. It may not work. It may be cut, but it's an attempt to work around the problem naturally.
So conflict is direct or indirect, present or promised, in-progress or building. When that is understood, when something is at stake, then, yes, every scene should be full of conflict.
Bonus Material: those stakes are a great clue as to when a scene (or story) should open and close.
I wrote recently about how some writers don't understand Superman's true weaknesses, but I think there is another flaw in the Superman mythos—just not in the traditional sense. The flaw is in his villains. Who do we have: beings like Lex Luthor, Metallo, Zod, Darkseid, Brainiac and Bizarro?
While some act as a mirror to the hero—and villains work best as mirrors and foils—they do so in comical ways. Their motivations are greed, hate, revenge and a lust for power and control. Who cares. They even go after Superman in less-than-creative ways.
(Side-note: perhaps the single exception is Mr. Mxyzptlk, who began with cartoonish designs on conquering the world merely because of a whim. Those devolved into just tormenting Superman for fun. But Alan Moore changed that with the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Storyline. Here, a childish naiveté has him experimenting with a spectrum of moralities until he lands on nightmarish evil, which manifests in truly interesting ways. )
Batman, on the other hand, has a more interesting gallery of villains to explore: Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Riddler, Hush, Scarecrow, and Bane. These guys explore humanity and Batman through their very existence. Many of them exhibit stories of self-inflicted tragedy-turned-insanity, and offer interesting studies into the dark side of humanity. There are arguments that few of them have the kind of clinical insanity that would qualify for a legal defense, but they glow with a rainbow of psychosis, obsessive compulsions, and dissociative identity disorder. (Two-Face rarely switches personality, but he is obsessive about letting a coin make decisions between good and evil—at times, he slips into a truly dissociative state. The Riddler struggles to not leave a riddle, but he cannot, even though he knows it always turns self-defeating.) And all of these typically call back to some tragedy.
Of themselves, they can be mildly interesting, but the real interest is what they say about the Dark Knight himself. There are moments where Batman notes the similarity between himself and his villains. Batman is loaded with psychological questions about PTSD, obsession and delusion. He has noted that he didn't become Batman because of his parent's murders, but that the event shaped him into the hero rather than yet-another Gotham villain—but the seeds of crazy were there simply because that is what Gotham does to people. Deep down, everyone there is crazy. Arkham Asylum is just a magnifying glass for what the city itself offers. And some writers have even suggested that Metropolis and Gotham are just caricatures of New York City's awe-inspiring and ugly sides—so even the settings reflect the characters.
Where Superman is a boy scout whose villains press him to find creative ways to avoid moral gray areas, they are often flat cutout characters like the Man of Steel himself. Batman is a traumatized, obsessive-compulsive anti-hero whose villains reflect his obsessive, delusional, dark path.
I once scanned an entire short story I wrote looking for every instance of "was" to remove. Out of five-thousand words, not one "was". I did this because of some advice about passivity I read in a copy of Writer's Digest.
Now, the advice itself wasn't altogether incorrect. But the acrobatics I went through to achieve this feat were ridiculous. In many cases, they hardly changed the sentence. "She was standing in the doorway" became "I saw her standing in the doorway." (That's not exact, but it conveys the idea.)
I was young.
Too much focus on words is bad. I hear writers deliver a list of words to avoid all the time, giving little pet names even. The words aren't bad.
And "was" isn't about passiveness.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
Passive? Or is it about contrast, reversal, repetition and maybe a dash irony?
"It felt like the best of times; it felt like the worst of times."
Any better now?
These are the kinds of tricks writers play on their manuscript when they focus too much on words and blacklists. There's wisdom behind the rules, if you dig for it.
Here's the thing: if someone states a rule and you can think of a few exceptions, to which that someone says, "Well, it can work if done well," there's a problem. If the rule requires a list of exceptions and a fluffy "when done well" modifier, the rule is flat-out broken and wrong. It's too easy to discuss strictures and dismiss exceptions. If there is a "when done well" exception, then talk about how to do it well. What makes it work? Find that, and you've found the wisdom behind the rule.
And so it was with "was". My favorite authors—big names—kept using it. For a long time, I kept thinking they were screwing up.
"Was" is an ongoing, continuous state of being (past tense of be). Use it when that is your intent. It does a great job of conveying an ongoing, continuous state. (Sure, it denotes a passive mood, so don't use it when you want action.)
In a recent fantasy short story, I opened with this line.
Johan and Generys were sitting on the fence that bordered their families' cattle fields....
Passive? You bet. Nothing happening? Yep. Ongoing, continuous state of being? Exactly. Exactly what I wanted in the opening. Why? Because of the abruptness of what came next.
Certain television networks have a simple flaw in their understanding of what makes us like a character. Thinking they'll appeal to the young masses, they flood their dramas with good-looking people. At least they don't fall as low as making the villains ugly—unless they're generic villains of course. No, no, we have to adore the villain too. And the love interest must be torn between these two hunky men.
If they go beyond classic good looks, their attempts to make us like a character follow Blake Snyder's weak Save the Cat advice, perhaps literally. What's the problem with saving a cat? Nothing—it's a nice gesture. But it costs nothing. The hero does a good thing for someone, but he does so without sacrifice or risk. That may act as a primer, giving the reader or viewer a nudge that says, "Hey, this guy is supposed to be likable." But if the story doesn't quickly prove that point, it's an empty gesture and the writer doesn't understand human motivation or what makes a character endearing.
What do I really want? I've talked about this in the past, but here is a summary:
How about an example. I love the character of Walter White in the opening season of Breaking Bad for a couple reasons. He's brilliant and well-educated; he's passionate about something: chemistry and teaching; he's a working guy trying to pay the bills; and when he begins to go bad, he confidently says he is doing it all for his family. He's going to die and he wants to make sure his family has everything they need. Who wouldn't love this guy? He sticks to that reason as he gets worse and worse. You can see after a time that even he doesn't entirely believe he's doing it all for his family.
Through the seasons, enough back story is revealed to show he regrets a greatness and fortune that was lost. It's not just about money. By the last season, he comes clean. He wanted the empire. He wanted the power. He's still brilliant right up to the end, but he's dropped the familiarity and the nobility. He's hard to like, yet some viewers still root for him all the way to the end. And that illustrates a final point: much like Humbert Humbert, there is a difference between liking a character, empathizing with a character, understanding a character, or simply enjoying how well-written or well-acted a character is.
What About Flaws?
We'll often hear how a character has to have flaws. A character just can't work without flaws.
I think it's swell advice, but perhaps easily misunderstood. What are flaws? Do we mean a character has to have a moral flaw? A physical flaw? An existential flaw?
Superman has weaknesses. No, not just kryptonite. I often hear folks claim it's his only weakness, and they're dead wrong. Most Superman movies stumble on this and rely on the green (or red) stuff to raise the stakes.
Superman's biggest flaw is his humanity. He refuses to kill even the worst bad guys—at least he's supposed to. He's blindingly loyal to his friends. How many times have his villains chided him for being predictable after using Lois or Jimmy as bait? He has too much faith in humanity and it's ability to reform. And he tries too hard to be one of us. Given a choice of two evils, Superman will tear himself up trying to find a right choice. Not just the lesser evil of the two—but he's desperate for a way out of the conundrum.
So Superman is perfect—and the perfection is his flaw. (At least, when he's written correctly. He's had over a hundred writers over the last 8 decades, and only some understood how to write him.) When I hear people say that he's boring and ask why, they refer to the boring writers who only understood one thing: kryptonite, not Superman. I think his enduring popularity is a testament to something likable at the core of the character despite writers who get it oh so horribly wrong.
As far as movies go, How I Live Now isn't bad. It's not the best movie I've seen this year; the dialogue is sometimes weak and the romance is contrived and too simple to drive the character through the challenges she faces, but—it does some interesting things that one rarely sees in a Hollywood production. (It's a British production, in fact.)
It begins as a basic story about an antisocial American girl visiting the UK against her will. She falls in love with a nice British boy against the nice country backdrop. Then, out of nowhere, bullets are flying, the bomb is dropped, explosions, radiation, contaminated water, forced labor, digging through corpse-piles to find family members, rape, murder, etc.
So, how does that work?
The change isn't exactly out of nowhere. The director and writer used effective foreshadow in the form of military presence in the airport, increased security screenings, bombing news in the background, conversations, etc. This all added a subtle layer of tension to the film that otherwise would have led to a jarring and unpalatable change in pace, conflict, genre, and style.
It's an unconventional and risky technique. Some won't like it, but I found it refreshing, despite the unnerving and unexpected bursts of violence and intense imagery. I like that it skipped the usual CGI-laden scenes of apocalyptic destruction and told the story on the ground, from a personal perspective.
In storytelling, there are often a multitude of changes that can turn a reader off. Beloved characters die, for example. Settings change without warning. Tone might change, as well as theme or pace. Foreshadowing is one technique a write can use to prepare the reader for that turn, and even create tension as they wait to see something they dread unfold.
In the case of How I Live Now, it made one critical difference—without that foreshadowing, I wouldn't have made it to the bomb. Even as it is, I was about to change to something else, but I kept watching a little longer because of those little hints at something awful just up the road.
Parenthetically, it is fair to say that perhaps it wasn't the best approach. The writer could easily have chosen to begin later in the story, since the romance was poorly contrived anyway. The tidbits about the main character's rules and compulsive nature could have been covered in-story or through unfolded backstory, as could the romance element.
Having taken some time off from the blog to focus on writing during an unfortunate period of unemployment, I will be continuing with regular updates soon; however, expect some turbulence while I adjust to a new job.
And during this unemployment, one thing has stood out: it's amazing how much time can get wasted. I began with the intent to write tons. What did I accomplish with nearly a month off? One damn good short story and the planning work on a novella. Not too bad, but I could have done better.
The problems? First, I let a contest distract me. I wanted to win, but the subject just didn't entice me. I had an idea, but it just wasn't solid. I spent a week futzing with the thing and finally realized it just wasn't going to happen. I just couldn't visualize it. Something is missing.
(There is still a couple weeks left; who knows if I'll find the missing ingredient or not.)
Next, common distractions. Little things. Some errands and dental work, but mostly just time-wasters.
The good? The short story worked well and helped restore some confidence. Other conversations during this time contributed to my confidence too.
The lesson overall is that writing takes shit-loads of discipline. It takes ideas, which need a quiet place to develop. It takes willpower to open up the editor and get to work, all while letting the next idea take seed in the mind.
Sadly, I tend to put writing last. It should be first.
Here's to hoping the lessons have been learned.
At this time, the novel is in a marinating stage while I work on the novella I have planned. I think I've found the critical obstacles that were blocking up the scenes in that work, so I'm hopeful it will see more progress when I return to it.
I talked a little about descriptions in the past, but there is one thing that continually seems to elude many writers, myself included. It's a simple question of character. The point of a Point of View character is to deliver the story and the world through the eyes of an interesting character. Otherwise, we might as well stick with an objective-omniscient point of view and never bother.
For me, description isn't about describing things. As I said in the earlier post, it's about establishing place for a scene, mood and character. All true, but what is missing is the lens.
The character is the lens. An author acquaintance of mine recently noted to me that she had no idea what color her curtains were without glancing over her shoulder to check. Well, then, if she were to describe herself hard at work in that room, would it make sense to describe the color of the curtains? Not if we're firmly rooted in her point of view.
In the past, when I wrote, I had a mental movie playing. I saw every detail. I meticulously transferred those images to prose, every glance, every smile, every cough, every scratch. But that is a waste of words. The reader has their own mental moving playing, and no matter how much you describe your mental movie, it is not the reader's mental movie. They will always form their own images. So, the first job of description is to get the reader's mental reels spinning. It doesn't take much.
A movie theater is not just a movie theater though. It can be old and trashy or new and luxurious. It can be cramped or plush. So, yes, it deserves a few words to get the reader into the place.
Then what? The next job is to point out what is important or noteworthy. Let's say it's a brand-new, plush, and cool despite the heat outside. Now, there's some youths in the front row. They're in ripped jeans. Not much detail, right? But they obviously don't belong. The reader's mind is probably adding some detail despite the paucity of details. One reader might add a tattoo, another might add an earring or a hairstyle. If I need a specific effect, a particular type of youth in ripped jeans, I can add a few more details, but there is probably something more important....
I haven't mentioned a point of view character in this theater yet, but rather than focus on things like eye color, hair color, height, build and complexion--I would most likely start showing the reader something of what is happening inside that brain. How does the retired doctor who is there to illegally exchange a lot of cash for a year's supply of medication for his wife's rare condition feel about those youth? Their eye color suddenly doesn't matter as much. What matters is that they're a threat. At least, that's what our retired doc thinks. He's not noting every detail about these kids, he's thinking of a way to get them expelled. Maybe he could say he saw them playing with a camcorder, or that they were being loud and making rude comments.
What we have so far is just description and reaction. There is a deeper level. Rather than use the author's voice to tell the reader that there are a group of youth's in ripped jeans, why not let the character's voice come out. "Four or five callow lads in ripped denims loitered on the front row of the auditorium...." I didn't provide any extra detail. It's only fair. But notice how now we have a sense of what our retired doctor sees. Not just what is in his line of sight.
It is always about character, unless it's about story, which is always about character.
Beyond the five sense, the human mind does a lot of processing. Scientists differ on the number of senses we have, but it's not five. Wikipedia lists a sense of temperature, time, pain, self, mind, kinesthesia, balance and acceleration. It also mentions a sense of suffocation, chemoreceptors, a sense of vasodilation (blushing), and a host of other things that our brain is constantly busy with. So just focusing on five senses cheapens the deep Point of View experience--though, yes, if you're going to describe things, please do remember to use more than just visual clues.
Last point: concerning the amount of description to use: it varies. One character will notice much more than another. (And some people seem oblivious to their surroundings.) But grounding the reader, establishing mood, and focusing on character seem to be the keys to really good descriptions. It's not about what is there so much as how the character reacts to it and the mood it sets.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.