Originality is good, but don’t strain yourself.

What inspired this post? Well there I was on Facebook, and saw a post from Carina Press of a cover from an upcoming release Pulled Long by Christine d’Abo. Nice cover, I thought, hey, guys kissing, just like on Stowaway, I’m loving the kissing covers. Then I realised – they are the same guys as on the Stowaway cover.

Stowaway cover - art by Anne Cain
Pulled Long by Christine D'Abo
Pulled Long

“Don’t I know you?”

It’s the nose and eyebrows of the higher up guy that give it away.

Reuse of cover models is everywhere of course, so I’m not surprised or anything. I mean I think it’s compulsory that if you release enough books you’ll eventually have crouching guy on one of your covers.

What intrigues me is how the covers are based on the same models, and yet are so different. The picture is flipped, it’s cropped differently, one guy has different hair, the colour scheme is entirely different, the general theme and mood is different. Giving them a quick glance most people wouldn’t even spot it. Of course, I’ve looked at the Stowaway cover a lot. A lot. It’s the wallpaper on my mobile phone.

Anyway, what that makes me think of is the idea of originality and how new writers seem to worry excessively about it. On forums I’m always seeing them asking “has this been done before?” and giving a quick precis of their idea. The answer of course is always, yes. Everything has been done before.

But that’s not a bad thing.

The same ideas come up over and over again because people continue to be interested in them. The writer should probably worry more if someone says “there’s never been a book with this idea before”, because that may imply the idea isn’t interesting enough or universal enough for people to want to read about. Great stories sell all over the world, because they speak to universals in humanity. To what we’re all driven by, or fear, or want. Only the details are different.

A universal theme can be said to have been “done before” but in such different ways that the stories are nothing alike. A story about ambition could be set in a big law firm, or in a street gang. Or it could chronicle the bitter struggle to get that promotion to position of manager of the ice cream parlour. We understand and relate to the idea of ambition, even if we’re not terribly ambitious ourselves. It’s universally understood underneath the details of how it’s manifesting in that story.

Take vampires. Vampires never go away, do they? Because they’re interesting. (And also because people will go around carelessly bleeding on piles of ash in abandoned mansions.) Of course a good writer puts their own spin on them. The vampires of Salem’s Lot are different from the vampires of The Lost Boys, who are different from the ones of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who are different from Anne Rice’s vampires, who are different from Meyer’s vampires. And so on, ad infinitum.

People are always writing about the end of the world as we know it. And such books can have similarities, but nobody would think “now was that The Stand” or “The Day of the Triffids” I read?” They’re the same in theme, but entirely different in execution. (And both are awesome.)

New generations come up with their versions of stories from before. People keep retelling the stories of figures like Spartacus, Robin Hood or King Arthur because they find they’ve got something new to say about them that’s relevent to their interests and concerns.

Some genres might be even harder to appear original in than others, like romance of course. Not simply because the stories are formulaic, but because relationships are formulaic. People meet each other, fancy each other, get together, act like goofs to the annoyance of their friends. They fight and make up. Break up and get back together. Misunderstand each other. Make mistakes. Settle down. Get scared of settling down. Feel tempted by someone else. And so on and so on. These things happen in romance because they happen in real life too. Just with less bone-melting sex involved usually. Yet readers keep on reading romances, in which superficially the same things happen over and over. The originality is in the details and on what that writer has to say.

When a writers over stretches for originality it can backfire. The reader hasn’t read anything like it before, but not in a good way. The situation can be very different from anything they’ve read before, but when the characters become so “original” they’re no longer recognisable as human beings, the reader soon figures out she’s not going to be reading anything like this ever again, for a good reason.

So be original in the detail of what the story is about, but don’t fret about the idea having been done before. It has. But we want to see your take on it.

9 thoughts on “Originality is good, but don’t strain yourself.

  1. Thanks for making sense! I’ve been thinking about originality for a while, and I was never quite sure what I thought about it, I don’t think I know yet but I came across this post in my “research” and it’s brought me beautifully closer to forming my opinion.
    Chloe Henderson

  2. You make a good point, Becky. I see this play out in some of the details of science fiction. Take weaponry, for instance. Most sci-fi works, be they books or movies, have ray guns, stunners, phasers, etc. As for the space ships, most of the terminology (obviously including “ship” itself) comes from nautical terms. These are staples of the genre. Trying something a little different can be interesting, but when authors go out of their way to do something original, they can overcomplicate matters and confuse the readers. You have to ask what’s most important and does an “original idea” add to the overall story.

    1. There’s definitely sometimes originality for its own sake, but often the idea can’t be sustained and takes over other aspects of the story, and then the characters turn into ciphers and the reader thinks the story is clever, but not emotionally involving.

  3. Wow! They are the same. Stowaway has a more cooler image, where as the other has a warmer, fleshier look. But definitely the same guys.

    Phew! Maybe there is hope for The Wedding Favour yet… though I do worry about it being a bit simplistic and all that.

    1. Heh, I thought I’d seen “Karl” somewhere before. πŸ˜€

      Maybe the kissing guys will show up often enough for a Misadventures in Stock Photography post of their own.

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