Thursday, May 8, 2008

Done to Death: Does it Matter?

Several years ago, I sent a short story of mine to a friend who had gotten accepted into a prestigious creative writing MFA program. I wanted her to look it over and give it a critique, something she and I had been doing for each other all through college. Before, her critiques were always thoughtful and thorough--she always weighed the pros and cons of whatever I'd written and gave insightful, practical advice. This time, she simply ripped the story apart. Her main critique? That it wasn't original. The concepts had been "done to death," she said.

I'm really not one to argue with someone who's trying to help, and I didn't argue with her--I thanked her for her comments and told her I'd take them to heart. However, I definitely disagreed. My short story was not centered around an overly familiar concept--I'd never read one like it before, to be honest. True, it had a few universal themes--grief, love, tension between in-laws, blah blah--that crop up often in short stories. But that's because they're universal. If they weren't pretty common in the human condition, the story wouldn't speak to many people.

And I started to think about the value we place on "originality." Is it really that important that your short story--or your novel, or your website copy, or your salesletter--to be completely original? And by original I don't mean written from scratch by you--because of course these things have to be. I mean not influenced by anything else you've ever read, ever. Not speaking to some sort of theme that comes up regularly in this type of writing. I mean something completely new, that nobody's ever done before.

When it comes to creativity, I'm starting to believe that true "originality" may be a myth. It certainly wasn't always valued as highly as it is now. Look at how much eighteenth-century British literature strove to emulate the ancient Greeks, for example. And look at how Shakespeare came up with his plots--by basing them on common legends and myths, popular short stories of the day, and even historical occurrences.

The truth is that creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum. It takes inspiration from other authors, from life, and from art to create something that's new in one sense, but in another it's a reflection of the world around it. If we didn't look outside ourselves for inspiration, our work would be flat and one-dimensional--and chances are it wouldn't be too appealing to an outside audience.

And what about copy? Is it really important to come up with concepts that are totally novel and original? Maybe sometimes, with some gigs, that's important. But I'd say that the vast majority of the time, it's not. What's important, with commercial copy, is that it works. And if that means following the same formula over and over again--because that's what's been proven to work--then that's what you should do.

The thing is, good writing is more than originality. It's presenting an old idea in a fresh voice. It's reaching an audience on a level that's beyond words. It's giving voice to things that people often think--but never say. Good writing does a lot of things, and my firm belief is that it doesn't have to be "original" to do it. In fact, much of the time, it's better if it's not.


Lillie Ammann said...

Excellent - "there's nothing new under the sun." What's important is that writing be effective, not necessarily "original" or "creative."

Anonymous said...

The fact is that each of us is unique and each of us brings something entirely unique to our work.

In a writers' group or class, if you toss out a prompt, every single person will come up with a different way to tell the story.

Few prompts contain any "originality" -- yet, over and over and OVER again, I've seen original work come out of those prompts -- in droves.

I don't know what happened to that "friend" -- I have a feeling some personal frustrations were involved -- but I hope you found a constructive critique partner and sold it.

Ideas may not be unique, but it's the way we engage the reader that makes a piece of work "original." Because no one else can interpret it EXACTLY the way each of us can.

Star Lawrence said...

Above is one treatment of the idea that there are only 7 main "plots." What does "done to death" mean, apart from being a cliche from a writer whose work you respect? Stand by your ideas. It's fine (and brave) to join writers' groups or ask your peers for an opinion, but then you need to see what is there for you and what you don't need to take away. With screenplays, over the yrs, I have found people often tell you about the movie they would have written on your subject, not about the one you wrote.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is an interesting paradox. There are no new story ideas, and yet there are infinitely more ways to tell those stories...


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article!

I believe that it is far smarter to take what works and build on it than to try to recreate the wheel every time I write.

If I know a particular plot or format both sells and is enjoyed by readers, then I would be a fool not to use it!(*Waggles an eyebrow at the romance industry)

As long as the words are my own, that's what matters. I do not believe in "stealing the concepts of others" but I absolutely believe in building on universal foundations to achieve success.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is hard to say that anything is "original" anymore.

In striving to be original we can be more creative on the personal level- getting out of the things we would normally write about. But does that mean you are going to think up something that no one has ever done? Probably not.

Secondly, a lot of things that are commended for being "original" or "ground-breaking" are not easily understood by the mainstream. A writer still has to consider her audience.

Goodness, I think if I sat around trying to make sure everything I posted on my blog was completely original, I wouldn't type a word!!