Writing: Originality vs Formula

originality everything is a remix

     I FEEL THAT the writing process is a continual conflict between being original and retreading old ground. The catch is, that nothing is truly original. In music the same notes are used over and over again just in different combinations. Luckily with the English language we have hundreds of thousands of ways to tell a story, instead of being limited to a few guitar strings.

In theory creating an original story should be easy then. But it isn’t mostly due to the fact writing is largely constricted to genre. Sure, there are books written that don’t fit in to one, or maybe span several genres. However if you look at any bookshop offline or on, every book has been shelved according to a genre. Let’s say you are writing a vampire story. Not original. Vampires have ahem excuse the pun been done to death. No matter where you place the story, a vampire is not an original mythical being. An amputee vampire who has built immunity to sunlight and works a regular 9-5 – well – that is more original (and oxymoronic) but might inject something new into the genre and with a captivating story could be a great read.

What about a thriller/murder mystery? In a nut shell someone investigates a death or multiple deaths. Like vampires, that has been done countless times and yet people don’t tire of the genre because death in itself is a fascinating topic, something we all fear on some level, as well as something we prefer not to think about, our own mortality is a depressing subject to contemplate. But it is about the least original genre in existence. So how could it be done with originality? Again we can have different characters, different storylines and settings that make a given story different from another, but the core of the murder mystery is death and finding out who did it and why, a formula like no other, but if we are going to write by numbers, what is the point? That seems like a creative dead end. The kicker is publishers don’t want original, original doesn’t sell, or that’s what they say, because they can’t sell something without a pre-ordained market for it to be sold to.

On some level, the murder mystery genre is so basic that when I think about writing one, I feel like there is no point. It has been covered so extensively what could I possibly inject into it? That is when my borderline-OCD comes in when it comes to originality. Originality is to be strived for. Originality sets something apart from another. For me originality is the hallmark of great writing. And yet I’m full of shit, because originality doesn’t exist. No matter what character, story world, plot etc I use in a short story or novel, on some level it has been done by another writer. Might as well quit right now…

Well, not quite. Although I often battle the originality demons, there are innumerable ways to write a book. If you and I wrote a book constricted to 200 pages on the exact same outline, they would never be the same. And therein lies the key to fiction, the ability of any given writer to unlock a way to tell a new story even when the premise is often extremely similar to others. Dialogue, pacing, characters, imagery, plot, twists, story world to name a few; combine them with the almost limitless wonder of the richest language on earth and the combinations available to tell new compelling stories is near infinite. So what the hell am I complaining about!?

Do you struggle with trying to be original? What, if anything, holds you back when writing?


lion around 2

Categories Trials and Tribulations, WritingTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

38 thoughts on “Writing: Originality vs Formula

  1. Good post, Lion. Years ago, I read there are six basic plots that all stories follow, but it’s HOW you tell your story that makes it unique.

    1. Yeah the heroes journey or something akin to it, essentially breaks down every plot point and character. I read it as part of my university thesis and hate it. In Hollywood especially it is the go to for films, meaning so many films are generic and formulaic, I don’t doubt it has penetrated into the book world too. Generally formula in the creative fields = horror show to me.

      1. I like to read and watch something different, and I’m sure many others do as well. When will Hollywood and publishers get out of their rut and give us something exciting and new?

      2. Yeah, Hollywood has been in a major slump for about 15 years. It’s all about lazy sequels and trilogies and every release seems to have to involve a comic book character. At least TV series have upped the ante.

      3. Yes, there have been some exceptional TV series…my favorite so far is Breaking Bad, with Dexter coming in a close second. And I am totally hooked on The Walking Dead. 🙂

      4. Breaking Bad was awesome, I got through half of Dexter but loved it. Game of Thrones is brilliant as well, never quite got into The Walking Dead.

      5. I binge watched Dexter after it went off the air…will probably do that with Game of Thrones. There’s a series from BBC America called Orphan Black I enjoy.

  2. No matter how original I THINK I’ve been, I always have that nagging feeling that either I, or someone else, has written the exact same thing before.

    1. Unfortunately they probably have to an extent, and that’s something else I struggled/struggle with, wanting to make sure my writing isn’t generic even if I tell the story a different way. Not entirely possible, so something for me to let go of.

  3. This is a wonderful one Lion. Exactly what I was thinking a day back, especially as you know I enjoy writing romance and that genre has so many BIG names that it scares me! Yet what I need to create has to be different and creative. : )
    Wonderful inspiration, just when I needed it!

      1. That line doesn’t look nice from The Lion! 😕

  4. Great post. I think every writer needs to find a new slant on the same old subject like a vampire who can’t stand the sight of blood. Originality (creativity) is important to me. I have quite a bit of respect for artists who try to be original and writers who pen several different novels instead of continuing one long boring story a la Stepenie Meyers.

    1. Me too, that’s why generic sequels bore me, but they have their place.
      I think with this post I’ve kinda shaken the ‘need to be original’ which is stifling and I’m accepting that a good yarn is good irrespective of the factors. Chers for stopping by once more LA.

      1. You’re welceom. Agree regarding the sequels.

  5. Excellent post. When I think (and use) the term original, its not to suggest the concept itself is new but that my way of telling the story, the insight I’d provide compared to what others already have, or the uniqueness (or strangeness) of my characters, is new. This is originality to me and as a reader this is what I look for in a story. What happens in your world.

    1. Nicely put.
      Sometimes I just get caught up in trying to be original in all aspects, not sure why, but this post and comments has helped me to put to bed the idea I need to write groundbreaking material all the time. A good story is a good story 🙂

      1. Indeed! And that’s all readers want! Good stories! Lol. It sounds simple but at the end of the day I want to read a good book.

  6. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this great post on original vs. formulaic writing.

  7. Mhm, I agree. Instead of aiming for originality, I strive for creativity. 😛

    1. I like that, thats a good way of thinking about it.

  8. Me too! I’m writing about it now for a post! Then I got bored… ☹️ Which proves that even blog posts are unoriginal.

    1. Yeah even they can be difficult and arduous to create. The highs and lows ☺

  9. The 9-to-5 vampire..maybe a mutant vampire allergic to darkness and forced to live alone, away from his kind? 😀

    1. There you have it 😁 btw i’m stealing that idea…lol

  10. Your writing uses what you know, what you’ve read, what you’ve lived, who you have met and incorporates it all to serve your ideas and story lines. It makes your style unique no matter what. However originality comes a step beyond uniqueness.

    What you mean by original is something entertaining and surprising that will have your reader sitting on the edge of their seat and anxiously turning the pages to know what happens next… Indeed that comes along with your story telling skills.

    You can tell a story that has been told a thousand times and still render it exciting to read because your words flow tirelessly and grip the reader’s attention, because you leave out certain details and let them emerge just at the right time.

    1. Wonderfully stated 🙂 The first part is especially true, and as no two people live the exact same life therefore no two people on the planet can tell the same story which is a nice way to look at it.
      Thanks for your insights.

      1. Exactly 🙂 and it is my pleasure.
        I was drawn to your post and the parallel you created between story telling and music writing. I find it very interesting.

  11. Only too true! I think it´s the same with the visual arts – there are certain things people want to see, or rather expect to see. If you do the unexpected it can either go well or bad, mostly the latter. There are only so many colours and ways to use them, it´s not easy to come up with something that hasn´t been there before. But then it´s also known and true that imitation is the highest praise in a way…

    1. The parallels run deep in the creative process 🙂
      Everything that appears original is merely a twist on things done before.

  12. To quote the great Frank Carson, “It’s the way you tell ’em!”
    I’ve read some books that had a great idea but were poorly executed, and some ho-hum stories that were great page turners. Just write well. People will enjoy anything as long as it’s a good read.

    1. Good quote.
      Ultimately that is all anyone wants, a good read irrespective of the story itself. I am trying to wean myself off the ‘be original’ teat, because it can become creatively destructive, the push to write uniquely.
      Cheers for your input babbitman.

    2. I totally agree with you and Frank Carson 🙂

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