How Important is Originality?

So not too long ago, while scrolling through my endless tumblr feed, I came across this answered question posed to the New Leaf Literary tumblr by an anonymous person:

So, right. Originality.

I haven’t read Red Queen yet, but this discussion often comes up when a book blows up big time, and I think it’s an interesting one to consider. Just how important is originality?

It’s no secret that The Hunger Games starts off very much like “The Lottery.” Twilight was hardly the first popular vampire book, Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fan fiction, and Harry Potter was not the first book about wizards or boys in boarding school.

So why did they become so popular? There are a lot of reasons to be sure, but a large part of it is very much what the lovely person behind the New Leaf Literary tumblr said: they took “certain elements that have been done before and [spun] them around a little and present[ed] them in a different way.”

Photo credit: martinak15 on Flickr
Guess what? There are a lot of books out there that could be presented as Hunger Games meets x. Or Divergent meets y. Or Game of Thrones/ Star Wars/ Orange is the New Black/ The 100 meets xyzabc. And you know what? That’s okay, because each of them take those familiar elements and incorporate them in very different ways. They’re similar without being too similar; they show us the familiar and twist it with something new.

This is why book comps can be so great in a query—they show agents and editors the potential marketability of a project by showing something familiar readers have responded to in the past mixed with whatever your spin is.

The key, of course, is to remember that you don’t want to write a rip-off of something else. Besides the obvious moral issue, that’s not what anyone wants, and that’s not going to sell. Instead, x meets y references elements of those comparisons.

I’m going to use my book as an example. When I was querying Beyond the Red, I pitched it as The Girl of Fire and Thorns on a technologically advanced alien planet. I wasn’t saying that I plucked Elisa from the world Rae Carson created and threw her into a sci-fi setting (I didn’t). Instead, I was referencing similar elements—an otherworldliness, a desert setting, and monarchies/rulers. There are similarities without going anywhere near the line of “too close.”

Stories inspire stories, and when you dig down to the heart of a narrative, many of them have been told time and time again. That’s to be expected, and it’s okay because readers gravitate to them over and over again.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is not to stress if your book has some similar elements to another story, or if a book releases that sounds somewhat similar to the one you’re working on. As long as your book isn’t too similar (i.e.: has the same plot, or you purposefully lifted characters or something that you would obviously know wasn’t you—that's called plagiarism and is so not what I'm talking about), you should probably be in the clear. If anything, it may even help you in the long run.

What do you think? How original are original ideas?

Twitter-sized bite:
How original are original ideas? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)


Alyssa said...

Funnily enough, I just read a review of Red Queen that said more or less the same thing the anon did this morning. I think a problem is that it's very easy to confuse cliches and tropes. No one wants to write cliches, but it's impossible to write without tropes.

I do enjoy some tropes, and in fact spend far too much time on TV Tropes pages for my fav books, but the best moments are when they surprise you by subverting those tropes. So long as you're consciously applying the trope, aware of how it's played out in other past works, and using it sensibly for audience enjoyment instead of "eh, I ran out of ideas, let's copy something", I think it's perfectly fine.

Heather said...

I actually like when books sometimes have those connections that indicate "oh, this book is like that book" because even though we do like originality from book to book, I tend to get the sense that as readers we also kind of like to read the same stuff a lot. I, for example, like to read books about small bands of people who either work for or against the government (it's a very thin line to cross) and that are funny and YA, mostly. That puts me in the position to read Robin Hood, Artemis Fowl, The Grisha Trilogy, The Unwind Dsytology, H.I.V.E., Uglies, His Fair Assassin, and so on because even though they are all different they are also all the same.

I think what really bothers me more than anything is just when writers ONLY think about the books their MS is like. Honestly I feel like this is happens the most in the novice-writer department, when writers (and by writers I kiiiiiind of mean ten-year-olds, but hey, we were all ten once) spend more time borrowing from other writers instead of working on their own writing... But then maybe I am just bitter.

Lola R said...

While I love original books, I also agree with you that's it's okay if a book isn't 100% original. A book can have elements of others books and that's not a problem, as long as it isn't too similar that I keep thinking of the other (I only had that happen once, luckily). I don't think a book can even be 100% original as there are always elements that have used before, although I still use the term original in my reviews when a book susprises me with original elements.
For some reason it does annoy me when books get compared to others, I do get it, but beside the comparisons there is still so much that isn't the same. And the focus seems to be too much on the similarities than the differences sometimes. Great post!

Candace Ishmael said...

No less a person than Mark Twain said that there are no such thing as original ideas, that we just take the same old ideas and twist them around until they look different and form infinitely different combinations. And that was more than a hundred years ago! Most writers are still using the hero's journey formula of plotting that is based on ancient Greek epics. I think anyone who criticizes a book by saying that it's just x plus y mixed with z should remember that every book ever written is just a combination of 26 little squiggles on paper.

MK said...

Yes, yes, yes to this. Have you read Austin Kleon's Steal Like An Artist? It's brilliant. I spent so much time when I was first starting out freaking out that my character or plot was similar to something I had read--but everything is similar to something. As long as you "steal like an artist" and don't straight up plagiarize, you're doing okay.

MK said...

reading this now and it's so lovely I never want it to end

Ana @ Butterflies of the Imagi said...

I've read Red Queen, and while I definitely noticed a lot of cliches, I also noticed that those cliches were presented in such a unique way. Cliches turn up so much in fiction, but if they're presented in ways that haven't been considered before, cliches can make a story even better. Cliches are cliches because they work, so if we use them to our advantage, we can make our stories shine.

Ava Jae said...

Yes!! Love love loved it.

Ava Jae said...

That's a great point about tropes vs. clich├ęs, and I think you're right that they're often confused. I also agree that paying attention to tropes and using them to your advantage is a fantastic way of handling it, and very very different from copying something out of laziness. Thanks, Alyssa!

Ava Jae said...

Hmmm that's an interesting way of looking at it. I think I know what you mean about only thinking about similar books? I do agree that connections can be very effective provided that it's not borrowing from another book as much as it is playing with a trope.

Ava Jae said...

That's an interesting point about how reviews sometimes focus on similarities rather than differences—I hadn't really thought much about it, but I definitely know what you mean and I've seen reviews like that. I don't mind, too much, when books get compared to others as long as it's a valid comparison, though I'll admit I do start to get tired of certain comparisons if they happen too often (i.e.: Hunger Games).

Ava Jae said...

Great Mark Twain reference—I love that. You're also totally right about the hero's journey—that's been used basically forever and will most likely continue to be the main foundation for most stories well into the future.

Also, fun point about "26 little squiggles on paper." I've occasionally thought about that, and I think it's pretty remarkable. :)

Ava Jae said...

You know, I haven't read Steal Like an Artist but I've seen snippets and heard about it. I should probably check it out. :)

Ava Jae said...

All great points, Ana. And that seems to be the RQ consensus—that she used tropes but presented them in a fresh way, which really, is the foundation of many many many bestsellers.

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