Many writers dream of being recognized for bringing new and exciting innovation into the realm of writing; the reality is that producing something completely original is not easy. While at a superficial level all creative writing is original, in that the particular combination of words produced is unique, having that unique combination of words which express a completely original idea in a completely original way is a rarity. Over the course of the five thousand or so years in which humans have been expressing their ideas in some kind of written form, it’s difficult to say something that hasn’t already been said; most perspectives have been explored; most forms have been developed.
That said, there remains an almost infinite scope for originality in how we adapt these well-used ideas, perspectives and forms. The aspects of your idea which are probably most open to you exploring the boundlessness of your creativity are:
- Characters – In portraying characters you can select qualities and affectations and inclinations and ways of speaking and physical characteristics and abilities and prejudices. You can draw upon a library of candidate characteristics which includes everyone you’ve ever met, heard about, read about or watched on a screen. However, you do need to remember that while minor characters can afford to be depicted in the various aspects of their uniqueness and quirkiness, with major characters you need to keep your creativity under some level of control. The qualities of major characters need to ‘hang together’ to a certain extent in order for the character to be believable. You can still ask that they behave in out-of-character ways every now and then, but acting out-of-character then needs to be a credible element of their character.
- Environment – The science fiction and fantasy genres arguably permit the most creative license to be taken with the depiction of the physical environment in which a work is set. But other genres can still have fun with this too. The setting need not be restricted to the physical environment, but could also include the social, political, economic and temporal settings for the work.
- Expression – Pursuing originality of expression can be a finely-balanced art, requiring the author to weigh up intelligibility, rules of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary and phrasing with stylistic considerations. Many authors take some time to find their voice (see later section on Developing Your Voice), but practice seems to be the key ingredient in achieving that end.
- Plot Dynamics – Christopher Booker surmised that in the world of storytelling, there are only seven basic plots. Others have postulated nine. It doesn’t really matter how many there are, because every plot follows some kind of rhythm or trajectory. The reality is that if the plot structure varies too much from those archetypes that humans find satisfying, then to most readers, the work will seem unbalanced or incomplete. However, within those constraints, most writers have no trouble developing plots which are original in detail.
Originality is arguably not an end in itself, but rather an attribute of a work that stands independently; the latter must precede the former. Setting out to produce a work which is characterised solely by its total originality may not get you where you want to be.
Here are some hints you might want to consider if the core of your idea is something completely original:
- Identifying your audience. – Identifying an audience for something brand new is likely to be problematic. Some people will be interested because it’s brand new, but most will want to know how it relates to their preferences, preferences developed through reading other works which are, by definition, different. Douglas Adams wrote of a beverage which was ‘almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea’, but describing one’s work as ‘almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Middlemarch’ will generally not provide a potential reader with enough information to elicit an opinion.
- The work has to be familiar enough for it to be intelligible – However original, ground-breaking and unique your work might be, it needs to have enough in it that will be familiar for the reader to understand what’s going on, to care about the characters, and to imagine how he or she would fare if put in the same situations.
- Originality doesn’t guarantee quality. – Your original work won’t be forgiven flaws in structure, expression, characterisation or any other aspect merely because it’s different. Concentrate on developing a quality piece of work, and, if at the end it is something completely original, then you’ve achieved something remarkable.
- Originality doesn’t mean there are no rules – If the basis of your work’s claim to originality is that it breaks a rule of writing, then that doesn’t give license to break all the rules at once.
- If the work’s major selling point is uniqueness, make sure it is unique – We tend to think in our own cultural context, but you will need to explore with a broader perspective to establish claims to originality.
- If the work is truly original, expect resistance – Most innovation gives rise to fear and resistance, and the field of writing is little different. Be prepared to defend your work.
 Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2004.
 Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. London: Pan Books, 1980.